Posted on December 14, 2017

The Doll: Horror and the Human Barbie


The Doll, which was released in December 2017, is the second horror film written and directed by Susannah O’Brien, president of Sahara Vision Productions. O’Brien’s first horror film, Encounter, was released in May 2016, and she has a third film, Hallucinogen, due for release imminently.

The Doll is set in motion when two men, Andy (Anthony Del Negro) and his roommate Chris (Christopher Lenk) order a Russian escort from a distinctly shady website. This brilliant maneuver is supposed to make Andy’s girlfriend Shannon (Isabella Racco) jealous so she’ll come back to him. (The fact that Shannon walked out on Andy because he was making out with two women in their pool doesn’t seem to occur to Andy and Chris, who are immediately revealed as not the smartest tools in the toolbox.) Anyway, the Russian woman knocks at the door and Chris and Andy are suitably impressed by the looks of Natasha, played by the so-called “human Barbie,” Valeria Lukyano. Natasha doesn’t just look like a Barbie, she acts like one too, engaging in strictly minimal communication. And even though they supposedly think she is an actual human, Chris and Andy treat Natasha disconcertingly like a doll. “Where shall we put her?” asks Andy. And they proceed to put her in the attic–over and over. Happily (for this viewer at least), Natasha may not talk much, but she is handy with a knife. The plot thus follows her killing spree (which she engages in for reasons which are entirely obscure), intertwined with the much less interesting drama of Andy and Shannon’s love life.

Here’s the trailer:

For the most part, The Doll is bad. The writing and acting is pretty execrable (we’re talking a notch above porn); the script is clichéd and appallingly delivered by the actors. I didn’t give a damn about any of the characters and was positively longing for Chris and Andy to meet an untimely demise.

Valeria Lukyano as Natasha

However, the central figure of Natasha—and the uncannily doll-like Valeria Lukyano who plays her—makes this film (just) worth watching, in my view. I should add, too, that the cinematography and direction are often pretty good, especially the way in which Natasha is filmed, which highlights the uncanniness of her presence and creates occasional moments of real dread.

Natasha not only serves up the only horror in The Doll, but she’s also the only thing that makes it interesting. What are we supposed to make of this human doll—the character and the actor? For Valeria Lukyano, in case you haven’t heard of her before, is actually making a career (and a life) out of being the “Human Barbie.”  Michael Idov wrote a piece on Lukyano for GQ and one question he asks is very pertinent to Natasha’s presence in The Doll:

A living Barbie is automatically an Uncanny Valley Girl. Her beauty, though I hesitate to use the term, is           pitched at the exact precipice where the male gaze curdles in on itself. Her features are the features we men playfully ascribe to ideal women; it’s how we draw them in manga and comics and video games. Except we don’t expect them to comply with this oppressive fantasy so fully. As a result, she almost throws our idea of a supervixen back in our face. 

Here, though, the act of looking feels like an experiment conducted on me. Am I supposed to be attracted, to be repulsed, or to ponder the sexism of that dichotomy?

 Good question. Should we be repulsed by or attracted to Natasha? Even Chris and Andy, as utterly buffoonish as they are, are fixed on the horns of this dichotomy. They seem attracted at first, but then they spend the rest of the film putting Natasha in the attic. Even their mindlessly conventional sexual desire can’t function in the presence of this living doll, this inanimate woman. They literally don’t know what to do with her (except consign her to the attic!)

Perhaps Susannah O’Brien is making a commentary in this film, then, on the utterly unrealistic and literally inhuman expectations surrounding female beauty—manifest so clearly in this living Barbie doll. Interestingly, Shannon herself, indisputably a real woman, looks quite similar to Natasha, a fact that potentially suggests how expectations of beauty permeate our culture, are not confined to the anomalous literal human Barbie. Maybe that’s giving the film too much credit, though. Maybe Isabella Racco was chosen for the part because she is conventionally attractive in a Barbie sort of way. I’m on the fence.

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