If there is a childhood memory that most of us can identify with, regardless of what generation you were spawned from, it’s the mind-trickery that took place staring into the dead eyes of a doll. Perhaps that’s why they are so darn freaky – those dead eyes. Art has reflected this for years, as has cinema. Child’s Play is the most obvious example from my generation and likely the most popular in cinema’s history. Of course there are numerous films that touch on the subject of scary dolls, however, for this review I’m going to focus on the incredibly dark English feature from the early 1960s, Devil Doll.
During the opening credits we are introduced to The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) and his ventriloquist dummy, Hugo. We are immediately aware that something is off with these two. Not only is Haliday imposing as soon as you see him, but the not so subtle title credit going directly over the shot of Hugo helps this mood along. Shortly after, we meet cynical news reporter, Mark English (William Sylvester), who is complaining about having to cover Vorelli’s performance. After the lady they had planned to go with him to the show cancels, English calls up his girlfriend, Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain), to fill the space. This is the first time we get to witness some of Vorelli’s act and it is very dark. He is showing off his hypnosis skills on an audience member, convincing the man he is about to be executed – which is a creepy scene, to say the least. We then get a total shift in mood, as he follows this by inviting Marianne on the stage for more hypnotism, only this time it’s a nice and safe dance number. Talk about screwing with the emotions of those in attendance, eh? The finale features Hugo and involves Vorelli showing just how strong his powers of the mind are. The audience isn’t as weirded out as they should be, but all of this gets English thinking that something is up with this Vorelli character, as well as Hugo. After he witnesses another performance, that is even creepier than the first, he begins to dig into the situation looking for answers.
Naturally, someone like Vorelli is going to have an agenda and we learn his motives as the film goes forward. English has his suspicions go higher than any normal situation would provide when Hugo visits him during the night. He handles that situation much better than I would have. If I woke up to a creepy doll standing by my bed, talking to me, I believe I’d be just a tad jittery! This scene unleashes the hunt for truth within English’s mind and it is a race against time, as Vorelli is moving forward with his sinister plans, which involves getting into the mind of Marianne.
Based on a story written by Frederick Smith, which I would love to read, Devil Doll is a unique horror / mystery and a damn chilling one. You could also come to the conclusion that Child’s Play takes some inspiration from this film’s reality. From my understanding, this is Lindsay Shonteff’s directorial debut and it was a well done effort. Coming from the world of low-budget films, it may have been a financial decision to shoot this in black and white, but as with a lot of horror films, it adds to the atmosphere with positive results. If you’ve been desensitized with emotionless shock and awe in your horror-heart, you probably wouldn’t appreciate this film. However, I’d suggest it to anyone that enjoys good old fashioned eerie story telling, especially when the mood is as complete as it is here. The cinematography by Gerald Gibbs is simple at the appropriate times, while also being oppressive and even disorienting in all the right ways.
The music covers different atmospheres, including a bit of rock and roll, and it’s all used with excellent results. Unfortunately, the credits fail to list the composer and I cannot seem to track this information down on the “credible” websites out there, or any of my film literature. If anyone knows that piece of trivia, please let the rest of us know! Finally, and most importantly, the actors are believable. English’s skepticism and determination are right in the pocket, Marianne’s torment is never over the top and most certainly, Haliday perfectly pulls off the overbearing evil that is Vorelli.
Devil Doll is just an all around good film and worthy of attention. I suppose you could look at this as an extended Twilight Zone episode, if you were so inclined. And we all know that isn’t a bad thing.
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