March 29, 2024

Ventriloquism for Dummies: Devil Doll (1964)

Poster - Devil Doll (1964)
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Devil Doll (1964)

Pros: Manages an uncanny atmosphere, especially in scenes in which Vorelli (the ventriloquist) and Hugo (the dummy) argue as they perform their stage act.
Cons: Skimpy production values; Yvonne Romain is somewhat wasted in a role where she is in a hypnotic trance or semi-conscious for much of the movie

This post about a man and his devilish dummy is part of The Mismatched Couples Blogathon hosted by the prolific and ever reliable bloggers Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry at Cinematic Catharsis.

According to Psych Times, pupaphobia, or fear of puppets, is a real anxiety that can be debilitating for adults as well as children. While most of us don’t break out in a cold sweat at the sight of a ventriloquist’s dummy or a marionette (or heaven forbid, a muppet), it’s not for the entertainment industry’s lack of trying. Marionettes are one thing, but ventriloquist’s dummies, with their larger size and moving heads, mouths and eyes, can evoke a sense of the uncanny in even the most rational adult.

In 1945, the mother (or should I say father?) of all creepy dummies, Hugo, appeared in the pioneering UK anthology horror film Dead of Night. Years later, Hugo inspired not one but two sentient dummy episodes on The Twilight Zone: “The Dummy” (S3, Ep. 3, 1962), featuring a ventriloquist (Cliff Robertson) whose dummy is the real brains of the act, and “Caesar and Me,” (S5, Ep. 22, 1964), which tells the tale of an alcoholic ventriloquist (Jackie Cooper) whose wooden sidekick convinces him to pull off a series of robberies. (Interestingly, the same dummy prop was used in both episodes.)

Composite screenshot - Two sentient dummy episodes on The Twilight Zone: "The Dummy" (1962) and "Caesar and Me" (1964)
I hope this dummy was smart enough to collect overtime from Mr. Serling.

Even before The Twilight Zone became a home for delinquent dummies, Alfred Hitchcock Presents got in on the act with the episode “And So Died Riabouchinska,” (S1, Ep. 20, 1956). Based on a Ray Bradbury short story , Riabouchinska flips the dummy script with an uncanny and beautiful female mannequin who cannot tell a lie -- and becomes a witness in a murder investigation involving her ventriloquist (Claude Rains).

And then there’s Magic (1976), about a sort of love triangle involving a man, his dummy, and the ravishing Ann-Margaret. (Magic’s box office didn’t do anyone associated with it any favors, but it has since acquired a minor cult reputation.)

Perhaps as much as any of the above listed movies or TV episodes, Devil Doll will put your pupaphobia to the test (or maybe jump start a bad case if you don’t already have it). The titular “doll” Hugo, like his Dead of Night namesake, is unsettlingly ugly in the classic evil dummy way. This particular Hugo ups the creepiness factor in his ability to walk around on his own with no strings or hands attached (courtesy of 4’ 1” Sadie Corrie, who wore a Hugo costume for those scenes).

His “master,” The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), is no less off-putting, but in an intense, Svengali-like way. Together they make an exceedingly creepy mismatched couple.

But they’re not the only odd pair in Devil Doll; the film is positively brimming with regrettable or unlikely relationships among abusers, abusees and those about to be abused. Let’s count:

1. Vorelli and Hugo. Vorelli, who has been selling out shows in the London theater district, has a dual act: hypnotizing volunteers on stage, and then closing with the dummy Hugo, who departs from the usual ventriloquist routine by getting up, walking up to the footlights, and addressing the audience on his own.

Vorelli has a sadistic streak. In an early scene, he hypnotizes a volunteer and convinces the poor blubbering man that he’s about to be executed. The ventriloquist part of his act is all about taunting Hugo that he’s just a dumb block of wood, while Vorelli can eat and drink wine and live life to the fullest. Hugo (or is it really Vorelli?) protests that he can drink wine too, and is thirsty. It’s a sad, depressing routine, but then, Hugo shuffling around the stage is a genuine showstopper. (Later, there’s an additional hint that Vorelli isn’t in complete control of his dummy when we see that he locks Hugo in a cage when he’s not performing.)

