Devil Doll (1964) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain
Director: Lindsay Shonteff

Ventriloquist’s dummies. Everyone hates them, eh? Especially the ones that are deliberately made to look like psychopathic murderers. Wait, is that not deliberate? Then why do they nearly *all* look like that?

Devil Doll is very much in that category, being a textbook “creepy ventriloquist dummy isn’t just a dummy” story. Occupying a weird no-man’s land between a serious, straight horror procedural and a lurid piece of exploitation, the film ends up falling between both ideas, but it’s not entirely unsatisfactory. In fact, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

A hypnotist/magician by the name of The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) and his dummy Hugo are the talk of London, playing to packed-out crowds every night with their strangely antagonistic act towards each other.

American journalist Mark English (William Sylvester) has a feeling about Vorelli though, so persuades his heiress girlfriend Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain) to accompany him to another show, where she ends up onstage and under his influence.

Vorelli then sets his sights on the rich young woman, but he’s not only planning on marrying her and taking her money, he’s got an idea to transfer her soul into a female puppet as a companion to Hugo, who English discovers was the hypnotist’s very human assistant years previous…

First things first, there’s just not enough going on here to support a full feature. An episode of The Twilight Zone or a segment in an Amicus portmanteau would have been perfect, but there’s no denying Devil Doll is far from a tightly plotted affair.

When it does jet things right though, it gets them really right. As the sinister mesmerist, Bryant Haliday is delightfully horrible. He’s a nasty piece of work, hypnotising women into having sex with him or bumping them off when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Worst of all is his tendency to trap people in dummies, surely a fate worse than death?

Haliday really sells the cold, callous Vorelli well, reminiscent of Roger Delgado’s upcoming turn as The Master in 1971. Hypnotists with pointy beards and piercing eyes were nothing new even in 1964, but the way Vorelli is shot here, coupled by the eerie incidental sting music whenever he uses his powers does make you wonder if the future Who producers were taking notes.

Sadly, the casting isn’t massively memorable, with folk like William Sylvester settling for “competent”, but the exception is the stunning Yvonne Romain. She’s a great leading lady and It’s a mystery why she never went on to become a much bigger star than she did.

When it comes down to it, a film like this stands or falls on the puppet and fortunately, Hugo is definitely on the high end of the creepy scale. His speaking parts are suitably unnatural, with a face that nobody could ever find anything other than unsettling. The only downside is when he’s required to move around or attack people, when it becomes very obvious that there’s just a small person inside the suit wearing a mask, one who struggles not to move like a small person inside a suit and not an animated ventriloquist’s dummy.

Devil Doll isn’t the best evil puppet film you’ll ever see, but it’s not the worst. Some genuinely creepy moments, a decent villain, some interesting backstory and Yvonne Romain. More than enough to warrant a repeated viewing.

Rating: 3/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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