Devil Doll (1964) ***
I’m not sure there’s anything in the world creepier than a ventriloquist’s dummy. And judging from the sheer number of horror movies and TV episodes that have been made in which dummies play the central role, I’d say a whole lot of people agree with me. The good news is that most of these films are at least decent. The bad news is that a dreadfully high proportion of them are called something more or less like Devil Doll, and it can therefore be very difficult to keep them all straight in your mind. The Devil Doll I’m talking about at the moment is a low-budget, small-studio flick from Britain, with all the pluses and minuses that usually entails. In its favor are highly professional acting, a solid script, and a bit more boldness than one usually encounters in big-ticket Hollywood fare. Then again, pacing is a real problem, and the poor quality of the audio and video equipment used to make the movie is often starkly evident.
Now most of your ventriloquist’s dummy horror flicks have the dummy as the main villain. Not so with Devil Doll. Here, the big bad guy is the ventriloquist himself (also a hypnotist in this case), a man who goes by the name of the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday, from The Projected Man and The Curse of Simba). Our introduction to Vorelli comes during one of his performances, in which he has hypnotized a volunteer from the audience— a veteran of World War II’s China-Burma-India theater— into reliving an especially harrowing experience from his military days. Apparently, the man once saw a Japanese soldier execute a Chinese shopkeeper right out in the middle of the street, and Vorelli has the man believing himself to be that unfortunate peddler, kneeling down on the pavement with a conqueror’s gun pointed at his head. The man remembers nothing at all of the last few minutes when Vorelli releases him from his trance. Then for his next trick, Vorelli calls another volunteer from the audience, this one a young woman named Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain, from Circus of Horrors and The Curse of the Werewolf). When he puts Horn under, he convinces her that she is a world-class dancer, and brings out “an expert on modern dance” to put her through her paces; Marianne, who normally dances no better than your average slob, matches her partner step for step. Vorelli follows up by bringing out Hugo the dummy at last. It’s an odd act the man’s got here. In addition to performing such tricks as laughing at Hugo’s words and even drinking a glass of wine while the dummy is still “talking,” Vorelli amazes the crowd by having Hugo walk up to the footlights and bow his thanks to the audience to climax the show. But still more unusual is the way Vorelli interacts with the doll. Rather than the typical jocular banter that one expects between ventriloquist and dummy, Vorelli portrays his relationship with his wooden partner as one of resentment, hostility, and antagonism. It makes a big impression on the audience, on two spectators especially.
One of these is American newspaper reporter Mark English (William Sylvester, from Gorgo and Devils of Darkness), who had been sent by his editor to review Vorelli’s show. The other is Marianne Horn, who unbeknownst to Vorelli, is the reporter’s girlfriend, and had been put up to volunteering by English so that he could be certain the hypnotist/ventriloquist wasn’t simply using ringers in the audience to achieve his spectacular stunts. Marianne’s performance under Vorelli’s trance has piqued the reporter’s interest in the showman, and English is now determined to uncover the man’s secret. And because Marianne’s aunt Eva (Nora Nicholson) happens to be one of the richest women in Britain and a generous philanthropist, Mark thinks he knows how to give himself the chance to do just that. Eva, you see, is throwing some sort of charity party the following weekend, and Vorelli’s act is just the sort of entertainment the old lady would love to have, if only she knew it were available. English talks his girlfriend into going to see Vorelli again, and inviting him to put on his show at Eva’s place.
Vorelli is happy to oblige. In fact, he already knew who Marianne was, and had already been aware of the upcoming fundraiser. So considering how much money the girl is worth, it seems just a little bit suspicious that Vorelli seems to be developing some sort of romantic interest in her. Just a hunch, sure, but you can never be too careful about that kind of thing. And lo and behold, Vorelli takes advantage of a quiet moment at the party to hypnotize Marianne again and plant a post-hypnotic suggestion to the effect that she will come to him at his call and do anything he commands.
