A Movie A Day: THE DEVIL DOLL (1936)
She will always remain small! Small! We can make the whole world small!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Day: Halloween 2010 edition!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf or streamed via Netflix Instant and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day.]
I’m gonna go out on a limb with a crazy opinion. Don’t be too frightened. I know it’s not generally accepted, but I think Tod Browning is a pretty damn good director. I know, I know… Call me crazy for having such a radically different opinion than most film historians, but I’m not ashamed.
If you couldn’t catch wind of the sarcasm above, I know it isn’t a surprise that a Tod Browning film is good, but I quit enjoyed today’s entry into the Halloween edition of AMAD.
It’s not the movie I thought it was going to be and I doubt it’s the movie you guys expect as well. The creepiest part of the film aren’t the living dolls, but a cross-dressing revenge-seeking Lionel Barrymore. Imagine if Mrs. Doubtfire was trying to shrink Sally Fields and Pierce Brosnan down into mini-humans that he could mind-control to do evil deeds and steal shit and you’re close to what this flick is.
The movie opens with a manhunt. Cops are patrolling wooded hills and streams looking for two escaped prisoners. One of them is Barrymore, who has served 17 years for a murder he didn’t commit and the other is a misunderstood scientist.
They arrive to the scientist’s cabin, occupied by his wife, their dogs and an inbred half-wit servant girl. I’m not being mean, they literally say that in the movie.
This scientist and his crazy Bride of Frankenstein haired wife have a dream. That dream is to make the world small. It’s a noble idea, if not horribly flawed. Why, if every man, woman, child and animal on the earth were 1/6th their size there will never be a shortage of food and resources, right?
Only problem is that when a living creature is miniaturized (a process which involves mist, a lot of mad scientist equipment and… wait for it… cotton balls… not cotton balls in place of something else. Nope, just regular old cotton) they lose any kind of willpower because of their shrunken brains.
So, if someone concentrates hard enough they can will these mini-people or animals to do anything they want.
The process begins with some kind of poison that paralyzes its victim. Pay attention, this comes in to play later.
The scientist stays alive long enough to demonstrate this to a disbelieving Barrymore and then croaks because he’s old and tired, I guess. His wife wants Barrymore to continue her husband’s work.
At first he refuses because he just wants to get back to Paris and get his revenge on his bank partners that killed a guard and framed him as a way to cover up their own stealing from the bank. That’s when the crazy-eyed woman suggests using her husband’s work as the perfect way to exact his revenge.
Sure enough, Barrymore agrees and they relocate to Paris, set up a doll shop in Montmartre (“next to the Moulin Rouge” we’re told) and proceed to enact the revenge.
There are three bad guys and they know their patsy has escaped prison and is probably coming after them, so they put a 50,000 franc bounty on his head.
Barrymore’s a smart cookie, though. He dresses up like an old woman to evade recognition and one by one picks them off. The typical revenge involves a shrunken human left in the house or sold to the children of the bad guys and all they have to do is wake up when Barrymore sits outside and thinks really hard in their general direction.
They carry with them a tiny dagger coated with the paralyzing poison. At least one of these men is himself shrunken down and used to help his revenge.
If you couldn’t already tell, this is a weird movie. For the majority of its duration it’s a straight up revenge movie. If it wasn’t for the basic premise this could be any regular crime film, but with the supernatural/science-fiction bent it’s wholly something different.
The massive sets for the actors as dolls is quite impressive, even if the projection of them during their scenes shared with regular sized people is quite outdated and noticeable. Still, for the time it must have blown people away.
Thank goodness the effects aren’t the only thing the movie had going for it. Barrymore is fantastic as someone that could have easily been a maniacal villain, but this isn’t your typical revenge story. Well, it kind of is, but without the whole bullshit about revenge destroying the one seeking it that is in every single damn revenge movie these days (Kill Bill aside).
Nope, this guy is in the right. Hell, he even gives one of his targets a chance to save himself by admitting the frame-job.
And Barrymore plays him very well, especially when he’s dressed up as the old doll maker. I didn’t spot the make-up immediately and it took a minute for me to go “Holy shit, that’s Lionel Barrymore!” I’m usually really good at spotting actors in old age make-up, but then again it took me till my teenage years to realize the crazy, greedy old banker in Mary Poppins was actually Dick Van Dyke, so what do I know?
If you check the flick out, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a young and hot Maureen O’Sullivan as Barrymore’s alienated daughter.