Screenshot - Bryant Haliday and Hugo in Devil Doll (1964)
Vorelli pours himself a glass of wine while Hugo wishes he had an esophagus.

2. Mark English and Marianne Horn. Mark (William Sylvester) is an American expat working as a reporter for a London tabloid. His editor wants him to get the scoop on the new sensation in town, The Great Vorelli. He enlists his girlfriend, the beautiful and wealthy Marianne (Yvonne Romain) to volunteer to be hypnotized at Vorelli’s next show in the hopes of exposing him as a charlatan.

Mark and Marianne are a mismatched couple -- he’s rough around the edges and pushy, and she’s somewhat passive and unsure of herself. At the theater Marianne gets cold feet about volunteering, but Mark, thinking about nothing but his story, goads her into it. Big mistake. Considering her elite status and how beautiful she is, she could do a lot better.

Screenshot - Yvonne Romain and Mark Sylvester in Devil Doll (1964)
"C'mon, don't be such a baby -- what's the worst that can happen?"

3. Vorelli and Marianne. Vorelli couldn’t have hoped for a better subject to fall into his hypnotic clutches. Using his sinister powers, he wrangles an invitation to a charity ball being hosted by Marianne’s wealthy aunt. At the ball, Vorelli solidifies his hypnotic power over Marianne, and she falls into a feverish semi-coma. When she comes out of it, she robotically professes her love for the hypnotist and tells Mark she plans to marry Vorelli.

Maybe this couple isn’t as mismatched as it seems -- he likes money and she’s got a lot of it. Except that once they’re married, her life won’t be worth a plugged nickel.

Screenshot - Yvonne Romain and Bryant Haliday in Devil Doll (1964)
Don't look him in the eyes...

4. Vorelli and Magda the buxom stage assistant. Poor Magda (Sandra Dorne) has hopelessly fallen for her boss, but his attentions are lasered in on the beautiful Marianne. In desperation, she threatens to turn him into the police if he doesn’t make an honest woman of her. Vorelli deals with the situation by telling Hugo that Magda is dishing dirt on him. Exit Magda.

But perhaps the biggest mismatch of all is the combination of hypnosis and ventriloquism in Vorelli’s act (I guess they don’t call him the Great Vorelli for nothing). Sure, hypnosis and ventriloquism have been mainstays of vaudeville for years, but it seems like combining the two could quickly go south -- like a tired Vorelli mixing up the routines and trying to stick his hand in a **ahem** inappropriate place on his volunteer’s person.

Screenshot - Sandra Dorne and Bryant Haliday in Devil Doll (1964)
Vorelli has another great talent: tuning out things he doesn't want to hear.

Producer Richard Gordon, whose credits include such B gems as The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958; both starring Boris Karloff), and cult sci-fi favorites like Fiend Without a Face (1958) and First Man Into Space (1959), was proud to have pioneered this odd mash-up:  

“One of the interesting things about Devil Doll is that it’s the first time that hypnotism and ventriloquism were brought together and incorporated into one film. Hypnotism in the movies goes back to the days of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1919]; and in 1926, Boris Karloff played a Caligari-like hypnotist in a picture called The Bells, in which he uses hypnosis to unmask Lionel Barrymore as a murderer. And Barrymore himself used hypnotism to solve the killings in Mark of the Vampire [1935]. But I don’t think it had ever been used in conjunction with ventriloquism before.” [Tom Weaver, The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon: A Book-Length Interview, BearManor Media, 2011, p. 111.]

Devil Doll’s script, by Ronald Kinnoch and Charles Vetter, was based on a story by Frederick E. Smith that had appeared in an English pulp magazine.

The film definitely lives up to (or down to, according to your taste) its pulp roots. There are a lot of close-ups of Vorelli mesmerizing his victims, and of Hugo’s pug-ugly face with only a slight movement of the eyes betraying that he’s anything other than a wooden prop. (Especially pulpy is a scene in which Vorelli, trying to mollify Magda, beds her, and we get a peek at the voluptuous assistant in her birthday suit.)

Screenshot - Bryant Haliday as the Great Vorelli stares intensely in Devil Doll (1964)
Seriously now, DON'T LOOK HIM IN THE EYES!

