Archive for September, 2012

Richard Gordon’s “Devil Doll”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on September 14, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

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.

Michael Redgrave as Max Frere, with “Hugo” in the climactic scene in the asylum, from “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment of “Dead of Night” (1945).

One of the most celebrated examples of this trend is the British portmanteau 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.

London Mystery Magazine #23 (1954), which contains the original story, “The Devil Doll” by Frederick E Smith, which the movie was based on.

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.

Erich von Stroheim as “The Great Gabbo”, with his sidekick dummy Otto (1929).

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.

The original title of the story, as it appeared in the London Mystery Magazine.

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 Great Vorelli

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.

Poster for “Devil Doll” (1964) featuring “Hugo”.

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.

Vorelli hypnotizes Marianne.

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.

Vorelli hypnotizes the real Hugo and begins transferring his soul to the dummy.

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.

Behind the scenes: actress Sadie Corré, as “Hugo”, relaxes on a sofa.

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.

Yvonne Romain and Oliver Reed in a promo still from Hammer’s “Curse of the Werewolf” (1961).

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.

Cover for the Image Entertainment Special Edition DVD.

Clive Barker’s “Haeckel’s Tale”

Posted in Clive Barker, Haeckel's Tale, Masters of Horror with tags , , on September 13, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

A few years ago, I saw an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series that featured an adaptation by director John McNaughton (whose lone previous Horror credit seems to be the infamous “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”) of a rare Clive Barker tale entitled “Haeckel’s Tale”. I confess I was initially a little squeamish about watching it because I had a vague idea that it involved some sort of zombies (of the George A Romero ilk, not the traditional voodoo kind) and I knew that any film based on a Clive Barker story is most likely going to be explicitly graphic, but the period setting and online reviews referencing Frankenstein eventually won me over in the end and I took the plunge. Expecting something like “Re-animator” (a la Clive Barker), I sat down and braced myself for whatever was to come. In the end, it wasn’t so bad and I enjoyed a truly fun mélange of Gothic Horror, Grand Guignol, and the current flesh-eating zombie trope.
In fact, so taken was I with this admixture of Horror styles that I wanted to seek out the original source material; unfortunately, this proved to be a bit problematic. Apparently, the tale had just been officially published in September 2005 in “Dark Delicacies: Original Stories of the Macabre from Today’s Greatest Horror Writers”, so at the time of the Masters of Horror episode debut (January of 2006, according to Wikipedia) none of the subsequent reviews contained any information on where to find it.

Dark Delicacies (2005) which first featured the original Barker story.

It has taken me a few years of hunting, but just the other day I noticed a collection at work entitled “The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New Horror” (2010), which featured the original tale in all its gory glory!

The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New Horror (2010), where I finally found the tale.

Although I hadn’t seen the Masters of Horror episode in some time, I knew it well enough to notice the differences, which were minor: some were understandable, like the combining of characters to streamline the narrative for the 1 hour allotment of the show’s running time; some were not, like the allusion to Frankenstein, which was seemingly thrown into the mix for no apparent reason, since it does not appear in the tale.

Ernst Haeckel’s Frankensteinian aspirations come to naught…perhaps because they were never mentioned in the original tale.

The main disparity for me, however, was the atmosphere and general tone of the tale, which was noticeably different. The TV episode was treated like a campy Tales from the Crypt episode mixing Frankenstein and zombies, culminating in a grotesque orgy replete with graphic (for television) depictions of every sort of depraved necrophilic act one can imagine.

Elise has conjugal relations with her zombie husband…among other things.

The story, although similar in its climax and dénouement, starts off very differently and even though the main plot points can be checked off as the show progresses, there is a vibe which is inherent in the story that does not translate to the screen. To me, I believe that in this tale Barker was giving a tip of the hat to the Gothic Tales and Ghost stories of yore, albeit with his own idiomatic stamp on it. The initial set up seems like something out of a Victorian ghost story by MR James or JS Le Fanu.
The Masters of Horror episode is transplanted to somewhere in the American South during the mid-to-late 19th century—there seems to be a trend in stateside adaptations of period tales to transplant them to the American South, as in the case of 1990’s “Carmilla” with Meg Tilly as the Sapphic vampire; maybe it’s so they don’t have to deal with foreign accents or exotic locales, but a feigned Southern drawl can be just as distracting as a bad English accent—and a young gentleman, John Ralston, is looking for the necromancer Miz Carnation, to implore her to help raise his recently deceased bride from the grave. Before accepting his offer, she tells him the cautionary tale of Doctor Haeckel’s misadventure.

John Ralston consults Miz Carnation in the Masters of Horror adaptation.

In contrast, Barker’s story begins in Hamburg Germany, 1822, with a club room full of aspirant young scientists conversing about a local soothsayer named Montesquino, who was holding séances in the parlors of the local ladies and claiming to possess the necromantic powers of communicating and even raising the dead. The young men scoff at the claims and denounce him as a “contemptuous cheat and a sham”. Soon their attentions turn to the only silent voice in the room, Ernst Haeckel. When asked for his opinion, he simply says, “You don’t want to know.”This does not have the intended effect on his colleagues whom, intrigued, press him further, whereupon he replies, “Very well then, (…) I’ll tell you.” And so begins “Haeckel’s Tale”.
In the TV episode, Montesquino is presented as a sort of traveling necromancer who uses the carcass of a dog in a show to demonstrate his necromantic abilities, much like a 19th century snake oil hawker. He later pops up at the house of Wolfram, the aged gentleman who gives Haeckel shelter for the night, and is paid by him to perform a ritual for his wife, Elise, who craves the cadaverous touch of her previous paramour. In the story, Montesquino is only mentioned at the opening scene and it is an Englishman, a Doctor Skal, who proves to be the necromancer who sets off the blasphemies in the tale’s climax (no pun intended…well maybe just a bit).

Montesquino shoots a resurrected pooch in the Masters of Horror adaptation.

The rest of the show follows the story, more or less, and the cemetery scene pretty much as Barker describes it while still keeping things within the allowed parameters of what is acceptable on television. Even the ending is similar with the bookend narratives being the only differences. If you’re looking for more detail, or the ultimate reveal of the story, I recommend you either read the tale or watch the Masters of Horror episode.

Artwork for an Eastern European (?) DVD cover of the Masters of Horror episode.