One of director Tod Browning's best films makes its Blu-ray debut a week before Halloween and it's sure to provide plenty of thrills for Golden Age horror/sci-fi fans. The Devil-Doll features a bravura performance from Lionel Barrymore in a gender-bending role as an escaped convict who exacts revenge on those who framed him by exploiting a rogue experiment that turns humans into miniature dolls. A new 4K scan of preservation elements that showcases the impressive special effects, excellent audio, and a solid supplemental package distinguish this top-notch Warner Archive release. Highly Recommended.
After the box office failure of Freaks, a devastated Tod Browning lost his stature at MGM and retreated from view. The director of several classic Lon Chaney silents and the original adaptation of Dracula with Bela Lugosi emerged a couple of years later to helm the highly entertaining Mark of the Vampire starring Lionel Barrymore, but it's his second collaboration with the esteemed actor that really stands the test of time. The Devil-Doll, which would sadly turn out to be Browning's penultimate picture, instantly rivets attention, and though it's not a masterpiece, this bizarre and innovative thriller provides more proof (as if we needed any) of Browning's mastery of the medium.
Browning's milieu wasn't horror per se, but rather the vagaries of the human condition that provoke people to commit horrific acts. Angst, melancholy, and despair course through his films, with emotion wielding as much power as violence. His tortured characters often lurk on the fringes of society and are plagued by physical deformities and mental anguish. If we encountered them in real life on the street, we'd likely turn or run away, but Browning forces us not only to look at them, but also to feel their pain and sympathize with their afflictions. What Browning realized so acutely was that the seeds of horror are sown in the dark recesses of men's souls and he spent much of his career exploring that murky territory.
Such seeds had 17 years to grow in the soul of Paul Lavond (Barrymore), a respected Parisian banker who was sent to prison for crimes he didn't commit, thanks to the testimony of his three corrupt partners. As The Devil-Doll opens, Paul escapes from Devil's Island with fellow convict Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) and the two hide out in Marcel's home and laboratory where Marcel and his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) have been conducting wild experiments aimed at miniaturizing animals and turning them into life-like dolls that can be activated and controlled by mental telepathy. At its core, the idea is altruistic. Smaller animals can subsist on crumbs instead of buckets of grain, so the Earth's precious natural resources can be preserved. Imagine how little humans would eat if they were miniaturized. In their twisted minds, Marcel and Malita believe reducing men and women to a fraction of their natural size will ensure the survival of the human race.
Sadly, Marcel collapses and dies mere hours after successfully miniaturizing his deformed, haggard housekeeper Lachna (Grace Ford), whose infirmities vanish when she's reborn as a sexy, Barbie-like doll. Though the experiments initially shock and repulse Paul, he soon takes up Marcel's diabolical mantle with Malita, seeing it as a means to exact revenge on his former colleagues. To evade capture by the police, Paul masquerades in public as Madame Mandilip, a kindly old woman who owns a toy shop. The ruse also helps him gain access to the men who destroyed not only his life, but also his wife's, who was driven to suicide by the shame and poverty Paul's incarceration caused. Paul's daughter Lorraine (Maureen O'Sullivan), who toils in a seedy laundry and is unaware of his innocence, hates her father for the strife, embarrassment, and tragedy he inflicted upon his family, and though Paul loves her dearly, he keeps his identity a secret, visiting her only as the old woman.
Echoes of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Browning's own The Unholy Three swirl about the story and the fantastic special effects surely inspired The Incredible Shrinking Man a couple of decades later. As Paul/Madame Mandilip mentally directs his diminuitive minions to terrorize and maim his victims, we watch these devil-dolls manipulate huge props and navigate enormous set pieces - all of them courtesy of MGM's art director extraordinaire Cedric Gibbons, who won a whopping 11 Oscars and was nominated an unheard-of 39 times(!) over the course of his four-decade career - to complete their nefarious orders.The optical shots that insert and integrate the dolls into the normal-sized frame are amazingly well done and look about as realistic as the technology of the day allowed.
Movie buffs might be surprised to see Erich von Stroheim's name in the credits, not as director or actor, but as one of the three screenplay writers. The bald, monocled icon was brought in by Browning to refashion portions of the script by Garrett Fort and Guy Endore and in the process he helped crystallize the very touching subplot involving Paul's relationships with his mother (Lucy Beaumont), daughter Lorraine, and Lorraine's cab-driver boyfriend Toto (Frank Lawton), which tempers the evil goings-on by adding a layer of heart-wrenching emotion to the tale. That extra substance makes The Devil-Doll so much more than a straightforward, special effects-laden mad scientist flick.
