Movie explores dollhouses that deal with death

Deahn and MArks
John Kurtis Dehn and Susan Marks in the editing studio, while working on "Of Dolls & Murder." In the background is a still shot of one of the nutshell crime dioramas.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The make-believe of dollhouses and the grim reality of homicide investigation would seem worlds apart. But a new Twin Cities-made documentary called "Of Dolls and Murder" reveals how important one particular set of dollhouses has been to solving untimely deaths in the U.S. for 70 years.

At a passing glance, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death in the film "Of Dolls and Murder" are unremarkable. They are small shoebox-sized dioramas, filled with furniture and a few dolls. It's only when you look closely that you see the blood, the weapons, the bodies.

Director Susan Marks knew she had to make a film about the dioramas the first time she heard about them.

"Well, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death were created by a woman called Frances Glessner Lee who was this wealthy heiress to the International Harvester fortune, who had a life-long interest in crime, and the pursuit of justice, really."

This was back in the 1930s, when forensics was known as police science. Lee was one of the few women involved in the detective business, but she taught at Harvard.

Marks said Lee realized homicide detectives needed careful training in looking for clues at crime scenes. Over a number of years Lee painstakingly hand-built 20 of the nutshells. Each is based on a real crime and is accurate down to the tiniest of details. Susan Marks said the dioramas are very low tech.

"And yet they are still used today," she said. "Because no matter how advanced our technology becomes in the realm of forensics, it still all goes back to the investigative skills of what people are observing."

Shooting a dollhouse
Part of the challenge in creating "Of Dolls and Murder" was in capturing the tiny detail of the miniature crime scenes.
Image courtesy 'Of Dolls and Murder'

Marks and her crew got to film The Nutshells at their new home in Baltimore. They also filmed some of the detectives who come from all over the country to train by poring over the miniature scenes of murder.

"They are playing dolls, playing Barbies. Playing crime Barbies," jokes John Waters.

Filmmaker and true crime aficionado Waters narrates the film, telling the stories behind some of the Nutshells.

"On the surface, Robert and Kate Judson had it all," he narrates over shots of one of the Nutshells in 'Of Dolls and Murder.'

Frances Glessner Lee
Frances Glessner Lee who hand-built the Nutshell Studies is described by some as the patron saint of forensic science in the U.S.
Image courtesy 'Of Dolls and Murder'

"A cozy home, a new baby and Bob's steady paycheck. On Oct. 31st just before Kate Judson set the table for her family's morning breakfast. She had every intention of waking up the next morning, but she never did."

Even as a life-long resident of Baltimore, Waters had only heard of the Nutshells.

"I never really saw them until I did the narration for the movie, the voiceover," he said. "So I learned more about them from this movie than I knew completely before I got the job."

However "Of Dolls and Murder" isn't just about blood-spattered dollhouses. Producer John Kurtis Dehn admits he wasn't convinced there was a movie in the Nutshells until he actually saw them, and found himself drawn to them in a way he didn't quite understand.

Crime scene
The Nutshell Studies are small, but grisly.
Image courtesy 'Of Dolls and Murder'

"We had an experience in viewing the Nutshells and it brought up feelings in us and I think that was something that felt needed to be in the film as well," he said. "Why were we drawn to this dark kitsch in these things? Why are we fascinated by the macabre?"

The film interweaves conversations about this with detectives, academics, and morgue workers. They also visited a place in Tennessee with a similar mission to the Nutshells.

It's called the Body Farm. It's a closely-guarded forensic anthropology facility where donated bodies are left to decompose in different situations. It's used both for research and for training detectives. Dehn said when they visited there were 180 corpses just laying there.

"It's very smelly," he says quietly. "Very smelly. We did kind of ask ourselves why did we go there afterwards. But it is truly, truly fascinating and still the people that do the work there are incredibly devoted."

John Waters exhiibit
John Waters peaks out of one of the works that are included in "Absentee Landlord," an exhibit he curated at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn. Thursday, June 9, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"It kind of shook us to our core, I would say," adds Marks. "And none of us on the crew ever want to go back.

"Of Dolls and Murder" will get its regional premier 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Heights Theater, 3951 Central Ave NE in Columbia Heights.

Susan Marks said they've learned a great deal about the human fascination with death through the project, but even more about the dedication of the detectives and forensic scientists who deal with its realities every day.

"People who are so dedicated to giving the dead a voice," she said.

And Marks says that might be her next film.

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