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  

29 comments:

  1. Thanks to your excellent review, I've added "pupaphobia" to my vocabulary. I don't know how this movie has escaped me all these years, but I need to add this to my voluminous watch list. Despite some of the clunky elements, it sounds like there's some real nightmare fodder here. Thanks so much for joining the blogathon!

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    1. If you don't already have pupaphobia, watching an evil ventriloquist's dummy marathon will probably give you a case.
      Kudos Barry for coming up with this great theme -- people have really stepped up and generated an intriguing mix of posts!

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  2. If only because producer Richard Gordon was involved, DEVIL DOLL is probably worth checking out. Gordon had been involved in plenty of interesting horror films over the years. I had heard about this flick for many years without ever learning much about it. Your in-depth review tells me that it does not deserve to be dismissed just because it was mocked on an episode of MST3K.

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    1. Richard Gordon was a fascinating man and one of that rare breed of producers who understood and appreciated the creative process. I highly recommend The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon, which is still in print.

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  3. I was quite shocked by the sexual content and general creepiness of this film; quite strong for the time!

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    1. Yes, a lot of films like this made in the UK shot more graphic scenes for the European market. I believe the version on Tubi is the more modest one.

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  4. If I had a ventriloquist's dummy (which I have actual seen a few at the local Goodwill), I'd probably have to keep it in the closet after watching this.

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    1. And then you'd be thinking, are those scratching sounds I hear coming from the closet? πŸ˜…

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  5. Love there is a phobia for this - I am sure my generation got it after that Magic trailer on the telly. Thanks for a great guide to puppets in the movies - I was just saying to my husband today it would be a fabulous blogathon topic. I will be back to check out more of those recommended here, I discovered Ceasar and me recently when I interviewed Morgan Brittany who plays a kid in this episode. Added this to Day 2... it's live now.

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    1. Fortunately, there is a phobia out there for everyone and everything! πŸ˜‰ I will definitely have to catch that Morgan Brittany interview. And thanks for co-hosting yet another engaging blogathon!

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  6. Hugo has given me pupaphobia, and I haven't even seen this film! It sounds a bit too creepy for my sensitive palate, but reading your review was a lot of fun.

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    1. Thanks Ruth! Hugo really isn't such a bad sort -- it's Vorelli you need to watch out for. 😱

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  7. I have never been around a ventriloquist dummy in real life, but I don't think I would handle it very well. Yet, I keep watching films and television series featuring them. Devil doll is definitely one that Disturbed me, but now I'm curious about the Alfred Hitchcock episode you mentioned because I did not know it existed. So thank you, I think, for putting on my radar. Great post, Brian and I love the photo captions!

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    1. Thanks so much John! You definitely need to see the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version of “And So Died Riabouchinska,” starring the great Claude Rains and Charles Bronson appearing as the investigating detective. It was redone for The Ray Bradbury Theater, with Alan Bates in the leading role (I haven't seen that version, and have only read that it's inferior).

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  8. Fascinating that Bryan Halliday is part of the founding of Janus Films, having seen its movies so many times! I have watched the MST3K version of Devil Doll, and it's hilarious, but it does tend to take any scares out of it. If you haven't seen it, check out another sort-of evil dummy film ,The Great Gabbo, an early talkie (and pre-Code) from 1929, worth watching for Erich von Stroheim, a ventriloquist who has a strange (very strange...) relationship with his dummy. There are also some strange (VERY strange...) musical numbers in it. The film's on the Internet Archive for public domain viewing.

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    1. Haliday was a very interesting renaissance type -- theology student, actor, patron of the arts, businessman -- and at the same time a big fan of horror films (according to Richard Gordon).

      Interesting you should bring up The Great Gabbo, as in the same interview Gordon mentions that film, along with a couple of others that were released before Dead of Night. I definitely want to check it out -- seems like it would pair well with The Great Flamarion!

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    2. Here's a link to Gabbo on the Internet Archive--it's only about 70 minutes long: https://archive.org/details/bedford-The_Great_Gabbo
      It would make an interesting double feature with The Great Flamarion, which is another great, strange film of Stroheim's.

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    3. Thanks so much! The Internet Archive is a wonderful resource!

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  9. This looks even scarier than Chucky!!!! It kind of reminds me of the Rex puppy they used on the victorious show on Nickelodeon. Knowing the creep dam schneider, it would not surprise me

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    1. I had to look up Rex, and yeah, he could be a relative (grand-puppet?) of Hugo. As for Chucky, he's a bit more nimble than Hugo. πŸ˜‰

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  10. Before so many of the creepy puppet movies and tv show episodes this was the OG of them all. Beyond creepy and completely unique. Great post! xox

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    1. Thank you! There's something about ventriloquist's dummies, even more than clowns, that makes the skin crawl!

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  11. Great article Brian! I had not heard of this film before but I thought it was interesting that you explored the different possibilities of mismatched couples within it. I really enjoyed Dead of Night that you also mentioned, so maybe I'm due for another creepy doll film!

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    1. Thanks Virginie! If you do decide to give Devil Doll a try, you might want to have this post handy as a sort of scorecard to keep track of all the mismatched couples. πŸ™‚

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  12. Very clever selection! I have a thing for movies about puppets -- they creep me out! Trilogy of Terror (1975), Child's Play (1988), the Puppet Master series, etc. Magic (1978) is probably my favorite. Devil Doll is a lot of fun. Great review!

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    1. Thank you! I have the same fascination. Just in the last several years, I've revisited Dead of Night, the Cliff Robertson Twilight Zone episode, Magic, and two of the Puppet Masters. So it's a good bet that at some point another demonic puppet (or two) will be showing up on the blog.

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  13. This looks like a good one! Wonder if Edgar Bergen saw it.

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    1. I think Charlie McCarthy was scary enough! 😱 Thanks for visiting Rebecca!

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