The Devil-Doll (1936)

This was not quite the film I thought it was going to be, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Here we have Tod Browning near the end of what was a failing career by that point, and a horror film from the dog end of the first horror boom made in the early Production Code days by a studio whose commitment to horror was questionable. Not the best outlook. And indeed the end result is not exactly the most spectacular example the genre has to offer even from that period; the pace is a bit more plodding than necessary and I suspect the Code neutered the thing somewhat (though I was still a bit amazed that a line about Christmas bringing out the religious maniacs was allowed). But then there’s Lionel Barrymore. He plays a former bank manager sentenced unjustly to life on Devil’s Island, wherefrom he escapes after 17 years in the company of a scientist. The latter has an interesting theory about reducing world hunger by, well, shrinking people. And Barrymore discovers, to his horror, that he’s actually succeeded in this. (These miniaturised people effects are actually still pretty striking even now.) But with the assistance of the good doctor’s not much more sane wife, he’s now got the means to take his revenge on the men who put him away… Barrymore plays such a fascinating character—most of it in disguise as a woman—that he really lifts the film to a different level; Lavond is hardly a conventional horror film villain (he’s disgusted by his own methods, and notably never actually kills any of his victims), and it’s notable that he gets away at the end (didn’t that sort of thing offend the Production Code too?)… and then of course there’s the scene at the end with him and his daughter (who’s hated him all her life), pretending to be someone else and claiming her father is dead. It’s an extraordinary moment, and it’s a performance that really elevates the film.


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