The frequent close-ups lend the film a sort of claustrophobic feeling, as if we the viewers are being hypnotized and can only see and obey Vorelli. Relying on close-ups also allowed Gordon to get the film in the can for something between $60 - $70 K, less than even the previous Karloff films or the sci-fi Bs:

“In making any low-budget movie, one tended to use closeups more frequently and more prominently than otherwise, because it helped to reduce production costs; you didn’t have to light and dress up a whole set in order to shoot a scene.” [Weaver, p. 112]

Of course, the real star of the show is Hugo, who is both animated and ambulatory. Dummies who could move on their own had been done before, but they tended to work in the shadows when no one was looking.

On the other hand, Devil Doll Hugo’s uncanny ability to walk is part of Vorelli’s stage act, so something else is going on beyond hallucinations or a disturbed ventriloquist investing his dummy with the other half of his split personality.

Screenshot - Hugo takes a stroll during the stage act in Devil Doll (1964)
The Dummy walks!

When, after the charity ball, Hugo visits Mark in the middle of night and cryptically implores him to “Help me. Find me in Berlin… 1948…” Mark takes the hint and travels to the German capital to look into Vorelli’s and Hugo’s past. Apparently Vorelli was no mere classically trained hypnotist or vaudevillian, but was also a dedicated student of Eastern occult arts. And it’s that occult knowledge, combined with hypnosis, that has Mark worried about Vorelli’s designs on Marianne.

Speaking of interesting pasts, Bryant Haliday had as much of an intriguing, if less sinister, career arc as the character he played. Initially interested in theology, he spent some time in a monastery, then took a detour to study international law at Harvard University.

At Harvard Haliday caught the acting bug, and guaranteed himself a wealth of experience by helping to establish the Brattle Theater company and the Cambridge Drama Festival. Then, branching out into films, he and a Harvard colleague co-founded Janus Films, the first American distributor of such international cinema luminaries as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni. (Haliday has been featured on the blog before -- see my review of another Richard Gordon / Bryant Haliday collaboration, The Projected Man.) 

Screenshot - Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) entertains Marianne (Yvonne Romain) in his lair: Devil Doll (1964)
Bryant Haliday gives his pitch to a potential Janus Films investor.

Also no stranger to the blog is Yvonne Romain (Marianne), who was last seen here providing the love interest for Oliver Reed in Hammer’s swashbuckler Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg, 1962). Romain's horror credits include a small role in Gordon's Corridors of Blood (1958), Circus of Horrors (1960; in which her disfigured face is restored by a scheming plastic surgeon played by Anton Diffring), and Curse of the Werewolf (1961; where she once again hooks up with the cursed Oliver Reed).

American William Sylvester’s notable genre appearances include Gorgo (1961; playing a sailor who helps his Captain capture a juvenile prehistoric monster), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; playing a NASA administrator trying to deal with the discovery of a mysterious monolith on the moon).

While Devil Doll is not the perfect cinematic ventriloquist’s act -- the emphasis on close-ups makes it seem more like a TV show than a movie, and it squanders Yvonne Romain by keeping her hypnotized and/or semi-conscious for much of the running time -- it does manage a few genuinely creepy moments.

Shots of Hugo staring (but maybe not quite blankly) out from between the bars of his cage, and close-ups of his small, stiff legs as he shuffles down a hallway in the dead of night, are enough to elicit an uncanny shudder or two. There is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring Devil Doll out there, but I would take in this ventriloquist act without the hijinks.

Screenshot - Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) keeps his dummy locked up in a cage; Devil Doll (1964)
Hugo bides his time in solitary confinement

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD  

March 21, 2024

Lights, Camera, Chaos!: Nigel Kneale’s “The Dummy”

DVD cover art, Nigel Kneale's Beasts TV series (1976)
Now Playing:
"The Dummy," (Episode of the UK TV series Beasts, originally broadcast November 20, 1976)

Pros: Nigel Kneale's teleplay is a wrily humorous send-up of Hammer Studios; Features an off-the-wall creation of a peculiar monster
Cons: Plausibility is sacrificed for the convenience of the plot

Yes, I know that the blog title is FILMS From Beyond the Time Barrier, but every once in a while, when the stars and planets are in perfect alignment and broadcast reception is crystal clear, I like to write about the classic TV that has entertained me over the years. Besides which, it’s time for another installment of Terence Canote’s Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon over at A Shroud of Thoughts. You’ll want to adjust your antenna in order to tune in all the great posts that Terence is hosting this year.

