28 July 2014

The Devil Doll (1936)
78 min.
Directed by Tod Browning.
With Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O'Sullivan, Rafaela Ottiano, Frank Lawton, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Greig, Grace Ford, Arthur Hohl.
A robust double performance from Barrymore highlights this energized horror from director Tod Browning.

After he's framed by three of his business associates, successful banker Paul Lavond (Barrymore) is sent to Devil's Island on robbery and murder charges.

Seventeen years later, he and fellow inmate Marcel (Walthall) escape from prison and seek refuge with the latter's wife Malita (Ottiano).

There, Lavond learns of Marcel's bizarre scientific experiments, projects in which he transforms real animals (and humans) into miniaturized, life-like dolls that obey telepathic commands. When Marcel dies unexpectedly, Lavond joins forces with Malita, and the two continue their strange doll work.

But Lavond has only one twisted goal in mind: turn the dolls into lilliputian killers and use them to exact deadly revenge upon those who sent him to prison!

Clearly the inspiration for the later Puppetmaster (1989), this excellent 1936 MGM horror is all about Barrymore, and rightly so; he shines bright in his dual role as both Lavond and undercover as Madame Mandelip.

Indeed, while the plot is strong and the special effects more than effective, it's Barrymore's ability to alternate between eliciting sympathy (as Paul) and conjuring focused rage (in drag, as Mandelip) that makes Devil Doll one of those rare tours de force worth seeing.

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