Friday, March 11, 2011

Film #58: The Devil-Doll (1936)

Bad ideas seem great at the time.
But in retrospect, the crazy can appear to just pour out of half-witted plans, like these:
-"Everyone loves Coke right. So let’s make a completely new Coke they’ll love even more!"
-"Shooting President Regan will totally make Jodie Foster love me… just like in Taxi Driver!"
-"Sailing near the East Coast of Africa sounds like a good route. We are rich and unarmed, what can go wrong!"
-"Humanity is running out of food, but if we shrank people to mini-size, we’d have all the giant food we need!"
Ah, rigggggggght.

That last scrap of brilliance comes from scientist-inventor Marcel, a character in this week’s stop in horror history, “The Devil-Doll.”

Marcel and jail-bar buddy Paul Lavond escape a French prison with the desire to continue their lives’ work. For Paul, that means exacting horrific, torture-filled revenge on the men who falsely imprisoned him 17 years ago. For Marcel, it means continuing his experiments shrinking humans to a 1/6th their size in order to cure world hunger.

With 17 years to think about his shrinkage, Marcel arrives home with the solution to his human shrink-dink process’s one glitch. Seems when he mini-sizes people, their memory and motor functions are wiped clean. The only way these small sillies can act and move is by a full grown person telepathically ordering them to do so.

Marcel and equally nuts wife Malita are overjoyed at Marcel's revelation, and turn their orphaned maid Lachna into Barbie size. But all the excitement causes Marcel to have a heart attack, leaving wife Malita to take over their world-shrinking work – minus Marcel’s mind-preserving revelation.

In his friend’s memory, Paul Lavond agrees to help Malita continue the downsizing… but only if he can use these shrunken “Devil-Dolls” to exact his revenge on those who wronged him.

Paul and Malita, and whittle empty-headed Lachna, head to Paris where Paul goes undercover as an old woman doll maker, and one-by-one rains down the pain on his former partners by way of his little assassins.

It is cross-dressing, people-shrinking insanity in the 1936 forgotten special-effects classic “The Devil-Doll.”

RDHP Ratings and Reviews

C-Rating: 3.7
Chris Dimick babytalks:
“Revenge. They say it is a dish best served cold. But, I think that proverb is meant to merely cool off a hot head ready to boil over.
'Let it go' is a recent mantra I tried to add to my personal life-rules… added of course to “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and “don’t eat anything that swims or walks backwards."

As a man with a horrid temper, revenge used to be something I savored. Typically this revenge was accomplished figuratively, daydreaming about how I would vanquish my enemies and give them their just deserts.
Only sometimes would I actually follow through with sabotaging the lives of those who had done me wrong. When I did, that act would come with a large temporary smile.

But recently, I’ve found plotting/enacting glorious come-uppance to be more a waste of time than a cathartic release.

Yeah, it is a somewhat fun to watch your enemies shrivel, either within one’s mind or in reality. But in the end, after that satisfied smile turns into a neutral (: I), does it really make one feel better?
Do two wrongs make a right? Or at least, does one justified wrong make up for an intentional wrong?
On the latter question, I was once a firm believer in the eye for an eye philosophy. But can a wrong ever truly be avenged?

Now, for the record, I’m still a fiery SOB who will bring Armageddon if one wrongs me beyond a certain point. Large wrongs call for large retaliation… and on that the Irish in me will never allow a change.

But for the most part, in baby steps at least, I’ve been learning to let the small to moderate things that anger me roll down the heels of my shoes. Doing so has let me walk forward into a peaceful tomorrow.

While we can’t control other’s actions, we can control our reactions to others. Lately, I’ve found that “letting it go” has led to more inner peace than “let's go… outside for fisticuffs.”

Paul Lavond plotted for 17 years to get revenge on the banking partners who schemed and imprisoned him in The Devil Doll. His rage and thirst for revenge consumed him. Even if he had a reason to get back at the men who stole 17 years of his life, turned his family into social outcasts, impoverished his daughter and caused his wife to commit suicide… was revenge really the answer?
Or was living out the rest of his life as best he could the best revenge the man could have?

This question and others made Devil-Doll deeper than your typical killing kiddies toy flick.
Driven by a magnificent cross-dressing performance by Lionel Barrymore, Devil-Doll was a fun, thoughtful, and thoroughly engrossing piece of lost cinema (have you ever heard of this film? Nick and I hadn’t, and it was only available for rent as part of a collection of Hollywood classics).

Barrymore is one of those oddities that made the transition from silent to talkie films with grace. He is manic in the role, and his eyes tell several dark tales.

The movie is perfectly directed by the underrated genius Tod Browning, who also helmed such classics as the original Bela Lugosi “Dracula” and off-kilter “Freaks.”

Shot as a special effects vehicle (effects that still have wow factor today) Browning helped elevate the flick beyond its visuals by adding suspense and tear-jerking to scenes.

“Doll” teaches an interesting lesson on the price of revenge… one I can’t spoil here. When a killer doll special effects movie from the 30s makes you think, rack it up as a winning film.

Revenge is problematic. And my big problem with trading “I’m gonna get you” for “I won’t let you bother me” is the thought that if somebody doesn’t teach wrong-doers a lesson, than who will?
They won’t change on their own… just commit more wrong. So isn’t a person’s duty to exact revenge on an evildoer, in the least to prevent them from wronging again?

What I’ve learned lately is some situations call for retaliation, while others call for just moving on. For this hothead, there is now a choice, an evaluation process, for determining if reaction is necessary… a change from years past.

After all, it’s not up to me to babysit the unmannered world and teach it a lesson at each turn. When you do that, you end up wasting one’s life in the pursuit of making life better.

