Ventriloquist’s dummies have been a staple of the horror genre ever since film makers realised that the majority of people found them really creepy. ‘Devil Doll’ is patchy and occasionally amateurish but, at its best, it’s really quite astonishing.
The Great Vorelli (Brent Halliday) is an intense hypnotist with a penchant for humiliating his subjects by making them fear for their life or strip off their clothes at his suggestion. This deeply unethical man with a stick on beard culminates his performance by bringing out Hugo, an ugly ventriloquists dummy with whom he has an extremely uneasy relationship. The act is not so much ‘gottle of geer’ as ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?’ – they bicker and bitch, engaged in a bitter battle of wits which always ends with the browbeaten Hugo standing up and walking towards the audience to apologise for his bad behaviour. There’s not a dry seat in the house.
Vorelli, a first rate cad who was once a doctor but was struck off in mysterious circumstances, ‘studied in the mystic east’ and, it transpires, used mind transference techniques to put the soul of his assistant into the hideous wooden doll. Why? Well, we never get to that but, presumably to see what it would be like. The answer, of course, is creepy, incredibly creepy. What’s more, the evil Vorelli has his eye on voluptuous heiress Marianne (played by the gorgeous Yvonne Romain), hypnotising her to become a twist expert and then, in a nasty turn, his sex slave. Ultimately, Vorelli fancies transferring her soul into a female doll, and having all her money for himself, the bastard.
Can anyone snatch Marianne from the nefarious Vorelli’s mentalist clutches? Well, certainly not her elderly and ineffectual boyfriend – but luckily forty two inches of angry wood containing a tortured soul is on hand to save the day in a tremendous dummy vs. man battle royale.
'Devil Doll’ is the work of Canadian director Lindsay Shonteff. Shonteff specialised in quirky genre films on a shoestring budget, but was also a creative and occasionally surprising director. There are lots of odd shots and effects in ‘Devil Doll’, but they are used intermittently and, as such, the look of the film is slightly uneven. The script is full of holes, of course, but sticks to its rather silly guns and doesn’t pull back from giving us a purely supernatural solution. Most of all, the scenes between Volari and Hugo have a horribly uncomfortable intensity, and the bits where Hugo wanders around are pure horror.
Here’s a clip where Vorelli convinces Hugo to murder his assistant, Magda. There is no strong narrative reason for this (she has only vaguely hinted that she might say something to somebody), but it does give the audience three cheap thrills: Magda’s fulsome breast; Hugo on the move, and an animated dummy stabbing a naked woman to death. The sparse score is particularly good, but I don’t know who it’s by. Anyone know?
As a final thing (for now - I feel that I might come back to this wonky masterpiece), please see this screen grab of William Sylvester (the nominal star, and the eldery and ineffectual love interest we talked about earlier) doing what he does best - nothing, with a drink in his hand. Take a look to his right - interesting and ironic entertainment on offer in London in those days...