Barrymore delivers a captivating performance as both Paul and Madame Mandilip. It's not easy for a man to believably portray a woman without a degree of caricature, but Barrymore rises to the challenge and largely succeeds. Though he often resembles Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother, he crafts an authentic portrayal that just might have inspired Dustin Hoffman's Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie almost a half-century later. Barrymore's broader, more cantankerous portrayals later in his career often make us forget what a nuanced and versatile actor he once was. The Devil-Doll reminds us.
O'Sullivan and Lawton both have small roles despite their lofty billing, but they make notable impressions. O'Sullivan is especially winning and at times luminous, but she's completely overshadowed by Ottiano's gloriously over-the-top portrayal of Malita. The Italian actress, who added flair to countless 1930s movies, brandishes a host of memorable bug-eyed expressions (and at times eerily resembles Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein) as she becomes ever more deranged as the movie progresses. Walthall, who appeared in more than 300 pictures dating all the way back to 1908(!) and is best known for his starring role in D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, would pass away at age 58 just weeks after shooting wrapped, but he gives his few scenes here his all.
Running just 79 minutes, The Devil-Doll is taut, briskly paced, and delivers suspense, innovation, emotion, and artistry in spades. The story may be outlandish, but Browning and his technical team draw us into the madness and hold us spellbound. Three years later, Browning would make his final film, but The Devil-Doll is his last hurrah and it's a memorable farewell to a sub-genre he created, nurtured, and perfected.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Devil-Doll arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A new 4K scan of preservation elements yields a spectacular 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that showcases the movie's state-of-the-art (at the time) special effects and thrusts us into the tale's spooky realm. The cinematography of future Oscar-winner Leonard Smith (The Yearling) is faithfully rendered and the film's natural grain structure preserves the feel of celluloid. Excellent clarity and contrast, deep blacks, bright whites that resist blooming, and nicely varied grays all combine to produce a picture that boasts plenty of detail and depth. The optical shots are exceptionally well integrated, and while some look a tad rough, the added texture and slight fuzziness are never jarring. Sharp close-ups highlight Barrymore's weathered, aging face, the bulging eyes and pasty skin of Ottiano, and O'Sullivan's silky complexion, and any errant nicks, marks, or scratches escape notice. A few shots exhibit some softness, but overall this is an absolutely thrilling high-def presentation of an 87-year-old classic.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies crystal clear sound that greatly enhances the mood of this classic horror/sci-fi film. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of Franz Waxman's elegant score and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like howling dogs, bubbling water, and a ticking clock are distinct, while subtleties like chirping crickets enhance the creepy atmosphere. No distortion mars the mix and no surface noise, hiss, pops, or crackle disrupt the tension.
The extras package includes a new audio commentary and a couple of vintage cartoons.
Audio Commentary - Film historian Dr. Steve Haberman and film historian/filmmaker Constantine Nasr sit down for a highly informative, well-spoken commentary that examines The Devil-Doll from every conceivable angle. Haberman calls the film a "banquet of Browning-isms," "the most user-friendly of all of Tod Browning's talkies," and an "original and unforgettable example of '30s horror at its very best." Nasr says The Devil-Doll "has gotten short shrift" over the years and both men succeed in righting that wrong. They outline the differences between the source novel, original treatment, and finished screenplay, chronicle the evolution of the script, delineate censorship issues and how they were finessed, and examine the special effects. They also discuss Franz Waxman's score, cite connections to Browning's The Unholy Three, and look at Browning's rise and fall in Hollywood. This is an essential commentary that's well worth the time of any fan of the film, the horror genre, and Hollywood's Golden Age.
Vintage Cartoon: Milk and Money (HD, 8 minutes) - This 1936 black-and-white Looney Tunes cartoon stars an early incarnation of Porky Pig as a farmer's son who goes to the big city in the hope of earning enough money as a milkman to pay the family mortgage.
Vintage Cartoon: The Phantom Ship (HD, 8 minutes) - Another 1936 black-and-white Looney Tunes short, this cartoon charts the exploits of a pilot who gets more than he bargains for after discovering a haunted ship in Alaska.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes "the strangest story the screen has ever told!" and ask the question, "Will you dare believe what your eyes behold?"
The Devil-Doll is a devilishly good horror/sci-fi hybrid that stands as one of Tod Browning's best films. A riveting story, terrific special effects, and a dimensional performance by Lionel Barrymore highlight this classic thriller that's been beautifully restored by Warner Archive. A new 4K scan of preservation elements, excellent audio, and a nice spate of supplements make this disc a Halloween treat that's got plenty of delectable tricks up its sleeve. Highly Recommended.
Order The Devil-Doll on Blu-ray