Vampire Blues, Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell, Red Silk and Broken Dolls. Now obviously 4 films might seem like nothing compared to the 12 that Franco was able to complete in 1973 or the even more astounding number of 14 in 1983 but 4 films in one year is still quite the achievement especially considering how long it takes certain directors in between projects. While all the films Franco made in 1999 are unique in their own way, Broken Dolls is perhaps the most, representing Franco at his most serious and somber.
Ex-vaudeville actor Don Martin (Paul Lapidus) lives on an island along with his wife Tona (Lina Romay) and daughter Beatriz (Mavi Tienda) and Gina (Christie Levin), a woman whom he’d taken in and began an affair with. Originally brought to the island with the promise of a buried treasure, the island’s appeal has long been lost on the family and the relationships between all have become bitter and resentful with all but Don Martin, who has slowly begun to lose his grip on reality still believing the island to be the ultimate paradise, desperate to escape the island before Don Martin loses his sanity completely.
At first glance Broken Dolls might seem atypical for a Franco film on account of it being a serious drama but the idea of the destruction of an odd family unit living in isolation was nothing new to Franco having previously explored the idea in The Hot Nights of Linda (1975) and again with La casa de las mujeres perdidas (1983), the later of which Broken Dolls shares many similarities. Although Franco does throw in some instances of humor to lighten the mood just as he did in The Hot Nights of Linda, Broken Dolls is easily the most grim of the three films. While the impending ruin of the family itself is obviously a major component in the films morose tone, perhaps more striking is the defeated mindset of the family, who had long lost all sense of “normalcy” long before the film begins, perhaps best evidenced by Tona’s nonchalant attitude to Don Martin’s flaunting of his affair with Gina. Its suggested that Tona and to a lesser extent Beatriz are almost welcoming to their undoing, seeing it as their only way out of the false paradise of the island with the original promise of hidden treasure being a mere afterthought. Even with the economical digital video medium Franco brilliantly juxtaposes the natural beauty of the island and its ocean surroundings with the downbeat nature of Don Martin and the families fate which leads to an quintessentially Franco climax that recalls both Countess Perverse (1973) and The Sexual Story of O (1984).
Interesting tidbit regarding Broken Dolls, Lina was known to have said her performance in the film was her favorite out of all her performances. While she is indeed very good in the film it’d be a stretch to call it her best work. The entire cast is good as well, Lapidus especially in the role of Don Martin is a major reason why the film works as well as it does. Like the majority of Franco’s One Shot films though, Broken Dolls does feature the all Spanish cast speaking English (they did they’re own dubbing) with very thick accents which can be a bit distracting at times although it never becomes completely unintelligible. Also like most of Franco’s One Shot films the original DVD release from Sub Rosa which also featured as a bonus the de Sade inspired experimental piece Helter Skelter (2000) is long out of print, though it should come as no surprise that Sub Rose re-released the film twice, first as part of a double feature with Blind Target (2000) billed as “Naked and Dead Dolls” and again in a multi-film set, “Stripped Dead” along with Vampire Blues, Incubus (2002) and Snakewoman (2005). Ultimately Broken Dolls is an oddly upsetting and at times perverse film that will probably only appeal to a select group of hardcore Franco fanatics, but it is one of Franco’s most interesting films regardless of era.