Devil Doll (1964)
Dir. Lindsay Shonteff
Written by Ronald Kinnoch based on a story by Frederick E. Smith
Starring Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain
DEVIL DOLL is certainly not the earliest killer dummy movie --after all, we know the trope goes at least as far back as 1945’s DEAD OF NIGHT-- but it’s still a pretty unique one. Directed by Canadian-British low-budget maestro Lindsay Shonteff (CURSE OF SIMBA, LICENSED TO KILL*) after already low-rent schlockmeister Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE) dropped out to pursue higher-profile projects, it doesn’t exactly boast the most promising pedigree in the world. It bears the unmistakable marks of having been made outside the mainstream studio system for almost no money; wobbly editing, acting that’s all over the place, awkward narrative construction. It’s amateurish at times, and not all of it works. But it’s also strange enough to succeed where a more competent and normal film might have failed, creating a twisty, fevered little nightmare which definitely never quite goes where you might expect.
The setup is straightforward enough. A mysterious, almost certainly evil ventriloquist/magician going by the moniker "The Great Vorelli" (Bryant Haliday, TOWER OF EVIL, but better known as the co-founder of Janus studios(!?)) is delighting audiences with his hip blend of hypnotism and strange magical acts, the showstopper being a finale in which his wooden dummy manages to stand up and perform simple tasks apparently of its own volition, independent of Vorelli’s management. That catches the attention of journalist and boring non-character Mark English (William Sylvester, Heywood Floyd in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY**), and becomes somewhat more of a priority for him when Vorelli uses his hypnotic whammy to seduce and control English’s girlfriend (Yvonne Romain, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF***). But what does all this have to do with the titular Devil Doll? Well, it may just be the key to the whole mystery. But probably not in the way you’re expecting. What follows is a clumsily plotted but highly intriguing mystery into just what the deal is with this Vorelli fellow and his curiously antagonistic relationship with his wooden sidekick.
It would certainly be wrong to call DEVIL DOLL a strong work of cinema, but in the classic tradition of horror cinema, it turns out to be strong in every way that really matters, and weak only in the ones which really don’t. A lot of it is talky and dated, but the dummy scenes are surprisingly well-executed, full of ominous shadows and delicious canted angles. And while Sylvester is hardly a compelling lead, Bryant (already a rich enough man to consider acting a hobby, and therefore appearing here merely for the love of horror movies) is totally fantastic, a memorable and uniquely hateable villain who anchors the whole film and gives real weight to the drama even in the absence of a suitable protagonist. His pockmarked, bearded face is always pinched in contempt for the world, and the controlled ferocity of his performance suggest in equal parts a pathetic lowlife clawing desperately for respect and a dangerous megalomaniac, justifiably confident that there’s no situation he can’t control. It’s an interesting role, but the performance elevates it to something more complex but equally monstrous.
Most of the film is not as good as Bryant is, but even an inelegant narrative and a slate of mostly forgettable performances can’t diminish the power of the film at its best moments. As with many of the better indie horror movies across the years, there’s a live wire sense of unpredictability here, the sense that the people imagining this world may really be depraved maniacs, capable of anything. Even though it’s not explicit, there’s something seedy and perverse here, a sweaty, clammy-handed sense that we’re peering behind the curtain into some dimly lit underworld away from the stability and comforting rules of the outside world. This would never work as a normal movie, but as a horror movie all it needs to do is find a way to wheedle past your defenses and get inside your head, stirring the murky, unformed terrors that rest there. DEVIL DOLL lacks most tools necessary for an acceptable drama --consistent acting, believably dialogue, strong plotting-- but it doesn’t matter in the end, because all it needs to do is draw you in and creep you out, and it has everything necessary to do that.
*Don’t get too excited, you’re thinking of LICENCE TO KILL (1989), the second and final Bond film to star Timothy Dalton. This is LICENSED TO KILL, an unauthorized legally safe knockoff starring superspy James Bind. So that’s the level of low budget we’re talking about here.
**Sylvester also had a small role in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, still closer to a real Bond film than Shonteff would ever get.
***Woah, Romain also has a YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE connection: She married composer Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the lyrics for the great Nancy Sinatra theme of the same name and also the lyrics to GOLDFINGER. Man, who thought this short review of DEVIL DOLL would lead so far down the James Bond rabbit hole?
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