by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The other film on our program was Devil Doll, a 1964 British film dealing with the old chestnut of a ventriloquist in an unnatural relationship (so to speak) with his dummy. The ventriloquist is The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), and he performs in the British music-hall circuit (the theatre in which his act was filmed looked like the Palladium to me, and if I’m right it seems quite a come-down from Judy Garland!). A reporter, Mark English (William Sylvester, who later played the moon scientist in 2001: A Space Odyssey), is assigned to investigate Vorelli, and he brings his girlfriend Marianne Horn (Yvonne Romain) to the theatre where Vorelli performs — he’s a hypnotist, mind-reader and clairvoyant as well as a ventriloquist, and the big climax of his act is a bit in which the dummy jumps off his lap and takes a few steps on his own.
Vorelli is instantly infatuated with Marianne and of course the obligatory romantic triangle develops — and for a good chunk of its running time directors Lindsay Shonteff and an uncredited Sidney J. Furie and writers Frederick E. Smith (story) and George Barclay and Lance Z. Hargreaves (script) actually make Devil Doll a credible suspense thriller and made us wonder if it really deserved the treatment it was getting on the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode we were watching it as part of — in which the crew was joking about Yvonne Romain’s resemblance to the young Linda Ronstadt (they did look similar, actually). Then the plot takes an absurd turn into the supernatural and English tears off to the Continent to investigate the beginnings of Vorelli’s career in 1948 Berlin (played by Haliday without the outrageously fake beard and age makeup he wore in the “now” parts of the movie), in which he had a live assistant whom he hypnotized and “stabbed” as part of the act — the idea was that under heavy hypnosis the knife would go through him but not hurt him.
Alas, one night somebody slipped up and the stooge (played by a hunky blond actor who was by far the best-looking male in the film) not only was genuinely wounded but actually died, and Vorelli’s magical powers managed to transmute his soul into his dummy — which is why the thing can walk around (which we’d previously assumed was simple puppetry or mechanics). Then the film just gets ridiculous and boring, and the horrible sound mix — complete with thunderous drums that drown out the dialogue whenever Vorelli performs (did this mix inspire Michael Cimino in the director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate?) — doesn’t help our enjoyment either. One imdb.com commentator noted that the dummy’s name is “Hugo,” just as it is in Dead of Night (a well-regarded mid-1940’s horror anthology from Britain whose final sequence was also about a ventriloquist being controlled by his dummy) — which would make this another example of a lousy movie ripping off a great one. Devil Doll in toto was a dull, confusing movie which would have been far stronger had they copied The Great Gabbo instead and kept their plotting to incidents that, however unlikely, were at least physically possible.