Devil Doll

Devil Doll (1964)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Bryant Haliday, William Sylvester, Yvonne Romain
Extras: Commentary Track, Trailer, Image Galleries, Illustrated booklet

Us Yanks can be grateful to the year 1964 for two reasons: the Beatles made their first US appearance and ’Devil Doll’ bowed on movie and drive-in screens. For us connoisseurs of hokey 1960s British cinema, Image Entertainment’s new DVD edition of the camp classic deserves some heralding.

Bryant Haliday headlines the film as the Great Vorelli, hypnotist and ventriloquist extraordinaire. With his wooden dummy Hugo, Vorelli plays to sell-out houses, spellbinding audiences but also piquing the skeptical curiosity of reporter Mark English (William Sylvester). When Vorelli ogles Mark’s heiress girlfriend Marianne (Yvonne Romain) during one of his performances, he sets in motion a plan to steal Marianne’s heart – while dispatching a remarkably animated Hugo to cut out Mark’s.

I remember how this movie frightened me as a kid because it always aired very late at night and it has a doll for its monster. While not as a paradigm of the genre (I give that crown to the ventriloquist segment of the 1946 horror anthology ’Dead of Night’), there are some genuine low-budget fright moments, or scenes with static horror to be more precise. When Hugo sits motionless, just seeing his eyes slowly move sent chills up my spine. Unfortunately, like the ’Chucky’ films, the scary mood hopelessly dissipates when Hugo starts walking and talking on his own. Mix in some naughty-but-innocent early Sixties sexuality and above-average cinematography with an O. Henry-style climax and ’Devil Doll’ winds up a more flavorful cinematic stew than one would expect.

The disc offers two cuts of the film, the UK theatrical and the ’hot’ (per the DVD jacket) Continental version, both presented in 1.66 anamorphic widescreen. What makes the Continental edition so incendiary is the rather liberal presence of female nudity. (I don’t remember that as a kid!) With deep blacks, good grayscale, and solid detail delineation (even in the more shadowy sections), the transfer looks terrific. The source print exhibited some defects, mostly the odd speckle here and there, as well as a couple of registration problems. Let’s be honest; for a forty-year-old cult film, I’m nitpicking here. What I watched most of the time was a crisp, clean picture.

The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack performed on par for its age and technical limitations. Surprisingly, I found the audio quite clean sounding without little hiss or crackle. As decoded through the center channel speaker, dialogue played back clearly and without distortion.

The DVD provides a few extras, notably a commentary track with producer Richard Gordon and film historian Tom Weaver, who coaxes more than a few remembrances from the engaging Gordon. A typically overachieving theatrical trailer (’For maximum shock sock…see it from the beginning!’), presented in 1.66 anamorphic widescreen, a stills and posters gallery and lengthy liner notes featuring a reminiscence from original short story author Frederick B. Smith practically make this DVD a scholarly document.

The trailer had it wrong. For maximum schlock sock, check out ’Devil Doll.’