One gets ahead – a more peaceful one at that – when they choose their battles.”

N-Rating: 4.0
Nick Rich babytalks:
"Mrs. Doubtfire, you've had your clock cleaned!

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar, you're a drag!

Big Momma's House, you went undercover 3 times too many (really, there never should have been a part 1)!

All of these performances, while entertaining in their own right (well, I can only assume the Big Momma films house some entertainment value, thankfully I've never seen any of them), pale in comparison to the effort put forth by Lionel Barrymore in this week's film: The Devil-Doll.

As you can see from the above, Hollywood is not above being dragged into a good tale of men dressing like women - anything for a buck after all! In our current political climate it may not be particularly popular to say, but let's face it: men dressing and acting like women (especially macho men) is funny. If it weren't, entertainers wouldn't be doing it; well some might because they enjoy the experience, but that is another matter entirely. (By the way, women dressing like men can be quite entertaining as well.)

The juxtaposition of seeing things that seem so opposite play out is an alluring entertainment prospect which we see in many tales, not just comedies:
  • The stable boy who dresses up like a knight
  • The streetwalker who is turned into a lady
  • The geek who becomes the popular kid
  • The politician who becomes an honest man
  • The giant robots that become cars
Audiences like to see tales of transformation, and who can blame them? All of us have our issues, all of us have our faults... and to see someone seemingly overcome theirs is a cathartic experience for the viewer (why do you suppose audiences flock to such stories?). We all think, or secretly hope, there's something better over the horizon (which, by the way there is :) ) and seeing it happen, even in a fictional tale, is powerful.

The juxtaposition of the lead role in Devil-Doll is no different. Barrymore uses his sickly sweet old maid persona to show the depth of his character's hatred masterfully, showing us in dark glances how truly different he is from the wardrobe he hides in. The performance is so good that it easily upstages the visual effects (which must have been mind-blowing in 1936), other actors (I think there were other thespians in this film, I just can't recall them) and the story (which had a few holes, but were easily ignorable). Seeing the old maid in her interactions it is easy to believe that no one in the story suspects that it is indeed Barrymore - his performance is that good. In my book, watching any actor so purely own a character is such a way is worth the price of admission.
As the story progresses, we see the hardened convict slowly becoming more like the kindly old woman and as an audience we begin to hope he can turn things around for himself... for us. However, Barrymore plays with our emotions by holding fast to the hatred that fuels his life each time his heart begins to warm once again - which makes us relate to him all the more. I mean, how many times have you tried to leave a dark side of yourself behind, only to have it creep back just as you felt you'd conquered it?

The Devil-Doll is a great tale of horror, as it displays a man struggling with the most horrific opponent one will ever face: himself.

The Skinny: Check this flick out if you've ever wondered about Drew Barrymore being called a 'Hollywood Legacy' or if you've ever wondered what it would be like to be a middle aged male convict dressing up in old maid drag to get revenge on the men who framed you for murder with tiny dolls in 1930's Paris (I mean, who hasn't)."

Things We Learned From The Devil-Doll:
-Sometimes your works helps people to live, and sometimes it causes 3 people to die.
-Prison is a cesspool of stupid minds.
-Sexually harassing your secretary was a pastime in the 30s.
-“If men were reduced to their mentality, most would be mini.”
-Monocles are fly, but pointless.
-Our world is what we make it.
-The name Toto is not just for wimpy dogs, but also wimpy men.
-Stilettos can kill:

Quote of the Viewing:
[During a virtual tour of Nick and Mel’s new home via Webcam, Mel mockingly points out Nick’s formal wear for the RDHP viewing: a flannel robe. Mel asks Chris if he likes the wardrobe.]

Chris: “Robes make a man feel like a man.”

RDHP Presents:

Creepy Dolls

What makes dolls so creepy? Maybe their dead eyes, death-like pale skin, or miniature status. Film and TV past is full of murderous and mythical dolls, evidence that deep down most of us fear these child play-things. Below, a selection of dolls we wouldn’t want to find in our toy chest… or standing on our chest for that matter.

In later movies he's a hack jokester, but at first this Child’s Play star made clowns look loveable.

Talky Tina
One of the best instances of a creepy doll came in this 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone.
“My name's Talking Tina, and I'm going to kill you.”

The over-sized eyes. Adorable poses. They’re cute to your face… but the second you turn your back on these collectibles we just KNOW they’ll begin to plot your 2 a.m. “accidental” suffocation. Anything that adorable must be evil.

Gremlins Stripe Doll
When Chris was a young boy, he received (after a heart-felt Xmas request) a plastic “Gremlins” character Stripe doll, which was surprisingly lifelike. Though the gift was fun in itself, he soon discovered that two of his younger brothers were terrified of the doll, and would run and scream when it was presented. This upped the dolls value, and became the source of many scare induced laughs for Chris, and many scare-induced nightmares for his younger brothers. Eventually Ma Dimick rightfully banned the “doll” from being played with near the younger tykes.
Chris got his paybacks one day when a brother hid under his bed and silently grabbed his ankles in the pitch dark – nearly causing a heart seizure.

Big Baby
We’ve mentioned this Toy Story 3 character before, but just had to bust out the reference again. Nick's wife Melissa was stalked by one named Diabla for many a year, only to throw it off her trail (for now) by moving to California.
Who hasn’t been creeped out and/or stalked by a mutilated baby doll?

Troll Dolls
How are these cute again? They look like evil midgets who cross bred with a gay Don King.

Precious Moments
For Your Consideration… some more random creepy dolls!

(Sweet dreams tonight!)

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