There’s one little problem with this plan of Vorelli’s: he’s already got a girlfriend. Evidently he’s been boning his assistant, Magda (Sandra Dorne, of The House in Marsh Road), ever since she started working for him, and Magda is sharp enough to see what her boss is up to when he starts making all chummy with the Horn girl. She and Vorelli have a big fight the night after Eva’s party, and following a quick round of make-up sex, the hypnotist shows us all the kind of guy he really is. He gets out of bed once Magda is asleep, goes into the other room, and tells Hugo that Magda said he was ugly. Then he waves a knife around in front of the dummy’s face, puts it down on the floor nearby, and unlocks the big birdcage where he keeps the doll. (The very fact that Vorelli keeps Hugo in a locked cage when he’s not actively using the little homunculus ought to tell you a thing or two in and of itself.) No sooner has Vorelli left the apartment than Hugo lets himself out of the cage, picks up the knife, and stabs Magda to death.
As a journalist, Mark English hears about the slaying pretty quickly. It shows up on the wire service at about the same time that he finds out that Marianne has been suffering from some strange kind of fever ever since the night of her aunt’s fundraiser, and Mark swiftly comes to believe both that the two strange events are connected and that when he figures out where the point of connection lies, he’ll find Vorelli standing over it. This conviction stems mostly from a peculiar incident that occurred immediately following the party. While Mark was in bed, Hugo showed up in his room at the Horn place, asking for help and telling him to “look for me in Berlin— 1948.” Neither Marianne’s physician, Dr. Keisling (Francis DeWolff, from Corridors of Blood and The Man Who Could Cheat Death), nor Dr. Heller (Karel Stepanek, of The Frozen Dead and the 1960 TV version of “Night of the Big Heat”), the hypnosis expert to whom English goes for advice when Keisling can find nothing physically wrong with the girl, buys the story of the sentient dummy or takes Mark’s concerns regarding Vorelli terribly seriously, so he places a call to an old friend of his. This friend, a sharp-eyed reporter named Bob Garrett (Phase IV’s Alan Gifford), starts looking into Vorelli’s background. And what do you know, he finds that Vorelli had been some sort of occult scholar before he got into the magic show business, and that he had gotten his start on the stage in Berlin in 1947. What’s more, Vorelli’s assistants in those days were a brother and sister named Mercedes and Hugo! Hugo appears to have died in ‘48, but Mercedes (Lorenza Colville) is still around. When English and Garrett go to interview her, Mercedes reveals that she believes Vorelli used magical techniques he picked up while studying in the Orient to steal her brother’s soul and transfer it to the dummy that now goes by the dead man’s name.
Now that’s all pretty worrisome, but it’s nothing compared to what confronts Mark when he gets back to England. Marianne has suddenly emerged from her feverish trance, but she now claims that she is in love with— and indeed intends to marry— Vorelli! Worse still, we know, even if our heroes don’t, that Vorelli has ordered another ventriloquist’s dummy through the mail— this one a female. What do you want to bet the sneaky bastard intends to marry the girl for her money, give her just enough time to write him into her will, and then kill her, bottling up her soul in the new dummy the way he did Hugo’s? And if nobody will believe Mark about Vorelli’s very real supernatural powers, how the hell is he going to get Marianne out of this fix? What’s that? You say Hugo might prove himself a valuable ally to Mark and Marianne when the chips are down? Hmmm... You could be on to something there...
Devil Doll may not be a work of dazzling brilliance, but it’s got enough going for it to earn my commendation nonetheless. I like the fact that the living dummy isn’t really the monster here, and I think Bryant Haliday’s performance as Vorelli is a minor gem of celluloid villainy. He’s so shamelessly slimy, acting as though he hasn’t a single give-a-fuck to spare for the possibility that anyone might find him out and oppose him. You get the feeling this arrogant bastard reckons himself so much smarter than everyone else around him that there isn’t even a point to pretending not to be evil. It’s a great way to get around the potential problem of a script that never once depicts Vorelli as doing anything to cover his tracks outside of engineering an alibi for the hour of Magda’s murder; he just goes ahead and does whatever he wants, relying on the seeming impossibility of his deeds to protect him from any negative consequences that might ordinarily follow from them. Haliday’s Vorelli more than makes up for Lindsay Shonteff’s somewhat lethargic direction and the visible cheapness of the production (although I have to ask— how much can a high-quality ventriloquist’s dummy possibly cost?!), leaving Devil Doll well worth a look.