Where would the movies be without that great 20th century innovation known as method acting? We might never have thrilled to Marlon Brando’s signature, anguished cry of Stellaaaa! in his sweaty t-shirt. The only Dean in our collective memory might be that guy named Jimmy who sold sausages on TV, instead of the late, great James Dean. Worst of all, we might never have gotten to know that bottomless well of feelings that is Shia LaBeouf.

From its origins in early 20th century Russian theater, the technique’s creator, Konstantin Stanislavski, could scarcely have imagined how popular it would become thousands of miles away and many years later in America, thanks to the tireless efforts of Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan

In the hands of Hollywood, this method of fully inhabiting a character’s head has sometimes allowed actors to soar to sublime heights, and almost as often to plumb the depths of ridiculous excess.

One of the most notorious adherents of method acting, Dustin Hoffman, has done both. While making Marathon Man (1976), in which he portrays a NY graduate student caught up in a conspiracy involving Nazi war criminals and smuggled diamonds, Hoffman decided to inhabit his role as completely as possible.

The story goes that when co-star Laurence Olivier asked Hoffman how filming had gone for a scene in which his character was sleep-deprived for days, Hoffman admitted that he had made himself stay up for 72 hours in preparation. To which the classically-trained actor replied, “Why don’t you just try acting?” 

A few years later on the set of Kramer vs. Kramer (1981), Hoffman would take it upon himself to make co-star Meryl Streep suffer for her art too. His tactics included abruptly smashing a wine glass to get an unrehearsed reaction, slapping her between takes to increase the tension between their two characters, and reminding Streep of the recent death of her boyfriend to up the emotional intensity of her scenes. 

Streep won her first Oscar for the role, and Hoffman was the first person she thanked in her acceptance speech, but it does call into question the ethics of involving others involuntarily in the madness of your method. (Not to mention, smashing wine glasses without warning could put somebody’s eye out.)

Screenshot - Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976)
"Is it safe?" With Dustin Hoffman on the set, maybe not.

Speaking of madness in the method, the protagonist of today’s featured episode, the titular “Dummy,” plumbs those depths and then some. In this cleverly constructed story centered on a B movie production, actor Clyde Boyd (Bernard Horsfall), aka “The Dummy,” is having a very bad day on the set of the latest entry in the long running Dummy horror franchise.

It’s bad enough that Clyde has to wear a heavy, cumbersome and stiflingly hot monster suit, but in the middle of an important take, he sees his arch nemesis, actor Peter Wager (Simon Oakes) hanging around the set.

It seems that during a time when Clyde was despairing over his stalled career, Wager started wooing Clyde’s attractive wife, and before long she had left him for the slimy lothario, taking their young daughter with her.

Clyde’s friend, producer “Bunny” Nettleton (Clive Swift), had managed to get financing for yet another Dummy picture, saving Clyde from destitution, but unwittingly also hired the very man who Clyde blamed for stealing his family.

With Wager hanging around, Clyde keeps freezing up and blowing the takes. The pressure is on, because a crucial supporting actor, Sir Ramsey (Thorley Walters), is insisting that after the day’s shooting he’s off to a vacation in the sunny Caribbean, and if the scenes aren’t completed, tough luck.

Screenshot - Graveyard scene in "The Dummy," episode 6 of the anthology series Beasts (1976)
The problematic graveyard scene in the fictional B movie production, Revenge of the Dummy.

Bunny is caught in a triangular dilemma with his lead actor having a nervous breakdown, the cause of the breakdown refusing to bow out for the good of the production, and another pompous, selfish supporting actor ready to blow this pop stand to stick his toes in a sandy beach.

