Sunday, 30 May 2010

Devil Doll (1964)

Country: UK

Devil Doll suffers from a paper thin narrative that offers further evidence to suggest that films featuring inanimate objects are better suited to the short story format of the portmanteau film or The Twilight Zone. The central premise which involves a ventriloquist’s dummy with a life of its own, only works because of the inherent uncanny nature of such a proposition. Any familiarity the object may have possessed is soon shattered when we see its eyes moving of their own accord, or when it turns its head and stares blankly into the camera. It is somewhat surprising that cinematic history has not been littered with a multitude of variations on this theme because the concept is intrinsically terrifying. The few examples there are such as Dead of Night (1945), Magic (1978), Dolls (1987), Child’s Play and sequels (1988, 1990, 1991, 1998, 2004, 2010) and Puppermaster and sequels (1989, 1991, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2003) suffer from the diminishing returns of franchising and a dilution of the primal power of the uncanny - this early example then, appearing in 1964 should have had the potential to be very good. The failure as with most low budget horror films is in the writing - here we are presented with hopelessly one dimensional characters who are only mildly intriguing. When an object made of wood becomes the most emotionally involved and deepest character in the film you’re in trouble.

The monochrome visual presentation is at least strikingly shot, and director Lindsey Shonteff is not averse to using jump cuts and dissolves to give his independent production a slight arty feel that is a world apart from the rich colourful productions of Hammer. It would appear Shonteff was aiming to resurrect the atmospheric chills of Ealing’s masterful portmanteau Dead of Night and he partially succeeds with one or two stylish and creepy moments. But crucially Devil Doll lacks the thematic depth of the earlier film. It is devoid of substance and the cracks begin to show almost immediately. The film centres around the enigmatic figure of ventriloquist and mesmerist The Great Vorelli (Bryant Halliday) a man with a chequered past who uses his powers of mind control to ensnare Marianne Horne (Yvonne Romain), a wealthy heiress whom he intends to relieve of her fortune. His ultimate plan is to transfer her soul into a dummy as a companion for the other trapped soul that resides in the dummy Hugo (shades of Bride of Frankenstein (1935)).

The manner in which Vorelli manipulates and controls the human soul is a blank spot the screenplay quickly washes its hands of. The key difference is that Hugo is not a demonic doll, and nor is he the villain - instead he is an imprisoned soul seeking vengeance against the man who put him there. Although this is intriguing and different it reduces much of the tension from the film. I enjoyed it a lot more when I believed the doll was evil. Instead of showing us the highs and lows of a tortured artist waging war against the demons (both within and in the doll) on this occasion the artist is a scum bag out for himself. This is a major weakness, in part, because Halliday gives such a dour and feeble performance.

Halliday need not worry on this score though, because he surrounded by a cast that are merely going through the motions. The protagonist Mark English (William Sylvester) an American journalist is very underwhelming, and a very unlikely suitor for the beautiful and rich Marianne. He achieves some incredible leaps of logic and deduction and spends far too much time sat on his ass in a non-descript office (despite the very brief running time of 77 minutes there is still a hell of a lot of padding). Initially at least the London setting is suitably evocative with some impressive location shooting, but the film is resolutely studio bound after this promising opening title sequence. Apart from a brief sojourn to a Berlin that looks identical to London, the film is very static. The whole thing lacks inspiration - in front of and behind the camera. Unappealing leads, bland direction, and an over padded and weary story makes this a dreary watch indeed. The dummy soon loses any air of menace, so one doesn’t even get the thrills and scares one would hope for. A missed opportunity and you’re unlikely to encounter a duller British horror film.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. What about "The Doll" episode of Night Gallery? Anyone remember that one?

  2. A great write-up. I actually liked this film more than I expected -- note that I do not think it is a good film -- but the few moments of almost-goodness really entertained me.


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