Is there anything more unsettling than an old-school ventriloquist’s dummy? I think not!
These iconic abominations have a long history in our culture; there are some truly disturbing photos of Victorian and Edwardian-era ventriloquists posing with their strange wood and rag cohorts that run the gamut from mildly unnerving to pure nightmare material.
Throughout the years there have also been plenty of fictional stories created about dolls coming to life that wreak havoc. Hollywood was quick to note this eerie aberration and turned out a number of macabre films over the years that played upon these entrenched fears. Here are four examples of creepy screen dummies:
1. DEAD OF NIGHT
This 1945 postwar anthology film laid the groundwork and set the template for all future ventriloquist flicks. The multi-story screenplay allows a group of people to sit around a fireplace and tell scary, supernatural tales.
While all of them are fun, the best of the lot concerns a schizophrenic ventriloquist (is there any other kind?) portrayed by Michael Redgrave. What plays out as cliché now was new and frightening when this film was made.
Even so, the acting and pacing are top notch, making for a relentless and truly frightening piece of work. Unfortunately, countless remakes and rehashing of the scenario have robbed it of some of its power. Since the other stories in the anthology have been “borrowed” less, the whole film can still be savored.
2. THE TWILIGHT ZONE
The classic Rod Serling anthology series, which ran for five years between 1959 and 1964, boasted two episodes which involving ventriloquists and their creepy counterparts.
The first and, by far, the best, titled “The Dummy,” concerns a shy, second-rate ventriloquist (Cliff Robertson) who tries to convince his agent (Frank Sutton, later Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle) that his dummy is alive.
Written by Serling from a story by Lee Polk, the episode was expertly directed by Abner Biberman who found numerous ways to convey the dummy’s menace. The ending contains one of the best shocker twists ever used on the show and can still make your skin crawl. There’s a reason The Twilight Zone is considered a classic, and it’s due to episodes like this.
3. DEVIL DOLL
A low-budget, black and white British programmer from 1964, about a suave, but oily mesmerist/ventriloquist with a dummy that seems to be more than just a mechanism, this minor cheese ball classic has its moments.
Producer Richard Gordon and director Lindsay Shonteff managed to make a reasonably effective mystery thriller from rehashed clichés, due mostly to some excellent pacing, moody lighting and good performances. The effective cast is headed by Bryant Haliday as the creepy ventriloquist, “The Great Vorelli,” and Yvonne Romain as Marianne, the girl he has set his sights on.
But the film’s major windfall was the casting of William Sylvester (later to achieve lasting cult status for his role as Dr. Floyd in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001) as Marianne’s American boyfriend, reporter Mark English, who senses something sinister is afoot regarding Hugo, Vorelli’s pint-sized partner.
Made for the ridiculously low price of $75,000, the film was a surprise hit in the states. I saw it on its first run when I was about nine and it scared the crap out of me! It’s still good for a scare and a laugh, today. However, even better than the original DVD, seek out the Mystery Science Theater version. The quips are priceless.
Before he scared the pants off everyone with his delicious turn as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs in 1991, Anthony Hopkins toiled in a number of films trying to make a name for himself in everything from Audrey Rose to The Elephant Man.
Based on William Goldman’s schlocky bestseller, director Richard Attenborough tapped the talented Hopkins for the role of Corky, the unhinged magician/ventriloquist in this 1978 thriller who is tormented by his vulgar alter ego dummy, “Fats.”
Their connectedness is intuited by the mismatch of their names. The same old clichés are trotted out, but this time overlaid with the high-gloss patina of a big budget and some quality names.
In addition to Hopkins, the cast includes Burgess Meredith as Corky’s manager, a pre-M*A*S*H David Ogden Stiers as a network executive and the ravishing Ann-Margaret as Corky’s old flame, with whom he resumes a relationship.
Despite all the talent at hand, the film suffers from its predictable and worn-out storyline that really adds nothing new to the genre. Still, the film has its admirers and anyway, the opportunity to see Hopkins playing an out-and-out loon is more than enough to make up for any shortcomings.
As you can see, even within the overdone cinematic genre of creepy dummies, there are still enough entertaining ones to have a good time. Gather your friends together, fire up the DVD player, add a bucket of cheese popcorn and you’ll be all set for a memorable Halloween party. Just don’t blame me if, when you go to bed, that teddy bear or figurine on your dresser keeps you from having a good night’s sleep. Sweet dreams!