Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Tod Browning’s 1936 film The Devil-Doll is based, very loosely, on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch Burn. It tells the story of two escapees from Devil’s Island, one a mad scientist, the other a banker (played by Lionel Barrymore) who had been falsely accused of embezzlement. The mad scientist is working on a scheme for reducing humans to one-sixth their present size – he is convinced this will be a huge boon for humanity. The banker just wants revenge on his partners who framed him. When the mad scientist dies the banker realises that his insane scheme could aid his own schemes for revenge. He teams up with the widow of the scientist (an immensely enjoyable performance by Rafaela Ottiano as the most crazed and obsessed mad scientist you’ve ever seen). I suspect that Browning never intended this movie to be take seriously – like hi later (and very underrated) Miracles for Sale it seems to be done very much tongue-in-cheek. And it’s immense fun. The special effects work superbly. I was going to add “by 1936 standards”, but in fact they look thoroughly convincing even by today’s standards. There is some real creepiness involved with the miniature human dolls. Barrymore is almost as over-the-top in his performance as Ottiano – he’s obviously having a good time. The plot comes together quite satisfactorily in the end, with surprisingly little in the way of moralising. The humour is genuinely amusing without being annoying, which wasn’t always the case with movies of his period that tried to mix humour and horror. This is really a wonderfully engaging movie with just the right mix of laughs and chills, enjoyable acting performances, and very able direction by Browning.

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