Directed by Tod Browning [Other horror films: The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), Mark of the Vampire (1935)]
While occasionally more fanciful than I’d have preferred, The Devil-Doll is a great film with an intriguing story, solid cast, and overall a lot of fun.
As the lead, Lionel Barrymore is great as a man who would go any lengths to clear his name of a crime he was framed and locked up for. At first, Barrymore seems simply vengeful, but as the movie carries on, you can still see he cares deeply for the well-being of his family, so much so he does all he can to see his daughter taken care of, despite the fact he can’t be there for her. His performance here is not only fantastic, but also casts a very sympathetic light onto a man who much wrong was done to.
Others who stand out include Rafaela Ottiano, who does great as a rather unbalanced, mad woman, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton (especially his scene at the end), and Henry B. Walthall, who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of screen-time (this was his second-to-last film, and he died the same year this was released), it’s worth noting he starred in one of the first full-length American horror films, The Avenging Conscience: Or, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ back in 1914, so it’s great to see that he could be in another solid film for the genre before his early death at 58.
The story here is really solid, and like I said, you really feel a lot of sympathy for the main character, despite his somewhat murderous actions against those who framed him. Miniaturization was done very well here, and though sometimes the special effects don’t look great, I think a very good attempt for the time period was pulled off. Also, I really enjoyed the investigation side of the story, and the fact that few characters really cooperated with the police warmed my heart. Nothing warmed my heart more, though, than the ending, which was surprisingly rather emotional for a movie like this. O’Sullivan and Barrymore did great in that scene, and Lawton’s presence didn’t at all hurt.
I liked the creative murders and attacks in the film. Many of them had a creepy vibe, and some of them were even somewhat disturbing for the age that this film came out. Obviously, if you can’t get over what seems to be the ludicrous idea of shrinking people and using them as assassins, then many of the attacks may not do much for you, but I thought it was done in a rather solid manner.
The Devil-Doll is a great movie, and not just due to the rather terrific horror sequences (I loved the suspense during the final banker’s seemingly last minutes), but due to the emotion this film can, at times, illicit. It’s not quite my favorite film of the 1930’s, but it is a very strong film that is well-worth seeing at least once, especially for fans of classic horror.