After the diversion of the 1964 Devil Doll, we arrive at The Devil-Doll I was originally looking for, Tod Browning’s 1936 chiller: I vaguely remembered this from my childhood from the late night BBC 2 Horror Double Bills. While not exactly a terrifying proposition by 2021 standards, The Devil-Doll is an interesting, amusing and super-culty film that makes it 74 minutes well spent. Based on a 1933 novel called Burn, Witch, Burn by A Merritt, The Devil-Doll has an off-kilter narrative that somewhat boggles the brain; think Mrs Doubtfire, but with killer dolls, and you’ve got the idea.
Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes from jail, and seeks shelter with an aged professor and fellow convict pal Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) who just happens to have mastered the art of miniaturisation before his jail sentence began. That doesn’t make a greet deal of sense from the get-go, but we’ve barely started. Marcel shows Paul a series of toys that are actually miniature animals; the creatures appear dead, but Marcel can bring them to life with his mind. With this technology, Marcel hopes to reinvigorate the food marketing and supply world, but drops dead before he can apply the science. Paul picks up the toys, and begins a reign of terror against those who wrongly imprisoned him, The Fugitive style, and hopes to win the attention of his estranged daughter Lorraine Lavond (Maureen O’Sullivan) before he gets caught….
There’s a comments section attached, and if anyone wants to explain to me how miniaturising dogs will help the world’s food shortages, I’m keen to hear it. But there’s plenty of other strange issues to ponder here; why does no-one recognise Paul when he’s disguised as a granny, the most obvious disguise since Mrs Doubtfire? Paul is supposedly our hero, but can we really endorse a man who discuses himself as a granny to command an army of killer dolls armed with tiny stilettos? Can we honestly say we empathise with this man’s struggle?
Either way, The Devil-Doll rises to some shocking moments, and some ingenious miniature effects in the style of Bride of Frankenstein. Browning brings quite a sweep to the story, and his focus on the father-daughter relationship leads to a touching and unexpected finale. Old movies often disappoint, but The Devil-Doll is as sprightly as a convict granny with a basket full of stiletto wielding dolls; ie very sprightly indeed. Just £46 on Amazon right now.