Although their examples are few, the sub-genre of diabolic ventriloquist dummies has left an indelible mark upon the canon of classic Horror films; if for nothing else but the creep factor, which is inherent in the ventriloquist art and lends itself well to the Horror genre.
One of the most celebrated examples of this trend is the British omnibus film, “Dead of Night” (1946), which features an infamous segment called “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, where a schizophrenic ventriloquist, Max Frere (brilliantly played by Michael Redgrave), shoots a rival ventriloquist whom he believes is trying to steal his doll, Hugo. This name is significant because it was later used as the name of the titular doll in Frederick E Smith’s tale “The Devil Doll” as well as its subsequent film adaptation by Richard Gordon. The film will often be compared to “Dead of Night” in later reviews and there will even be accusations of plagiarism, but these critics are wrong because the stories are completely different and the relationships between the ventriloquists and their respective dolls are totally reversed.
In 1957, producer Richard Gordon was approached by his colleague, John Croydon, who was the associate producer on “Dead of Night”, with a story he had found in issue #23 of the pulp “London Mystery Magazine” from 1954 entitled the “The Devil Doll”, by Frederick E Smith. According to Gordon (in the audio commentary for the DVD of “Devil Doll”) he thought Croyden was keen on it because it reminded him of the aforementioned segment of “Dead of Night” and thought it might make a good idea for a new project for them to work on.
Gordon liked it, since he was a fan of “The Great Gabbo” (1929), an early musical/drama starring Erich von Stroheim as another mad ventriloquist who believes he has swapped souls with his doll, Otto, and so they got the rights to film “The Devil Doll” from London Mystery Magazine, although Smith didn’t get wind of this until the film’s debut in 1964. Unfortunately, his contract with the pulp required he relinquish any claims to the tale once he cashed the paycheck for it, which was 10 pounds sterling, around $14 at the time.
Gordon chose to drop the definitive article from the title so as not to confuse the film with the 1936 MGM movie “The Devil-Doll”, featuring Lionel Barrymore as a cross-dressing ex-con who uses a formula to shrink people to1/6 their original size to get revenge on a group of bank robbers and clear his name.
The basic idea behind “Devil Doll” is the Svengali-like hypnotist, The Great Vorelli, who decides to reinvent himself as a ventriloquist after a stunt involving an assistant goes horribly awry. He relocates from Berlin to London and combines his hypnotist shtick with a ventriloquist act using a doll called Hugo, who somehow is able to talk and walk independently of its handler. The strange thing is that at times there seems to be a palpable tension between the dummy and its master and this makes the act even more intriguing to anyone who witnesses it. Unable to explain the mystery behind Hugo, people commend Vorelli’s showmanship and he becomes the talk of the town.
Now most dummy movies involve a handler gone mad, but in this movie it is obvious from the start that there are supernatural dealings afoot. Aside from Hugo’s apparent autonomy, Vorelli also has telepathic powers which he uses, rather like Dracula, to summon his victims from a distance. His most notable victim is the lovely young heiress, Marianne Horn (played by the exotic Yvonne Romain) whom he singles out at a performance to help him in his hypnosis act. He later implants a suggestion in her subconscious which supposedly makes her tune in to his wavelength so he can summon her at will. His plan is to woo her, wed her, and then kill her so he can inherit her fortune. He charms his way into an invitation to perform at a charity event held on her estate where he spends the night and further works on her subconscious sending her into a delirium where no one can bring her around and Vorelli toys with her mind from afar long after he has left the estate. Fortunately for her, she has an American beau, Mark English, who doesn’t seem to take being dismissed so easily.
Mark is a reporter who decides to investigate Vorelli’s past after an unexplicable visit from Hugo who tells him to look into Vorelli’s past and keeps repeating “1948”,”Berlin”. Mark enlists the help of a fellow American journalist in Berlin who actually finds one of the original assistants Vorelli used in his Berlin act. Mark travels to Germany to talk to her and she tells him a weird tale of Vorelli’s domination over her partner the young man Hugo, whom he kills onstage in an “accident” so he can transfer his soul to a recently purchased dummy. The American journalists are hesitant to believe her tale, so she gets an associate to vouch for her.
Then Mark returns to England to find Marianne coming out of her delirium, but now she is changed and says she cannot see him anymore as she is in love with Vorelli and shall be going away soon to be married. Mark initially concedes and leaves defeated but soon makes a connection with something the woman in Berlin told him so he rushes to find Marianne and Vorelli before it is too late. I won’t say anymore because it would spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that it is strange.
Although most of the film’s unusual themes are openly proffered early on in the film, it is still fun to watch as things unfold. There are some genuinely creepy scenes and the few effects work well despite the low budget. Mostly, these involve dummy scenes. Apparently, the scenes in which Hugo is mobile he is portrayed by petite actress Sadie Corre. The switches between Sadie and the actual doll are handled well and it really seems as if the doll is moving of its own volition. Bryant Haliday is imposing as the sinister Vorelli and the rest of the cast is professional if not exactly stellar. I have not read the original story, which is hard to come by these days, but film historian Tom Weaver does a nice job of summarizing it in his interview with Richard Gordon in the DVD commentary. For the most part, it seems about the same, with some minor changes like the young couple whose names and appearances are different. Mark was made into an American to court the stateside audiences and despite Yvonne Romain’s dark look which contrast with the description of her blonde story counterpart she got the gig because she had worked with Gordon before and was familiar with the genre, having also appeared in Hammer studio’s “Curse of the Werewolf” (1961) with Oliver Reed.
The wind down to the ending was slightly different, but the last scene (which I shall refrain from revealing) was essentially the same.
The Image Entertainment DVD of the film contains the original U.K. and “uncut” continental versions, as well as a stills gallery and the audio commentary/interview with Tom Weaver and Richard Gordon. The “uncut” version is basically the same film with a couple of gratuitous nude shots that are unnecessary and don’t help the narrative at all. Even so, I recommend the disc for the remastered print and the other bonus features.