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Film / The Devil-Doll

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The Devil-Doll is a 1936 horror film directed by Tod Browning and starring Lionel Barrymore.

It's about a wrongfully convicted French banker, Paul Levonde, who is accused of robbing his own bank and murdering the night watchman. In reality he was framed by three business associates who were the ones who actually committed the crime. After spending 17 years in someplace that is vaguely implied to be Devil's Island, he escapes along with another prisoner. The other prisoner, Marcel, turns out to be a Mad Scientist type who has perfected a way to shrink people to 1/6 normal size. This fits in perfectly with Levonde's plans for revenge.

The next-to-last film directed by Browning, whose career never recovered from the extremely negative reception given to Freaks. Erich von Stroheim, whose own career had also been in the dumps since The Roaring '20s, co-wrote the screenplay.

Not to be confused with the movie Devil Doll, made in 1964, or with the Slovenian/Italian band Devil Doll, who named themselves after Browning's film.

The Devil-Doll provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Asshole Victim: The three men who framed Levonde.
  • Best Served Cold: Paul Levonde spends his entire time in prison plotting against the three men who framed him.
  • The Book Cipher: Levonde sends Matin a threatening note in the form of a cipher directing him to Bible verses.
  • But Now I Must Go: After getting Matin to confess, thus clearing his name, Levonde decides to go away. His popping up alive would raise some awkward questions, and in any case he knows he is still responsible for effectively murdering two men. So he meets Lorraine one last time, pretending to be a different prisoner who escaped with her father. Levonde tells her that her father died, delivers a farewell letter, and leaves.
  • Clear My Name: Levonde wants to expose the three businessmen who are actually the guilty parties, not for himself, but to remove the social stigma that his daughter has been suffering under.
  • Creepy Doll: Naturally, when hiding out in Paris, Levonde and Malita start a doll shop. And the devil dolls are in fact dolls, unsettlingly realistic ones, if they aren't being manipulated by a master.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The Christmas setting is only relevant when one of the dolls is being used as a decoration on a tree.
  • Disposable Vagrant: Lachna, Malita's servant girl, is "a peasant half-wit" from "a Berlin slum". Marcel and Malita use her as a test subject. She is rendered an eight-inch-tall zombie.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Well how else are you going to let the audience know that Paul made it back to Paris?
  • Evil Cripple: Malita, the utterly bonkers Mad Scientist, stomps around on a crutch.
  • Fanservice: After she's shrunk to eight inches, the actress playing Lachna is dressed only in strategically placed cotton balls.
  • Harmless Lady Disguise: Levonde dresses in drag and pretends to be Madame Mandelip, an elderly dollmaker, to avoid suspicion. Lionel Barrymore makes a surprisingly convincing woman.
  • He's Dead, Jim: Marcel, who has just victimized poor Lachna by turning her into an Incredible Shrinking Woman, at least has the good grace to have a heart attack and die when he realizes that he has made a tiny zombie instead of an intelligent tiny person. Malita checks him for about three seconds before pronouncing him dead, and about five seconds after that she's telling Paul that they have to continue his work.
  • High-Class Glass: Matin, the calmest of the three bankers that framed Levonde and sent him to prison for 17 years, wears one.
  • Hollywood Science: Clearly, but they do touch on the fact that they need to find a way to shrink victims without damage to the brain.
  • I Have No Son!: "I have no father", says Lorraine, who believes her father was guilty and thus ruined her family's life.
  • Inadvertent Entrance Cue: "I keep wondering which one of us he's going to look up next", says Emil, followed instantly by the door opening to reveal "Madame Mandelip", calling on Emil.
  • Incredible Shrinking Man: What makes the revenge possible. Levonde's minions are shrunk to about eight inches tall.
  • Irony: Levonde is big on verbal irony.
    • "Once you're in my show I'll wager you'll do anything I ask" and "you'll just be my silent partner" to Radin, who thinks that the little old lady wants him to invest in a doll business, but in fact is about to be turned into a devil doll by Levonde.
    • "You'll never know how happy it makes me to leave one of my dolls in your beautiful home", says "Madame Mandelip" to Coulvet. That night the doll first robs Coulvet and then poisons him, leaving him paralyzed.
    • "You might as well accuse one of my little dolls as accuse me", says Levonde/Mandelip to a police officer.
  • Mad Scientist: A husband-wife pair of Mad Scientists, no less, with a plan to conserve the Earth's resources and save the future of humanity by—uh, by shrinking everyone in the world to 1/6 scale so that humanity only needs 1/6 as much food. And the fact that their experiments turn their tiny people into zombie slaves is just a difficulty that has to be overcome.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory / Technicolor Science: And their lab is naturally filled with a lot of exotic flasks and beakers holding colored liquid, including, naturally, one flask of explosive liquid.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Although the Z-word is never used, this is basically what the devil dolls are, zombies in the original, classic "mind-controlled slaves" sense. Not only do the devil dolls have no will, they exist in a permanent stasis unless the will of a master animates them to do something.
  • Perverse Puppet: Subverted, in that the devil dolls are actually miniaturized mind-controlled humans, but in effect they act like Perverse Puppets.
  • Psychic Link: Apparently one exists between Levonde and the dolls. Levonde doesn't even have to gain entry into houses to get to his enemies, he just contrives to get a doll inside, whereupon Levonde stands out in the street and wills the doll to go to work.
  • Shapeshifting Excludes Clothing: Lachna leaves her clothes behind.
  • Square-Cube Law: See Hollywood Science entry above re: tiny people not having much IQ due to tiny brains. The other main objection to tiny people is the massive amount of heat loss that would take place in a tiny person due to the Square-Cube Law, but the Applied Phlebotinum of whatever the hell Marcel and Malita are doing to their tiny people might explain this—since the devil dolls appear to spend most of their existence in a state of suspended animation, only coming to life under the will of their masters, heat loss and maintaining body temperature might not be as big of a problem.