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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Devil Doll
Devil Doll
Image // Unrated // September 3, 2002
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 30, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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"You're a dummy, Hugo. A common puppet."

Filmmakers seem to find it exceedingly difficult to cast a ventriloquist without tossing in some sort of murderous doll angle. Dummies in recent years may have been largely limited to direct-to-video dreck and episodes of Goosebumps, but oh, there was a time when they were able to effectively pull in horror audiences in decades past, beginning in the mid-to-late '20s with The Unholy Three and The Great Gabbo and continuing with the dummy-defining segment in 1945's Dead of Night. British producer Richard Gordon (Fiend Without a Face) was looking for an inexpensive premise to exploit, and he found it in the pages of a British anthology magazine. The result was, if the title appearing in big, bold letters an inch or two above wasn't enough of an indication, 1964's Devil Doll.

Janus Films co-founder Bryant Haliday stars as the Great Vorelli, a successful performer with a remarkable stage act. As a hypnotist, he sets his sights beyond the banality of compelling a random audience member to cluck like a chicken. The first glimpse of Vorelli on-stage involves duping a veteran that a bullet is slowly piercing his skull. That's all well and good, but what really intrigues reporter Mark English (2001: A Space Odyssey's William Sylvester) is Hugo, Vorelli's dummy. Though the act does includes such mainstays as a dummy chatting away while his ventriloquist downs a drink, there seems to be genuine tension between Hugo and Vorelli, not to mention the fact that Hugo is inexplicably able to walk freely about the stage. In an attempt to get closer to the dummy and hopefully discover its secrets, English convinces his wealthy lady love Marianne (Yvonne Romain) to invite Vorelli to strut his stuff at a charity benefit. As the reporter discovers there's nothing at all unusual about the doll on the surface, Vorelli puts the hypnotic moves on Marianne, mentally manipulating her into becoming his love slave. Hugo pays English an unexpected late night visit, dropping some cryptic hints that promise to reveal why Vorelli keeps his dummy in a padlocked cage.

The crowd that generally seeks out DVD reviews online will probably best remember Devil Doll from its turn on the eighth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Reviews of MiSTied films not surprisingly tend to be less than enthusiastic, particularly those penned after its episode had first bowed. Devil Doll manages to stand out from the rest of the lot. Even its entry on the Internet Movie Database is perhaps the least riddled with the inane "this movie is sooo bad adn stoopid id never watch it if not for mike and bots, for the ovie i give 0 stars, mst version i give it 5 stars" banter that dimmer fans of the series deem necessary to post for every movie given the MST3K treatment.

Though a movie's appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000 is often a red flag for mediocrity, Devil Doll is far more competent than its MiSTied brethren and is actually very entertaining taken on its own. Production values are understandably limited, but not to the point of distraction and certainly not hysterically so. The Hugo puppet is reasonably creepy and doesn't look too terribly fake, at least outside of the frantically edited battle royale in the film's final few minutes. Devil Doll isn't a camp-fest, benefitting from its darkly serious tone and a respectable plot. As Vorelli, Bryant Haliday is easily the standout, so loathesome that a casual glance is enough to make the audience's collective skin crawl. Devil Doll moves at a brisk pace, free of the dull stretches that drag down so many of the other movies that have wound up on the MST3K scrapheap.

The version of Devil Doll released stateside and in the U.K. differs from prints screened in most of Europe and the Far East. No, Devil Doll didn't fall victim to the unrelenting scissors of the BBFC; additional footage was shot to spice up the movie for more freewheeling foreign markets. A scantily clad background character in Berlin appears topless, and Sandra Dorne exposes herself to the camera for a couple of extra seconds. The most obvious difference between the two comes in the form of an extra participant during Vorelli's stage act. A young lady is duped into stripping for the audience, baring her modest assets after a lengthy striptease. Both versions of the film have been graciously included on this DVD release, though producer Richard Gordon's preference lies with the U.K. cut, feeling that the extra footage muddles the pacing a bit too much.

Video: Devil Doll is presented in anamorphic widescreen and windowboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Richard Gordon states in the commentary that it was felt at the time that Devil Doll wouldn't have much life outside of its initial run and a possible theatrical re-issue, but apparently someone went to the time and effort to ensure that pristine elements remained available. The crisp black-and-white image is excellent, offering a remarkable amount of detail that's particularly noticeable in the film's many close-ups of its cast. Speckles and the like are largely kept in check, and the miniature explosions of tiny flecks that burst onto the screen every so often are easily ignored. Areas of fine detail suffer somewhat, ranging from slight shimmering in fishnet stockings and the shingles of Marianne's palatial family home to the extreme distortions of Francis De Wolff's suit. These moments account for an inconsequential portion of Devil Doll's 81 minute runtime and shouldn't deter interested viewers from a purchase. Both the U.K. and Continental versions are roughly comparable in quality, and the additional footage doesn't stand out as being even incrementally different in appearance. As always, there are a couple of exceedingly minor quibbles, but this DVD release of Devil Doll looks much nicer than I possibly could have expected.

Audio: The monaural soundtrack is passable, and the relatively minor amount of pops and crackles lurking low in the background don't present much of a distraction. The low-budget production doesn't sound as if it was recorded particularly well in the first place, with dialogue occasionally sounding hollow and echoey, even on sets constructed especially for the film. Fairly typical, and that's not meant as any sort of backhanded insult.

Supplements: Aside from the inclusion of the Continental version of the film, the most notable extra on this DVD release of Devil Doll is an audio commentary with producer Richard Gordon. The ever-knowledgeable Tom Weaver, the man behind such interview collections as Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and Science Fiction Confidential, does an excellent job moderating the discussion. Weaver keeps the conversation moving with only one slight pause for the duration. However, the commentary does not appear to be at all screen-specific, to the point where I'm curious if the movie was even playing in the background as Weaver and Gordon were recorded. The length of the conversation falls several minutes short of the length of Devil Doll, ending without the usual concluding pleasantries. Gordon looks back fondly on Devil Doll, and the nearly forty years that have passed since production began on the film haven't dulled his memory any. The location of a particularly country house is the only question lobbed at Gordon that the producer is unable to answer. Much of the conversation revolves around the cast and crew, and Gordon is able to speak at length about how he was introduced to any given person, his or her involvement with Devil Doll, and their work before and since. The onslaught of mini-biographies may be too dry for some, but I just happened to be in the mood for this sort of discussion the night I gave Devil Doll a spin in my DVD player. One highlight near the end came in the form of an aborted '70s follow-up tentatively titled Dummy, though the high-profile dismal failure of Anthony Hopkins' 1978 film Magic soured distributors and financiers on ventriloquist horror for quite some time. Gordon remains hopeful that the project will someday come to fruition.

In the early moments of the commentary, Weaver reads excerpts from the original short story upon which Devil Doll was based. An interview with its author, Frederick E. Smith, is provided in the disc's liner notes. A substantial still gallery consisting of approximately seventy images includes quite a number of production stills and promotional artwork. The striptease from the Continental version is given a particular amount of attention for whatever reason. Rounding out the supplements is the American theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Conclusion: Image Entertainment has given the largely ignored Devil Doll an impressive release on DVD, and devotees of cult horror ought to find this disc well-worth the asking price of twenty dollars at most retailers. Recommended.
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