Paul Lavond is an escaped inmate from jail, together with disgraced scientist Marcel. They go to his house, where faithful wife Malita is waiting to continue Marcel's work-The shrinking of human beings. He believes this will end world hunger, but so far the process wipes the mind, and creates unthinking people who respond only to the mental will of another. After Marcel's sudden death, Lavond is persuaded to use these 'dolls' in his own quest for vengeance...
The Devil Doll is another gem of 1930s horror, with quite a few tricks up its sleeve. Generally ignored or belittled upon its release, the film has steadily gained a cult following, and is now given the credit it deserves. It's a fun mix of genres, with a revenge story meets mad science, and a dash of romance and family drama too.
While the core storyline is fairly standard stuff, the way Devil Doll handles it is really good. This is a surprisingly mature and intelligent film! I expected Paul Lavond to be a misguided protagonist who goes too far in his revenge, and will die at the end as punishment for his actions. But instead he's a legitimate hero! He is still ambiguous with his actions, but he has a noble streak throughout, and his relationship with his family give him a humanity. Even the way he treats the miniature people is nice, and certainly better than how Malita treats 'em!
The climax itself is divided into a couple of sections. The showdown with the last of Lavond's enemies is handled neatly, and you can feel the growing tension. From here on things take an unexpectedly well turn, meaning here hasn't really been a big spectacle for the climax. Thankfully mad Malita is there to oblige. It does feel a little sudden, and is resolved quickly, but at least t doesn't come from nowhere, and it's a reasonable enough way to end the movie's action.
I thought it was interesting how the movie actually acknowledged how Lavond's quest to prove his innocence actually made him guilty of criminal acts, instead of just brushing it under the rug, and assuming the police don't mind when you paralyse people. The ending is a poignant one, upbeat and emotional, with a bit of sadness as Lavond makes his goodbyes, but perhaps not forever.
Besides the leads, the characters here are a fine bunch, though sometimes suffer from lack of screentime. Th trio of villains who had Lavond framed all those years ago are suitably devious. His daughter meanwhile is a nice girl, but with a real chip on her shoulder, bitter about her father and what his 'criminal' acts did to the family. It's just a shame she appears so little. Each scene is a strong one, but she disappears for almost the entire midsection of the film, and only returns for the ending.
The acting here is good. Lionel Barrymore is a great lead. You really get a feel for his character. Lavond's disguise as Madam Mandilip was funny, but not so goofy that it's hard to take the film seriously. An important thing considering he spends most of the movie in drag. Rafaela Ottiano is wonderfully manic as Malita, and the Bride of Frankenstein (or Cruella de Vil) style hair is fun. Maureen O'Sullivan and Frank Lawton are both alright, though don't get as much to chew on as the others.
Lastly, we come to the effects, which should be the highlight of any movie promising devil dolls. Thankfully this more than lives up to the name. The movie is adorable at first when it's pretending these stiff dog toys are real living animals, but when it gets into the actual miniature work, it's handled really well. The little people get plenty of chances to shine, always in different ways, and they are often interacting with normal sized people, meaning the movie's never taking the easy way out. The female doll did blend a little into the little girl's nose in one scene, but it's the only glitch I saw, and even that was minor and amusing.
A film called The Devil Doll could have so easily been disposable pulp fluff, and I'm sure we would have loved it all the same if it was, but Tod Browning really went the extra mile with this film, and put in an admirable amount of effort, giving us a movie that can be easily enjoyed all these years later...