What scares you? Circus clowns, graveyards at night, enclosed spaces, bats ? For me, ventriloquist dummies are the stuff of nightmares and some of my favorite spine-tinglers are Dead of Night, the 1945 British horror anthology film featuring the “Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment with Michael Redgrave, and “The Dummy,” a 1962 episode from The Twilight Zone starring Cliff Robertson as an unhinged ventriloquist…or is he? Lesser known but just as potent is a creepy little British B-movie entitled Devil Doll (1964), which is ideal viewing for Halloween or anytime.
Not to be confused with Tod Browning’s 1936 fantasy thriller, The Devil Doll, starring Lionel Barrymore as a revenge-crazed scientist who uses doll-sized humans as assassins, Devil Doll is the missing link between Dead of Night, which inspired other movies and TV shows of the same ilk, and more recent fare like Dead Silence (2007), in which a town is haunted by the ghost of a ventriloquist.
Produced and directed by Lindsay Shonteff, Devil Doll gives us one of the most memorable and menacing ventriloquist dummies. Hugo – named after the dummy in Dead of Night? – is one ugly hunk of carved wood with bad hair, big thick lips, intimidating eyebrows and swollen cheeks. His master is the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) and every night after their stage performance Hugo is locked up in a steel cage. Why? Because he’s alive and capable of the most terrible things….Well, wouldn’t you be if you found yourself trapped inside a ventriloquist’s dummy?
The great thing about Devil Doll is that it’s not just about a possessed stage prop. Instead, it veers off on some strange tangents involving soul transference, hypnotism and black magic while tantalizing us with some pretty tawdry burlesque acts. And even though the possessed doll theme would later be exploited for black humor in the Child’s Play series featuring Chucky, here it’s much more disturbing, thanks to the noir-like visual treatment of the story (cinematography by Gerald Gibbs) and an ingenious screenplay by George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves, based on the original story by Frederick E. Smith.
In an interview with horror/sci-fi film historian Tom Weaver, Smith recalls, “The idea for “The Devil Doll” grew from my seeing a ventriloquist on the stage in my home town Hull in Yorkshire, England, when I was a child. Perhaps it was also influenced by the two years I spent in India during World War II when, in unusual circumstances, I met an Indian Yogi who took me under his wing and helped to cure me of a serious illness I had contracted out there…..Oddly enough, he did talk about soul transference although, being a very young man in those days, I did not take too much notice of this aspect of his conversation at that time. I feel almost certain those were the influences that later led me to write “The Devil Doll.”
The film version was spearheaded by London-born producer Richard Gordon, who made his mark in late fifties with several sci-fi and horror themed film movies like The Electronic Monster (1958), The Haunted Strangler (1958), Fiend Without a Face (1958) and First Man into Space (1959). Originally Sidney J. Furie was set to direct Devil Doll but when he got an offer to direct Swingers’ Paradise (1964), a larger budget production starring pop icon Cliff Richard he bowed out. The success of the latter film led to an even better job offer for Furie – the opportunity to direct Michael Caine in The Ipcress File (1965). After that it was off to Hollywood for Furie, who worked with some of the biggest stars in the film industry like Marlon Brando (The Appaloosa, 1966), Frank Sinatra (The Naked Runner, 1967) and Robert Redford (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970).
Replacing Furie on Devil Doll was the director’s protege Lindsay Shonteff, who only had one feature film to his credit, a low-budget western called The Hired Gun (1961) aka The Last Gunfighter. Shonteff never really broke out of the B-movie category and would go on to work in various genres like spy thrillers (The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World, 1965) and sexploitation dramas (Permissive, 1970). For my money, Devil Doll is his best effort.
The film was also a personal favorite for producer Gordon, who was quite fond of an earlier film about a ventriloquist and his dummy – The Great Gabbo (1929) starring Erich von Stroheim. Of course, in that film, von Stroheim is a ventriloquist with a split personality but Devil Doll has a decidedly different twist.
In the role of The Great Vorelli is Bryant Haliday, who would work with Gordon on three more films in the horror/sci-fi genre: Voodoo Blood Death aka Curse of the Voodoo (1965), The Projected Man (1966) and Tower of Evil aka Horror on Snape Island (1972). Haliday was a lifelong friend of Gordon and, in the book Interview with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers by Tom Weaver, the producer said “Bryant was a stage actor and was the founder of the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts – he was both an actor and a producer there, and was responsible for bringing some of the leading European theatre companies to America, to appear at the Brattle. Together with a man named Cy Harvey, he was also the founder of Janus Films, the foreign film distributing company. They operated a movie house in conjunction with the Brattle…and I actually got to know him through the distribution business of Janus.”
As The Great Vorelli, Haliday is especially malevolent and sleazy and he proves to be a major threat to reporter Mark English (William Sylvester), who tries to do an expose story on the suspicious entertainer. Meanwhile, Vorelli tries to ensnare English’s wealthy girlfriend, Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain), is his web of deceit in order to bilk her of her fortune. Rest assured, it doesn’t end well.
When Devil Doll was first released it was available in the U.K. version and a continental version which had several jarring and inappropriate scenes of female nudity inserted at strategic points in the narrative. A typical example is a striptease number which follows the Great Vorelli’s act on stage but more memorable is the scene where Hugo creepy-crawls the blonde stage assistant, sleeping topless in her bed.
The performances by William Sylvester, an American actor who emigrated to England, and Yvonne Romain are serviceable, if not exactly inspired, and they both were familiar faces to horror fans at this point. Sylvester was prominently featured in giant-creature-on-the-rampage classic Gorgo (1961) and Romain is best known for her roles in Circus of Horrors (1960), Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and Night Creatures (1962).
Devil Doll has been available on different formats over the years but the one to own is the special edition DVD released by Image Entertainment in March 2010. It contains two new digitally remastered versions of the film – the original U.K. release and the “hot” continental plus highly entertaining feature-length commentaries by producer Richard Gordon, and film historian Tom Weaver, both of whom share some incredibly bizarre anecdotes and trivia about the film’s production. Other DVD extras on the special edition of Devil Doll include the original U.S. theatrical trailer, poster and promotional artwork, a gallery of publicity and production photos, and an illustrated booklet with liner notes by Tom Weaver featuring his interview with Frederick E. Smith, the author of the original story. Smith is probably best known for his novels, two of which were adapted for the screen – 633 Squadron (1964) and Waterloo (1970) – but the author’s personal favorite is The Tormented (1973) which has yet to be made into a movie.
Other links of interest: