Tod Browning’s penultimate film might be one of his most underappreciated. But despite its premise and the director’s reputation, I don’t believe The Devil Doll really qualifies as horror.
It is, however, an enjoyable piece of sci-fi tinged revenge featuring a great performance by Lionel Barrymore as Paul Lavond, a former banker wrongly convicted of robbing his own bank (killing a man in the process). After serving 17 years, he and ailing scientist Marcel escape from prison and hide out in a remote cabin owned by the latter and his wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). This is where Marcel shows him the experiments he’d been working on for years, which reduces people in size, thus increasing the world’s food supply. And because it also reduces their ability to think independently, those who are shrunken are subservient to the will of others.
|Maybe Malita shouldn't have had that second cup of coffee.|
Never as stylish as Dracula or disturbing as Freaks (Browning’s most lauded films), The Devil Doll is arguably more entertaining than both. It’s certainly faster-paced, with Paul wasting little time using shrunken minions to either kill those who framed him or force them to confess. These sequences are a lot of fun, with visual effects that are quite striking for an 87 year old movie and certainly more engaging than the needless subplot involving Lorraine and her boyfriend.
And despite his violent intentions, Paul himself is an amiable, sympathetic character who never comes across as particularly unstable or angry, so we get a lot of vicarious pleasure watching him get even. A minor cult classic, The Devil Doll isn’t Tod Browning’s most accomplished film, but it might be his most enjoyable. It’s also been given a great picture & sound restoration for Blu-ray, with a few bonus features thrown in (outlined below).
2 LOONEY TUNES SHORTS - “Milk and Money” (featuring Porky Pig); “The Phantom Ship.”
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By film historians Haberman & Constantine Nasr.