When Clyde retreats to his dressing room to start hitting the bottle, Bunny, desperate to get the picture in the can, has to give him the pep talk of his life:

“[Y]ou’re something different Clyde. I don’t think you’ve ever known yourself. You work in another dimension altogether. We never thought about it, we just let it happen. We never talked about it, but we felt it... So did all those other people, all over the world. You don’t need lines written down by other men, other people’s thoughts to repeat… it happens deep down, like going down to the sea, where words don’t function anymore. The rules are different… pressure… perceptivity… awareness… on that level, you reach us.”

Then, when Clyde is ready to once again don the Dummy’s monster mask,

“It’s starting Clyde, can’t you feel it? The power in you? This is it, this is the part I can hardly watch. Oh my god I never wanted to see this, I never wanted to be in this room when you… [pausing for dramatic effect] become the Dummy! I can feel it, I can feel it taking over!”

It’s a rousing halftime football speech and method acting master class rolled into one. Stanislavski couldn’t have done better himself. But unfortunately for Bunny and everyone else on the set, the speech works too well. Powered by a vast reserve of pent-up emotional pain, Clyde actually becomes one with The Dummy, and embarks on a rampage that would make even Dustin Hoffman recoil in horror.

Screenshot - Bernard Horsfall and Clive Swift in "The Dummy," episode 6 of the anthology series Beasts (1976)
Bunny channels Stanislavski for the benefit of his faltering star.

Before it’s all played out, a cast member is choked, the police called in, and Clyde’s wife summoned to try to talk him down. And as if things couldn’t get any worse, arch-nemesis Wager is lurking around, itching to use the shotgun he’s retrieved from his car. Can Bunny corral the monster he’s created before someone else gets hurt?

"The Dummy" was one of 6 episodes in an anthology series, Beasts, broadcast in the UK by ITV in 1976. The series was the brainchild of writer Nigel Kneale, a master of sci-fantasy, horror and the macabre. (Mr. Kneale is no stranger to Films From Beyond -- see my reviews of two Hammer film adaptations of his work, The Abominable Snowman and Quatermass 2, and his fascinatingly prophetic dystopian teleplay, "The Year of the Sex Olympics.")

Kneale is best known for his creation Dr. Bernard Quatermass, the crustily courageous scientist whose exploits in several BBC series of the ‘50s thrilled large and enthusiastic UK audiences, and who became even more popular with the Hammer film adaptations (The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass and the Pit in addition to Quatermass 2).

In spite of creating some of the BBC’s most watched series up to that time, all good collaborations must eventually come to an end, and by the mid-'70s Kneale and the BBC had parted ways due to a combination of personal and creative differences.

The year before Beasts, Kneale had scored a success with the ATV production company, penning a creepy folk horror episode, “Murrain” (1975), for their anthology series Against the Crowd. ATV approached him with the idea of writing a whole set of episodes for a thematic anthology series. Kneale proposed exploring the dark, bestial side of humanity through its various relationships with the animal kingdom, and Beasts was born.

As Kneale biographer Andy Murray relates,

“The decision was taken that few animals would actually be seen in the new plays. They would simply be heard, or their presence and influence would be felt, a latent, invisible force. The key to the project, though, was that there would be a great deal of variety between the six plays. ‘That was the first thing that [ATV producer] Nick Palmer and I agreed on,’ Kneale recalls, ‘to make them as different as possible from one another: one would be a funny one, another one horrifying, another one more ordinary.’” [Andy Murray, Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, Headpress, 2006, p. 126]

Illustrating this variety, in addition to "The Dummy," fan favorites from the series include “Baby,” about a rural veterinarian dealing with superstitious locals who believe that the mummified body of an unidentified animal found in a farmhouse is a witch’s familiar, and “During Barty’s Party,” about a middle-aged couple trapped in their home by a pack of super-intelligent rats.

The animal connection is less direct in “The Dummy,” although the creature suit that Clyde wears is definitely animalistic (not to mention cheap-looking even for a B movie), bringing out his simmering bestial nature at a very inopportune time.

Screenshot - Title shot from "The Dummy," episode 6 of the anthology TV series Beasts (1976)
The Dummy gets a final going-over before his big scene.

