For decades, horror anthologies have been a reliable way for low-budget filmmakers to put together enough material for a feature film, and even the best of them are usually inconsistent, with effective, well-crafted segments stuck in between misguided failures. In the VOD era, horror anthology features are often not even planned feature films, just a bunch of unrelated shorts thrown together and given a generic title. So at least the anthology Evil Little Things is the product of a unified vision, from director Matt Green and screenwriters Yasmin Bakhtiari and Nancy Knight, based on a pair of Bakhtiari’s short stories.
It’s a pretty meager vision, though, with only two distinct segments along with a framing story, all focused on the evil little things of the title, dolls for sale in a toy shop run by a leering proprietor (Geoff McKnight). He’s disturbingly eager to tell terrifying stories about his own merchandise, which seems like an ineffective way to make a sale to a mom (L.A. Winters) looking for a doll to comfort her young son Jason (Mason Wells). His sales technique resembles the oft-quoted “the frogurt is also cursed” bit from The Simpsons’ 1992 “Treehouse of Horror” episode, a long-running parody of horror anthologies that’s often more memorable than its inspirations.
The framing story also co-stars Zach Galligan, still best known for his role as the main character of the Gremlins movies, who also had some experience with creepy shopkeepers. Galligan plays Jason’s stepdad, who berates his stepson for being afraid of supposed monsters under the bed and, in classic horror-movie fashion, gets his comeuppance when the framing story wraps up at the end. But first, the doll-maker tells Jason and his mom the stories of two mildly disturbing dolls, one a red-haired leprechaun named Patrick O’Malley and the other a little girl named Patty (even the naming of demonic dolls isn’t very creative here).
In both cases, the store owner starts by referring to the dolls’ history going back centuries, only for the actual story to take place in the budget-friendly present day. Apparently Georgia is a hotbed of leprechaun activity (it had a gold rush even before California did, the store owner explains helpfully), and the first segment finds writer and mother Jess (Hannah Fierman) stalked by Patrick O’Malley in a sort of cut-rate version of the Leprechaun movies, even screaming about “my gold!” at one point. Jess has recently moved back into her old family home, along with her two children and her husband who is currently away on a business trip to Ireland.
There are vague references to something terrible having happened in the house in the past, although that turns out not to be relevant, and the Halloween setting is another narrative dead end. Instead the story hinges on Jess’ childhood experience finding a gold coin in a cemetery and then possibly being chased by a leprechaun. She discovers the Patrick O’Malley doll sitting on her porch and brings it inside — as one does with mysterious, menacing dolls that show up unexpectedly — where it half-heartedly terrorizes her with a small kitchen knife.
The only slightly unsettling element of the leprechaun segment involves a bit that could have come from one of the Leprechaun movies, in which Jess is suddenly sort of possessed by an Irish spirit, speaking in an exaggerated Irish accent and acting strangely. But that change disappears as abruptly as it started, and the story continues without any tension or scares (or internal logic). There’s one shot from the doll’s point of view that indicates quick movement without the use of special effects, but otherwise Patrick is just an inert object that lacks even a somewhat sinister smile.
The second story, about Patty the little-girl doll, makes slightly more sense, and gives its villain more of a threatening personality, although she speaks in a cutesy voice, courtesy of Bakhtiari herself, that sounds like it’s coming through on a faint radio frequency. Patty is the beloved possession of Abby (Courtney Lakin), a young woman whose face was scarred in a fire and who has become obsessed with collecting dolls. Patty is the only one of Abby’s dolls who speaks, and she’s very possessive of her owner, especially once Abby reconnects with an old crush (Jonathan Horne) at a pop-culture convention.
The movie never explains Patty’s supernatural origins or her attachment to Abby, but at least her motivations are somewhat clearer, and her cracked, worn face looks scarier than Patrick’s benign, blank countenance. Lakin gives the best performance in the movie as a damaged young woman whose self-esteem is being destroyed by the person (or doll) she credits with saving her life, and there’s a tiny amount of pathos in her need to reconnect with a human being who values her.
But the story is still held back by its rudimentary effects and sluggish pacing, and the big reveal at the end that’s meant to be terrifying is just laughable. The best horror anthologies draw from the traditions of vintage comic books (like various incarnations of Creepshow and Tales From the Crypt) or radio dramas (like The Twilight Zone and its imitators), but Evil Little Things barely even gets the structure of those stories right.
The framing story introduces a third supernatural doll, wrapping up the tale of Jason and his parents with a pointless jump scare to end the movie. Galligan lends the final segment the micro-budget horror-movie equivalent of star power, but these harmless Evil Little Things are a long way from the entertaining nastiness of Gremlins.
Starring Zach Galligan, L.A. Winters, Mason Wells, Geoff McKnight, Hannah Fierman, Courtney Hogan, Courtney Lakin and Jonathan Horne, Evil Little Things is available Tuesday on VOD.
The best horror anthologies draw from vintage comic books or radio dramas, but Evil Little Things barely gets the structure of those stories right.