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Directed by Tod Browning (1936)
Reviewed by MaT, added on Oct 21 2007
Tod Browning is considered one of the giants in horror cinema. After creating some great silent films like London After Midnight with Lon Chaney, Sr., he became a star along with Bela Lugosi in 1931's Dracula. Ironically, he didn't actually do much directing on that film (which becomes obvious when you see his other work), but the success of the film allowed him free reign to make Freaks in 1932. Freaks caused so much controversy that it basically destroyed Browning's career when, in 1939, he became a recluse; leaving Hollywood forever. Before his sad exit, he directed one last, great horror film, The Devil-Doll, with Lionel Barrymore.
The story opens with a couple of guys named Paul (Lionel Barrymore) and Marcel who we are told have just escaped "Devil's Island". Paul has been wrongfully convicted by his treacherous bank partners and has spent close to 20 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He's got revenge on his mind. Marcel is a scientist who is perfecting a solution that shrinks living objects to 1/6 of their size. Marcel brings Paul to his home where his assistant Malita has continued his work while he's been in prison. Experimenting on shrinking dogs leads to what all mad scientist's in horror movies do: human experiments. After the unexpected death of Marcel, Paul and Malita head to Paris to use the newly created "Devil Dolls" to take revenge on Paul's corrupt bank partners.
I'm not sure what I can say other than this movie is great. This ranks right behind The Mummy
as my favorite horror film from the 30's and it's a shame that Browning lost favor with Hollywood after the Freaks
fiasco (which is another brilliant film). Browning really knew what he was doing behind a camera. The film is filled with great shots and scenes. The early scene involving the "Mad Scientist's Lab" is great and the special effects, which were quite amazing for the time, still hold up really well today. Maybe there's something about tiny people running around stabbing bigger people that I like :)
Though Browning's direction is stellar, the reason this film works is Lionel Barrymore. His duel role as the male Paul and the cross-dressing Madame Mandelip is simply awesome
. There's no other word to describe it. He gets the voice inflection and hunch of an old woman down so perfectly that you really understand why the characters in the film can't recognize that he's a man. It's that
good. The beautiful Maureen O'Sullivan, famous for playing Jane in the Tarzan
films, is great as Paul's daughter, whom he cannot reveal himself to because she has come to hate him for the past 17 years (she doesn't know that he is actually innocent). Rafaela Ottiano, the most famous maid/servant/assistant in film history is perfectly cast as the weird Malita. She gives the film a great dose of comic relief without taking too much of the attention away from Barrymore and the plot.
The film also has a lot of human layers that many horror films of the 30's disregard. Paul is a genuinely sympathetic character, even while he's taking out the men who wrongly accused him. We revel in how he takes his revenge, but we feel sorry for the guy because he can't reveal himself to the people he loves. The main criticism towards the film is the ending, which some feel is a little contrived and melodramatic. Personally, I think it's great. It gives a real Greek tragedy feel to the film even while the audience comes out happy for all parties involved. Other great human aspects are Malita's loyalty to Marcel and how far she is willing to go to keep his research alive even when Paul has no use for it anymore. It's just great all around.
If you've never seen Tod Browning's The Devil-Doll
then I'd whole-heartedly recommend obtaining a copy. It's hard for me to see how anybody could dislike this movie with all of its great performances, fun special effects sequences, and cool storylines. It will make you wonder how different horror history might have been had Tod Browning not quit the business. Can you imagine Browning and Val Lewton working together in the 40's? Maybe Browning could have bucked the comedy-horror trend and given us some more masterpieces. Sadly, we'll never know.
9.5 / 10
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