Throughout the 1930s and 40s, a middle-aged woman from Chicago named Frances Glessner Lee made a significant contribution to the evolution of police forensics by creating the Nutshell Studies, a series of 20 hand-crafted and meticulously detailed dolls house dioramas which depicted violent crime scenes, and were used as training tools for aspiring detectives, who were given a certain amount of time to examine the dioramas and deduce the nature of the crime and possible perpetrators based on the evidence left behind. Often based on real-life crimes, with Lee’s own embellishments thrown in, the Nutshell Studies were built on a scale of one inch to a foot, and depicted homicides, suicides and fatal accidents in gaudy play-sets which reflected an obsessed and brilliantly creative mind, and have survived to become pieces of beautiful, and hauntingly evocative, American outsider art.
Narrated by cult filmmaker (and noted true crime junkie) John Waters, Of Dolls and Murder is a documentary which juxtaposes the origins of forensic science (via the Nutshell Studies) with today’s current trend for flashy television shows like CSI (who introduced a recurring female character called ‘The Miniature Serial Killer’ during its seventh season, whose signature was creating detailed scale models of each of her crime scenes, often using the victims real blood instead of paint). Along the way, we follow a group of detective students at Baltimore’s Forensic Medicine Centre as they examine one of the Nutshells, visit the city morgue and accompany police as they investigate the discovery of a corpse in a slum apartment (most likely an overdose). One of the film’s most effective and eerie moments takes place at the infamous ‘Body Farm’ in Knoxville, Tennessee, where donated human corpses are laid out in various states of exposure, enabling forensic scientists to learn more about decomposition times (thereby narrowing down a more precise time of death). A female spokesperson at the Body Farm talks about the strange surreal beauty of the place, while a leathery corpse is being devoured by thousands of writhing maggots just a couple of feet from her.
Unfortunately, Of Dolls and Murder never really makes the most of the fascinating and unique subject matter at its heart. The various segments are too disjointed to allow the film to flow freely, and at times it felt like I was watching several different documentaries at once. I found myself wanting to know more about Frances Glessner Lee, and came away feeling like there was still so much to tell about the woman, her life and what exactly drove her to create the Nutshells. It is still an interesting film, and highly recommended for those with an interest in the history of forensics and our intrinsic fascination with true crime, but with a bit more focus it could have been something a whole lot more.
MVD Visual’s release of Of Dolls and Murder is touted as the ‘extended version’ (yet still only runs a brief 70 mins) and features an audio commentary from director Susan Marks, producer/editor John Dean, cinematographer Matt Ewing and audio designer/mixer Carly Zuckweil. There is also a quartet of nice (but very short) featurettes which look at Frances Glessner Lee, the missing Nutshells (of the 20 created only two are unaccounted for – one was accidentally destroyed, the fate of the other is unknown), and a couple of snippets of John Waters offering up his take on the Nutshells and their creator (he pegs Lee as a possible “police groupie”), and the social stigma of being a true crime fanatic.
- Audio commentary
- The Patron Saint of Forensics Medicine featurette
- The Missing Nutshells featurette
- John Waters on the Nutshells featurette
- John Waters on Frances Glessner Lee featurette
Available on R1 DVD from MVD Visual.