I have a large Classic Horror collection, stuffed with movies that I consider to be perfect examples of the genre. In it, you'll find everything from 'Night Of The Demon' to 'The Cat And The Canary', from 'Supernatural' to 'The Beast With Five Fingers' as well as some of the movies that broke through the barriers of genre to become classics in their own right, such as 'The Invisible Man', 'The Bride Of Frankenstein' and 'The Queen Of Spades'.
However, there's one movie there that's never quite fitted in. The others are horror; however creaky, however comic in some cases, they're instantly recognisable as a horror film. What, then, is 'The Devil-Doll'?
If it had a genre, it would have to be (takes breath) a thriller-cum-family-drama-by-way-of-camp-revenge-inflected-with-early-horror-tropes. Watch it and you'll see what I mean. The title would lead you to believe it was some kind of exploitation flick, and it certainly has those elements. Watch the final scene though, an extended scene between a father and his daughter, and it's like some parts of the film that came before it are from a completely different one.
Plus it has Mr Potter from 'It's A Wonderful Life' in drag for about 60% of its running time. No, really.
Falsely imprisoned for murder and robbery seventeen years before, Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes in the company of Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), a scientist who is trying to devise a formula that can shrink people to one-sixth their original size, to cure the problem of a lack of Earth's resources. However, a side-effect of the formula, when used upon humans, is that it renders the subject completely without a will of their own, only controllable by the mental impulses of another.
When Marcel dies, his widow, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) persuades Lavond to take up the work. Lavond does so, but with his own agenda in mind: to take revenge against the three men who put him behind bars.
He does so by arriving in Paris in the disguise of elderly, female toymaker Madame Mandilip, and by using the deceased Marcel's formula to shrink two people down into telekinetically-controllable miniature assassins.
Meanwhile, Lavond, in the guise of the old woman, surreptitiously endeavours to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan), who has always believed the lies regarding her father, and blames him not only for her mother's suicide, but for the lifetime of abuse and poverty she has endured by having a criminal for a father.
Take those four paragraphs, and you'll wonder what I was talking about earlier in this review. It sounds like a horror, right? Miniature assassins, for God's sake! Mad scientists! The poster literally screams horror. Yet you'll be surprised by how much of the film's slim 79 minute running time is actually taken up with those elements. You'll also be surprised by how much of the film actually feels like a horror film. At best, it's tense and extremely camp. Look at Lionel Barrymore in the above picture. How anyone could mistake him for a woman is beyond me. Wait till you hear his lady voice, too.
Directed with panache and personality by 'Freaks' and 'Dracula' director, Tod Browning, it's obvious that they were aiming for blood-curdling horror, but serendipitous that what they actually ended up making was a real curio.
The special effects are brilliantly done. You never for one moment doubt that there are two miniature people crawling around the floor, trying to stab their victims with tiny, poisoned daggers. Special mention also to Rafaela Ottiano, whose deranged Malita is, I suspect, the main reason that it's so often thrown into horror collections. With her shock of white hair eerily reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester's "Bride", and her genuinely disturbing facial expressions, she's a delight to behold.
Also, drag act aside, Lionel Barrymore is great here. Bear in mind this role had come 27 years into his movie career, which itself had followed a long and distinguished stage career. He'd won an Oscar for Best Actor only five years before, and had himself directed four movies, one of them earning him a Best Director Oscar nomination. He didn't have to do this role at all. He didn't have to tramp through a swamp and dress up like an old lady. He did though, and you have to love him for it. It's the equivalent of watching Daniel Day-Lewis playing Mrs Doubtfire, so as much as I want to point and laugh at such a crazy role, I'm sure he knew exactly what he was doing, and probably had a good laugh about it himself.
Besides which, it's difficult to imagine anyone else being able to evoke such emotional experience in the film's closing scene atop the Eiffel Tower. Barrymore and O'Sullivan's playing of this scene is really wonderful, the pain palpable in both their faces as they both accept a knowing lie.
Seek it out for yourselves. I'd be more than interested to know which collection you end up putting it in.