Released 10 July 1936, The Devil-Doll was based on Abraham Merritt’s 1932 novel Burn Witch Burn! In 1999, Mr. Merritt was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Parisian banker Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes Devil’s Island with Marcel (Henry B. Walthall, a star since the early silent era). Paul was wrongly accused of robbing his own bank and killing a watchman seventeen years ago, and Marcel is a mad scientist.
When they arrive at Marcel’s home, Marcel and his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano, who looks like the Bride of Frankenstein) let him in on the secret of their genius experiments—shrinking animals and people down to one-sixth their size in order to reduce the resource strain on Planet Earth.
Marcel has a little mishap in the lab, and Paul decides to take Malita with him when he returns to Paris to get revenge on the three men who destroyed his life.
Paul and Malita open a toy store as pretended mother and daughter, and Paul begins cross-dressing as an old woman named Madame Madelip. Their toys are an immediate hit, since they come to life and obey commands as if by magic. They’re also greatly helped by a loan from one of the men who betrayed Paul, whom Paul shrinks and uses to further his grand plans.
Another doll, a supposedly ugly servant whom Marcel and Malita turned into a pretty young woman, is given orders to paralyze another of Paul’s enemies and rob his wife of her beautiful jewelry.
Now Paul sets his sights upon getting the third culprit to confess his guilt.
Commingled with Paul’s quest for revenge and clearing his name is a subplot about Paul visiting his elderly mother (Lucy Beaumont) and pretty daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan) several times. As badly as he wants to reveal himself to Lorraine, he knows how much Lorraine abhors him and believes he’s guilty. His mother, however, has always stood by his innocence.
Lorraine also is reticent to commit to marrying her beau Toto (Frank Lawton) on account of how people would judge him guilty by association. Even if she’s never done anything wrong or been accused of such, it’s no secret whose daughter she is, and Paul’s guilt is widely believed.
Paul has always made it clear he wants to wash his hands of this whole business of shrinking people and controlling their minds as soon as he accomplishes his goals, but Malita is equally committed to staying the course and continuing the experiments.
Even if Paul can prove his innocence and re-establish a relationship with Lorraine, he’ll still have to figure out a way to extricate himself from his crazed business partner.
The Devil-Doll didn’t earn a lot of money, though it did get some good reviews, including one from The New York Times. The U.S. sci-fi magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories found it disappointing and run-of-the-mill, and felt it “does not attempt to recapture the unique fantasy of Merritt’s novel.”
Today, the film is hailed as a cult classic.