While the episode isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there are farcical elements throughout that elicit the occasional knowing grin. “The Dummy” seems like a comically inappropriate name for a 7-foot-tall monster that is supposed to thrill and terrify audiences, but the character is literally dumb (as in mute), and the actor who animates it has also lost his voice, as it were, through a series of traumatic life set-backs.

Then there’s the duo of Joan Eastgate (Lillias Walker), a journalist covering the making of the latest Dummy movie, and Mike (Ian Thompson), the put-upon studio publicist who tries in vain to prevent Joan from glomming on to the production’s many glitches, foremost of which is the star’s incipient meltdown.

At one point Mike, with barely concealed boredom, rattles off all the films in the Dummy series (which seems to be Kneale's dig at the Hammer horror film cycle that had finally played itself out in the mid-'70s). It’s also a knowing-grin moment for anyone who’s ever rolled their eyes at the film industry's love of sequels:

Joan: “How many have there been?”
Mike: “Dummy films? Six. (Counting on his fingers) Dummy, Horror of the Dummy, Death of the Dummy, Return of the Dummy, and, uh, Dummy and the Devil, Dread of the Dummy, and this one’s a Revenge… a touch obvious in my view…”
Screenshot - Lilias Walker and Ian Thompson in "The Dummy," episode 6 of the anthology TV series Beasts (1976)
Mike almost runs out of fingers trying to count all the Dummy movies.

Later on, in a conversation with Bunny, Joan becomes a sort of one-woman Greek chorus foreshadowing doom, as she likens Clyde to a ritual dancer wearing a ceremonial mask.

Joan: “It’s not a disguise, they [the tribe] know the man’s inside, but it doesn’t matter. They believe the mask itself is alive, always, all the time, the man is just helping… very deep stuff…”

On the other end of the intellectual spectrum are the other “dummies,” the hopelessly narcissistic supporting actors Wager and Sir Ramsey. Simon Oates does a great job with his deplorable Wager character, oozing contempt for Clyde at every opportunity, while at the same time disingenuously protesting to Bunny that it wasn’t his fault that the man’s wife got fed up with him.

Thorley Walters as Sir Ramsey is the very picture of pompous self-regard, making only the feeblest efforts to appear concerned after a man has been killed and the set is in chaos; you can almost see the wheels turning in his head trying to figure out if the tragedy will affect his vacation plans.

Screenshot - Thorley Walters and Simon Oakes in "The Dummy," episode 6 of the anthology TV series Beasts (1976)
Ramsey and Wager yuck it up as the set of Revenge of the Dummy devolves into chaos.

Kneale, with dozens of TV and movie projects under his belt by this point, wanted to capture his film industry experience via "The Dummy" episode. Biographer Murray again:

“With a generous helping of barbed humour, Kneale -- who’d always been fond of backstage drama -- was using his own experiences at Bray Studios to satirise the glory days of Hammer. ‘It was staged just like a Hammer film. I’d watched them at it. They were so cosy, these pictures, there was never anything less horrific! But if it had been real and somebody had got accidentally killed, well, that would be a different thing entirely. Not something you’d bargained for.’” [Murray, p. 130]

There are some things about Kneale’s fictional Hammer-lite studio that don’t quite ring true. Clyde has been the man in the monster suit for all the Dummy films, and characters at various times talk about his star quality, but it’s really the suit that’s the star, and seemingly any competent extra could wear the thing. At one point, as Clyde is having his breakdown, Bunny and the director talk about the possibility of replacing him, but dismiss it -- somehow, it wouldn’t be the same without Clyde in the suit. With so much on the line, it doesn’t make much sense.

Regardless, Kneale, with his tongue firmly in cheek, suggests that the so-called “primitive” dancer becoming one with the spirits in his ceremonial mask is not so different from the modern method actor parading around a movie set in his monster suit.

Even if the idea of method actors as shamans seems absurd, “The Dummy” is worth a look, if only for Bunny’s impromptu pep talk. It’s one of the most off-the-wall scenes of a monster being created that you’ll ever see.

Screenshot - Clyde (Bernard Horsfall) gets suited up for the final time in "The Dummy," episode 6 of the anthology TV series Beasts (1976)
Behold, the Dummy!

Where to find it: Streaming | Complete series