Devil Doll – 50th anniversary review
A movie about a sinister ventriloquist and his even more sinister dummy – think there might be something strange, even supernatural, at work? You guessed right! But this time there’s a twist: the ventriloquist is also a mystical mesmerist, and the dummy is not some projection of his fragmented personality; it is actually…well, we’ll get into that. For now, let’s just say that, though not truly good, DEVIL DOLL is certainly strange and interesting.
Set in England, the story follows an American journalist by the name of Mark English (William Sylvester). The weirdness of the film becomes immediately apparent: an American named English – working in England? Is there a point, or was that simply the screenwriter’s idea of a joke (get it – he’s American but he’s English!)? Anyway, Mark English is unhappy with his latest, trivial assignment: covering the act of a ventriloquist known as the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday). At least Mark is unhappy until he sees the act: rather than the usual comedy high jinks, Vorelli and his dummy, Hugo, engage in an antagonist banter whose tension seems palpable – as if ready to explode into violence at any minute.
Eager to learn more, Mark talks girlfriend Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, of Hammer Films’ THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) into inviting Vorelli to entertain at a party her family is giving. That night, Mark is awakened by Hugo, who mutters, “Help me.” Unsure whether this was dream or reality, Mark nevertheless checks out Vorelli’s background and learns that years ago he had an assistant named Hugo, who died on stage during their act. Meanwhile, Vorelli has set his eyes on Marianne; after Magda, Vorelli’s current assistant, objects, Hugo kills her. Seeking to unravel Vorelli’s secret and hopefully put a stop to his designs on Marianne, Mark eventually concludes that transferred Hugo’s soul into the dummy, where it remains under Vorelli’s control. If Hugo were ever to regain his free will – say, while Vorelli were distracted or asleep – there would be hell to pay…
Although deliberately created to replicate the eerie quality of the ventriloquist’s dummy episode from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), this black-and-white English production works tolerably well as a crude rip-off, thanks to a creepy dummy and an even creepier performance from Haliday as The Great Vorelli. The innovation here is that Vorelli is not only a ventriloquist but also a hypnotist who casts a spell over Marianne. Unfortunately, this Svengali-esque subplot sends the narrative down a detour that ultimately leads nowhere, since the real story is about the mystery of Hugo.
Fortunately, the story eventually gets back on track for a reasonably exciting climax, which is nonetheless marred by completely side-lining nominal protagonist Mark, who doesn’t really do anything to resolve the story. Yes, Hugo must have his revenge, but couldn’t Mark lend a hand – perhaps unlock the cage in which Vorelli imprisons Hugo while sleeping? (And while we’re on the subject: when Hugo gets out of his cage to ask for Mark’s help, why didn’t he take that opportunity to get even with Vorelli?)
DEVIL DOLL suffers from a problem that sometimes appears in these ventriloquist dummy movies: the Great Vorelli’s act is not that great. Sure, we in the film audience enjoy the tension between the ventriloquist and his dummy, but there is not much humor to amuse the stage audience we see on screen. Vorelli’s hypnotism shtick is not much better: when he presses Marianne into dancing on stage, we are supposed to be amazed at what his mesmeric influence has achieved, but her dance moves are – to put it diplomatically – not at all impressive.
Haliday does not bring much subtlety to the role, no attempt to humanize Vorelli or generate any sympathy; instead, he goes full-on sinister, somewhat in the vein of Todd Slaughter, though without the mirthless humor. In one eccentric touch, Vorelli’s Svengali-like appearance is enhanced by a not entirely convincing beard. Except for a few flashbacks to his younger days, he is always seen wearing it, whether performing or not, suggesting it is not part of his stage makeup. But in his back stage scene with Magda, we see him applying the beard in a mirror – finally justifying its phony appearance. (Since this seen is missing from the Continental version, that cut of the film asks viewers to accept the facial hair as genuine – which strains credibility almost as much as believing in a talking dummy.)
There is a sleazy aura to the film – not only in the Continental version, which adds gratuitous nudity, but also in the original narrative, which has English more or less date-rape his reluctant girlfriend in a car (she clearly resists, but he presses on regardless) and then pimp her off to Vorelli in the hope getting a good newspaper article about the famous entertainer.
Fortunately, the on-stage tension between Vorelli and Hugo lends an interesting edge to the proceedings, and the bizarre climax (a physical fight between the two opponents) is both laughably funny and oddly disturbing, leading to a final fade out in which the villain gets what he deserves: Vorelli, now speaking in Hugo’s voice, tell Mark, “The tables have turned,” while the dummy, in Vorelli’s voice, begs, “Mr. English, don’t let him get away with it! I am the Great Vorelli!”
By now we know that expecting Mark English to actually do anything is hopelessly optimistic, so the film simply freeze-frames on the dummy. As far as we know, Mark doesn’t get the girl, which is only fair, since he did nothing to save her, and she really is better off without him.
The Continental version of DEVIL DOLL, available on DVD, is even worse, short-changing the narrative to shoe-horn in a nude scene: The dialogue exchange in which Magda threatens to expose Vorelli is deleted, removing his motivation to have Hugo murder her. Instead, we see another performance by Vorelli, in which he mesmerizes a female audience member into doing a strip-tease (though dressed in a modest business suit, she is wearing lingerie appropriate for a nude dance). Otherwise, the differences between the original version and the Continental version are minimal: the credits are different (William Sylvester receives top billing instead of Bryant Haliday), and two scenes are reshot to include topless views of actresses who were covered up in the original. In the first, Magda’s breast is briefly exposed before Hugo attacks her. In the second, a colleague of Mark’s is seen in talking to him on the phone, while a woman (presumably his lover) hoovers in the background; for the Continental version, her bra is removed.
Though our usual inclination is to assume that the version with the most footage is the preferred version, in this case producer Richard Gordon (in a DVD audio commentary) confirms that the original British version – sometimes called the International version – is the official cut. The extra and alternate footage in Continental version was added just for those territories whose distributors required nudity to sell a horror picture.
Lindsay Shonteff directed DEVIL DOLL for producer Richard Gordon, who was responsible for several productions of this type during this era (CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, ISLAND OF TERROR). Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter (under the pen names George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves) wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Frederick E. Smith. Star William Sylvester went on to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).
DEVIL DOLL earned the dubious honor of appearing on an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, for which it was well suited. Good-looking enough to be interesting but absurd enough to deserve derision, the film was a perfect foil for the crew of the Satellite of Love. If you are on the fence about whether or not to see the film, MST3K version should end your indecisiveness.
Note: DEVIL DOLL is not to be confused with the Tod Browning film THE DEVIL DOLL (1939), starring Lionel Barrymore.
DEVIL DOLL (Gordon Films and Galaworld Film Productions, 1964). Produced by Richard Gordon and Kenneth Rive. Directed by Lindsay Shonteff. Screenplay by Ronald Kinnoch and Charles F. Vetter, based on a story by Frederick E. Smith. Richard Gordon. Cast: Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain, Sandra Dorne, Nora Nicholson, Alan Gifford, Karel Stepanek, Francis De Wolff.