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Devil Doll (DVD)

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Genre: Horror / Theatrical Release: 1964 / Director: Lindsay Shonteff, Sidney J. Furie / Actors: Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain, Sandra Dorne, Karel Stepanek ... / DVD released 2002-09-03 at Image Entertainment / Features of the DVD: Black & White, DVD-Video, Full Screen, NTSC, Special Edition

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      04.07.2009 11:49
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      Enjoyable "ventriloquist's dummy with a mind of its own" hokum

      Starring:
      Bryant Haliday as The Great Vorelli
      Yvonne Romain as Marianne Horn
      William Sylvester ... Mark English

      This 1964 low-budget English horror film tells the tale of a ventriloquist whose dummy has a life of its own. I know there have been many movies on that same theme and, well, this is yet another one - however, this is one of the earlier ones, before the theme became so totally hackneyed. I find ventriloquist's dummies with a life of their own terrifying, so it was with much trepidation that I sat down to watch this film.

      The Great Vorelli, a dapper-looking older gentleman sporting a fine full Van Dyke beard as seems to often be the case with such characters in the 50s and early 60s, is a successful stage hypnotist and ventriloquist who performs with a dummy called Hugo which bears a disturbing resemblance to Michael Jackson. We start by seeing Vorelli taking a bow to tumultuous applause as he departs the stage at the end of his act (mercifully, we're spared having to see the act itself). Backstage in his dressing room, he mutters to Hugo, 'You'll never win. You'll always lose,' in a snarling, gravely voice while putting him away in a very sturdy-looking metal cage - which he then covers with a blanket. Strange man.

      At his next show, which we do have to sit through this time, Vorelli unpleasantly hypnotises some poor man into believing he's in a war and has been shot in the head. After a good bout of thunderous applause at the poor dupe's terror and discomfort, Vorelli requests another volunteer from the audience. A young, shy, pretty woman is forcibly volunteered by her boyfriend, and Vorelli hypnotises her into doing a frenzied uninhibited dance - possibly this may have been considered racy back when this film was made, as we see Vorelli leering at her lustfully as she Twists the night away. After she returns to her seat, the stage act continues with Vorelli and his dummy having a rather tense chat in which Hugo berates him scathingly and Vorelli gives terse replies. All seems not completely well in this relationship, then. Vorelli drinks a glass of wine while Hugo continues to speak perfectly. Having received another tidal wave of applause at these lame antics, Vorelli tells Hugo he must walk to the footlights and thank the audience. Impossible, you would think, but no - Hugo walks unaided to the edge of the stage and takes a bow. Everyone seems to accept this as perfectly normal and more applause ensues.

      In his dressing room, Vorelli and his assistant discuss the young woman who volunteered: Marianne Horn, one of the richest heiresses in England. 'She's giving a charity ball Saturday night - I think I'll ring up and offer my talents,' he says meaningfully, with a faraway look. Next day he approaches her about appearing at the ball, plies her with a special wine called 'Blood of the Virgin', and puts her in trance with dubious hypnotic suggestions: 'When I call, you'll come. Wherever you are.' At the ball, Vorelli entertains everyone with another creepy show of tension and contempt between Vorelli and his disturbingly lifelike dummy. That night, he lies in bed staring at the ceiling and whispering 'Marianne...Marianne...' We see Marianne toss and turn in bed, get up, and arrive at Vorelli's apartment in her negligee. In a cringemakingly seedy scene, he takes her in his scrawny arms and gives her passionate beardy kisses. Meanwhile, back in his cage, Hugo comes to life and starts to speak all by himself: 'Help me. Find me. In Berlin, 1948.' Er, what? How is this possible, and what does he mean? And what's to be poor Marianne's fate under the thrall of The Great Bearded Madman?

      To my surprise, I found this an enjoyable and entertaining film. It has an intriguing story, with its mystery of a dummy that seems to have a life of its own and the puzzling revelation about his having had some sort of history in Berlin in 1948. The plot gains interest by the revelation that Marianne's boyfriend, Mark, is a newspaper reporter, and he of course takes an interest after Marianne starts acting strangely ever since meeting Vorelli. Mark investigates and discovers some very disturbing things about Vorelli and his strange dummy. I found myself really wanting to stick with it to the end and get to the bottom of all this.

      Lookswise, it's pretty cheap and lacklustre, much in common with most low-budget black & white B-movies of the early 1960s. The cinematography and direction are very standard, including clichéd tight close-ups of Vorelli's intensely staring face as he hypnotises his victims. There are many long pauses and static scenes that drag out too long, and would have benefited by tighter editing - it might have been that they were trying to establish tension or spookiness by doing this, but it just makes it look a bit slow. The film does have a good score though, with an effective use of quite dark and atmospheric music, especially during the spooky hypnosis scenes.

      All of the acting is pretty much as wooden as Hugo, and Marianne's performance in particular comes across seeming almost amateurish. However, Bryant Haliday, whom I thought I had not seen or heard of before but later discovered he was also in another film I have, 'The Projected Man' (1967) sans the face fuzz, does do a good job, coming across all too convincingly as the sleazy and repugnant hypnotist/ventriloquist.

      'Devil Doll' had the honour of being shown in Episode 818 of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is what my copy is, and so this is a film-only review. As always, the MST3K crew make it even funnier than it already unintentionally is.

      Recommended as a cheap and creaky but quite intriguing story.

      Also on Ciao under the same name.

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