Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on various players.
A few minutes in to Devil Doll, I had terrible déjà vu. I absolutely knew I had seen this before, and it turns out that I kind of had. Devil Doll is another movie that exists both as a film that has appeared on the They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They? list of horror films and as a film spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Specifically, this is episode 818 in which Tom Servo transfers his soul into a toaster strudel. That’s actually plot-relevant.
What this means is that I have seen Devil Doll, but I’ve never seen it on its own and without commentary. It definitely is a movie that benefits greatly from three comedians making fun of it, but it didn’t have to be that way. There’s a good idea or two swirling at the bottom of this film, and the failures come more from budget and lack of talent than anything else. Sorry if you’re a relative of any of the cast or director Lindsay Shonteff; it’s just the truth.
Much of our focus will be on The Great Vorelli (Bryan Halliday), a stage hypnotist who also dabbles in ventriloquism. I say “dabbles” because his interactions with his weird doll Hugo are limited and, as a part of his stage show, last about a minute. However, while his mesmerism is what gets the crowds in the door, it’s Hugo that gets them talking. We’re introduced to all of this by way of a newspaper reporter named Mark English (William Sylvester), who is an American working in London. He and his current girlfriend Marianne (Yvonne Romain) see Vorelli’s show, where Mark forces Marianne on stage as a participant. She is hypnotized into dancing for everyone despite not being a dancer. Oh, for fun.
But what happens next is the big showstopper. Vorelli brings out Hugo and talks with him, does some basic ventriloquy (including Hugo talking while Vorelli drinks) and then has Hugo stand up and walk to the audience to thank them. Gasp! The dummy must be alive or something!
Hugo becomes an obsession for Mark English while Marianne becomes an obsession for Vorelli, who keeps her sort of hypnotized and is capable of communicating with her mentally, which he does for, it is heavily implied, illicit sex that he then forces her to forget. Meanwhile, English investigates Vorelli’s past after he swears that Hugo the doll came to him and told him to look into Vorelli in 1948 Berlin, which leads him to the knowledge that Vorelli has studied not just hypnotism, but the ability to transfer souls from one body to another. See? I told you that Tom Servo having his soul transferred into a toaster strudel was plot relevant!
There really is a fun idea at the heart of this. If we accept the idea of souls and soul transference, then we have an explanation for Hugo the doll being able to walk on his own, talk, and act independently of The Great Vorelli. We also can start to figure out what his plans are concerning Marianne, who we are told is one of the richest young women in all of the UK. So what’s going to happen is pretty straight forward and I don’t need to go into detail for you to have a good sense of the first two acts and at least a large part of the third.
Where Devil Doll fails is in virtually every other area. The music is uninspired and dull, frequently being just ominous sounding notes that don’t go anywhere. At multiple times, our cinematography consists of watching Hugo’s feet stumble forward, looking for all the world like a toddler who snuck into mommy’s wine. And then there’s the acting. In a way, Vorelli excels here because he overacts more than anyone else. It’s completely appropriate, though, for a guy who makes his living on the stage.
There are also some really weird choices when it comes to the script. Vorelli, it will not be surprising, has an aggressive relationship with Hugo, who we see is becoming more and more unruly. He disobeys and is harder and harder to control, and at one point, even pulls a knife on Vorelli in front of a crowd. How does Vorelli react? By taunting him, because that’s absolutely the best way to keep someone who is inches away from rebellion from actually rebelling actively.
Devil Doll is a dumb film, and it’s never going to be anything other than a dumb film. There’s some hope in the story, but even that’s been done better--Magic, Child’s Play, and the third part of Trilogy of Terror just to name a few options. Not much sadder than wasted potential.n
Why to watch Devil Doll: A slightly new spin on a classic idea.
Why not to watch: It’s better with Mike and the ‘bots.