Browning’s direction is as sharp as ever. The flick isn’t quite as unsettling as FREAKS or as iconic as DRACULA, but it wasn’t mean to be. It’s more of a character study focusing on a man’s road to redemption… with some creepy tiny dogs and people thrown in for good measure.
Final Thoughts: Another solid flick out of Warner Bros’s Legends of Horror box set. I also featured Doctor X, The Return of Doctor X and the Peter Lorre starring Mad Love earlier on in this AMAD run, all coming from this box set. Barrymore’s performance alone makes this worth a watch, but you also have a really fun revenge plot and some fascinating old, old, old school effects work.
Currently in print on DVD: YES
Currently available on Netflix Instant: NO
Upcoming A Movie A Day Titles:
Friday, October 29th: DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981)
Saturday, October 30th: SCARECROWS (1988)
Sunday, October 31st: RAZORBACK (1984)
We’re winding down this run of AMAD now, only 3 titles left. Three more days till Halloween, Silver Shamrock!
Tomorrow is DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW and, as far as I know, is not a Batman film. See ya’ then!
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Previous AMAD 2010’s:
- Raw Meat (1972)
- Ghost Story (1981)
- Two on a Guillotine (1965)
- Tentacles (1977)
- Bad Ronald (1974)
- The Entity (1983)
- Doctor X (1932)
- The Return of Doctor X (1939)
- The Tenant (1976)
- Man in the Attic (1953)
- New Year’s Evil (1980)
- Prophecy (1979)
- The Other (1972)
- The Mummy (1959)
- The Gorgon (1964)
- Mad Love (1935)
- Repulsion (1965)
- The Church (1989)
- The Black Cat (1981)
- The Black Cat (1934)
- The Comedy of Terrors (1963)
- Dolls (1987)
- The Silent Scream (1980)
- Scream of Fear (1961)
- The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
- Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981)
- The Evil (1978)
Click here for the full 215 movie run of A Movie A Day!
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Oct. 29, 2010, 12:06 a.m. CST
Oct. 29, 2010, 12:13 a.m. CST
by frank cotton
it hasn't been 'reimagined'
Oct. 29, 2010, 12:55 a.m. CST
...and he wants his "S" back.
Oct. 29, 2010, 1:22 a.m. CST
Chester Turner FTW!
Oct. 29, 2010, 1:50 a.m. CST
Looking forwards to that one!!!
Oct. 29, 2010, 2:05 a.m. CST
by Dr Eric Vornoff
I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen in a double-bill with Freaks (which I had already seen several times previously). Obviously Freaks is the better film but in many ways this is less dated and more straightforwardly entertaining. Lionel Barrymore is brilliant and the effects are really well done. The Devil-Doll is theonly real competition for The Incredible Shrinking Man in the miniature person movie league.
Oct. 29, 2010, 3:48 a.m. CST
Your ignorance of film is appalling.
Oct. 29, 2010, 3:49 a.m. CST
Ran out of space.
Oct. 29, 2010, 6:56 a.m. CST
Oct. 29, 2010, 8:20 a.m. CST
...I was being sarcastic. But it still was quite an oversight, and on top of the Jack-the-Ripper thing before.
Oct. 29, 2010, 9:23 a.m. CST
...may have to check it out. Just watched Freaks on a doubler bill with Carny.
Oct. 29, 2010, 12:05 p.m. CST
She must have had one of the longest careers in history; from Tarzan's Jane when she was 20 to Hannah and her Sisters' mother when she was 75 (she was, incidentally, Mia Farrow's real mother).
Oct. 29, 2010, 12:42 p.m. CST
by The Reluctant Austinite
I'm kidding! I'm kidding! I know "The Unholy 3"! Happy Halloween.
Oct. 30, 2010, 2:55 a.m. CST
If anybody's looking for that review, I apologize, but it's going to have to wait until tomorrow... erm... later today. I watched the flick, dug it quite a bit, but was pulled in a dozen different directions and couldn't squeeze out the review. Blame bossman Knowles and his seasonal celebrations for keeping me out way late. Tomorrow I'll be playing catch up with Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Scarecrows both! Just wait and see!
Oct. 30, 2010, 7:19 a.m. CST
Ah well... A double scarecrow feature for Saturday isn't too bad. Either way, the dedication to the movie a day concept is always impressive, and a lot of fun to follow. Thanks for doing it!
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