The Horror Honeys: Find the truth in a nutshell...

Find the truth in a nutshell...

A Guest Honey Review by Kerry

Of Dolls & Murder (2012)
Unfortunately, Frances wasn't Francis.
Police arrive at the scene of a grisly triple murder.  In one room, the woman lies in bed with her husband on the floor beside her.  In the nursery, a young child sits motionless in her crib.  The detectives find a shotgun, blood spatter, and a trail of blood indicating someone was dragged bleeding from room to room.  Faced with scenes like this on a daily basis, police needed a way to prepare short of trying it out at home.  Enter Frances Glessner Lee, the patron saint of forensic science.  The daughter of privilege, Frances was born in Chicago in 1878.  The heiress to the International Harvester fortune possessed a keen mind and the wrong sort of genitals so instead of heading off to Harvard with her brother, she stayed home to knit and sew and generally do girly things.
Her brother told her all about his classes though which whetted her appetite for both science and detective work.  That combined with her skills as a knitter and seamstress and her considerable resources allowed Frances to indulge her hobby and advance the profession of forensic science like few before her.  The documentary Of Dolls & Murder gives us a taste of Frances’ legacy and the science of forensics in general.

Narrated by the always spectacular John Waters, Of Dolls & Murder toggles between interviews with actual detectives and forensic experts, information about Frances Glessner Lee, and descriptions by Waters of crime scenes. 

What’s so special about crime scene descriptions?   The scenes themselves are.  They are recreated, lovingly one might say, by Frances in jarringly realistic dioramas.  Made by hand, the dolls, furniture, rooms, weapons, and clothing show a painstaking attention to detail.  Doors open.  Shelves hold accurately-labeled canned goods and books with titles.  Blood spatter decorates papered walls and floors with rugs.

In Frances’ tiny worlds, one inch equals one foot so we see a six inch man hanging from a barn ceiling. 

Did he hang himself or did his loving wife do it for the insurance money?  In the murders of the family of three I mentioned earlier, did an intruder kill the family or was it a murder/suicide?

After showing us these gruesome wonders, the movie switches to scenes of real detectives studying the rooms.  At the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS) Conference and Advanced Homicide Investigation Seminar held yearly at the office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, police from all over the country learn the latest techniques in crime scene investigation.  They also study one of Frances’ dioramas as if it were a fresh murder and give a report with their findings to the rest of the group.  Established by Frances in 1945, the conference continues because she endowed a fortune to Harvard and donated her dioramas to the medical examiner’s office in Maryland.  The same scenes are studied year after year.  Only Jerry Dziecichowicz, the keeper of the Nutshell Studies, knows the real outcomes of the cases and he’s not telling.  

I enjoyed this film.  The back and forth between Waters’ descriptions of the dioramas, the real forensic experts’ interviews, and the story of Frances Glessner Lee kept things moving along nicely.  A short side trip to the body farm in Tennessee, while always welcome, did little to advance the story.  Also, forensic experts complaining that the CSI television show gave people unrealistic ideas about crime scene investigation bugged me.  Stick to the story, people!  Other than distracting us momentarily from the central story, director Susan Marks did a nice job of presenting the nutshell collection in an eerie light and choosing John Waters to narrate helped.  The music by John Kurtis Dehn and Jefferson Rabb created the appropriate mood and the film left me wanting to learn more.  If you like true crime, John Waters, or morbid crafts you’ll dig this macabre history lesson.  

Frances made eighteen Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death for use as training tools.  She visited morgues to see the colors of blood and decomposition first hand.  She went on police ride-a-longs to learn what they knew and more importantly, what they didn’t know.  Next she made murder scenes.  She made dolls and dressed them in clothes she sewed herself.  She covered sofas in cloth, made blankets, and even knitted socks and hats on straight pins to ensure the tableaux were accurate.  She hired a carpenter to make doors and cabinets and filled them with tiny loaves of bread and canisters of flour all in perfect scale. 

About Kerry: I watch a lot of movies.  I like large bugs, hard-boiled detectives, scary monsters, and Leeloo.  My teenager begs me to stop quoting films, but I’m not going to stand here and see that thing cut open and have that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock!  Oh wait.  I write about a weird variety of films on and you can reach me on twitter @echidnabot  Thank you for your time.  Please enjoy a hot towel.