A. Merritt on Film: Burn, Witch, Burn!

The first post in this series examined how Abraham Merritt’s novel Seven Footprints to Satan made the transition to film. Now, it is time to look at the second of the two A. Merritt novels to be adapted for the screen: Burn, Witch, Burn!

Burn, Witch, Burn! was serialised by Argosy magazine in 1932; the title was Argosy’s choice, as Merritt had originally named his story The Dolls of Mme. Mandilip. Merritt was possibly inspired by Fitz-James O’Brien’s 1859 short story “The Wondersmith”, where an evil toy-maker uses black magic to make his dolls come to life and sends them to murder children as they dream of Santa’s arrival. The toymaker is Romani, and the story works on the assumption that this is reason enough for him to want to murder Christian children. Merritt’s novel dispenses with this ethnic stereotyping but retains the basic premise of O’Brien’s tale.

The main character in Burn, Witch, Burn! is a neurologist named Dr. Lowell, who finds himself confronted with a series of mysterious deaths. Each victim falls into a state of paralysis, before later convulsing and finally expiring, stiffening into an abrupt rigor mortis. Various people ranging from a bricklayer to a trapeze artist have succumbed to this weird fate, the cause of which is a mystery.

Burn, Witch, Burn!The man who first brings the phenomenon to Lowell’s attention is Ricori, a gangster whose accomplice Peters has been struck down by the ailment. Ricori, a superstitious man, blames the deaths on witchcraft, but Lowell is sceptical. Investigating further, the doctor finds a strange linking factor between the incidents: multiple victims have done business at a toy shop that sells weirdly accurate dolls, built by a grotesque woman named Madame Mandilip. But how could dolls be connected to the inexplicable deaths…?

The next person to fall victim is Walters, Lowell’s own nurse. After this, Ricori himself succumbs to the malady, but ultimately survives. Lowell examines the gangster’s unconscious body and finds a tiny wound: “I could see upon Ricori’s breast a minute puncture, no larger than that made by a hypodermic needle.” Pondering the connection to the toy shop, Ricori’s cohort McCann, theorises that the attacker “might’ve been one of them mechanical dolls, geared up to stick”. Lowell also finds a strange object in Ricori’s pocket: a length of human hair, knotted into an eight-inch cord – an item known in folklore as a witch’s ladder.

Burn, Witch, Burn!Lowell gets his hands on one of Mandilip’s dolls – one that a witness had spotted walking about, shortly before it was run over by a vehicle. In a strange twist, the doll turns out to have been modelled closely upon the departed Peters. Examining the mutilated figure, Lowell finds a pin under its clothes: the weapon used to stab Ricori.

Lowell then proceeds to dissect the doll, which appears to have been made from a fusion of gum and wax, with real human hair inserted in its head and eyes made from blue crystals. Inside the body is a wire twisted into the shape of a human skeleton. Lowell finds the experience uncomfortable: “it was more like dissecting some living manikin than a doll… And it was rather dreadful”. McCann is even more perturbed, and crushes the doll’s severed head underfoot before dropping a match onto the remains:

There followed, simultaneously, a brilliant flash, a disconcerting sobbing sound and a wave of intense heat. Where the crushed head had been there was now only an irregularly charred spot upon the polished wood. Within it lay the blue crystals that had been the eyes of the doll—lusterless and blackened.

Apparently at the same time, the doll’s body melts. All that is left are the wire skeleton and a black puddle.

Lowell obtains an account by his deceased nurse Walters, describing a visit to the toy shop run by Madame Mandilip and her white-faced niece Laschna. Some of the dolls spotted by Walters were of the regular wooden kind, while others were of the almost-lifelike variety represented by the Peters doll. There, Walters noticed all manner of eerie sights – such as the lack of a reflection cast by Mandilip.

Next, it is Peters’ brother-in-law John Gilmore who is struck down. Investigating, Lowell finds that the man was – like Ricori – stabbed with a needle, which in this case punctured a vital nerve and caused paralysis of respiration. Mollie, John’s wife, reveals that their daughter had previously received a present in the mail from an unknown sender: a doll in the shape of a schoolgirl. Lowell suggests that this was based on Anita Green, an earlier victim of the killings. Also included in the package was a knotted cord of hair…

Mollie relates how, at night, she awoke to see a green glow enveloping the room. Her body became paralysed, and she was forced to watch as the doll came to life:

The doll clambered over the side of the crib, and dropped to the floor. It came skipping over the floor toward the bed like a child, swinging its school books by their strap. It turned its head from side to side as it came, looking around the room like a curious child. It caught sight of the dressing table and stopped, looking up at the mirror […] It thrust its face close to the mirror and rearranged and patted its hair. I thought: ‘What a vain little doll!’

Then the doll turned to face Mollie, glaring at her with red, devilish eyes, before producing a pin from its clothing and skipping out of Mollie’s view, ready to perform its murderous deed.

Lowell finally confronts the woman in the toy shop. “It was a giantess who regarded me from the doorway”, says the doctor upon his first glimpse of Mandilip; “a giantess whose heavy face with its broad high cheek bones, moustached upper lip and thick mouth produced a suggestion of masculinity grotesquely in contrast with the immense bosom.”

Burn, Witch, Burn!And yet, her voice, eyes and hands are elegant and alluring. So alluring that Lowell finds himself captivated by them to the point of paralysis. Gloating, Mandilip exhibits the schoolgirl doll that killed John Gilmore, along with a doll in the guise of Lowell’s deceased nurse. The latter has been crucified: “I punish my dolls when they do not behave well”, says Mandilip. She then frees Lowell from his hypnosis and sends him on his way, declaring that his scientific knowledge is no match for her magic.

Lowell is forced to form an uneasy alliance with Ricori’s gangsters to take on the witch. They capture Mandilip’s niece Laschna – who turns out to actually be an orphaned foundling, placed under hypnosis – and finally take on Mandilip herself, along with her small army of dolls.

Burn, Witch, Burn! is a straightforward but memorable horror tale, one that would have adapted readily to film. The 1936 screen adaptation from Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, retitled The Devil-Doll, had some experienced talent behind it. Tod Browning, director of Universal’s 1931 Dracula, both directed and wrote the adaptation’s story, while the screenplay was written by a trio of notable names: Garrett Fort, who worked on many Universal horror classics; Erich von Stroheim, an auteur; and Guy Endore, an accomplished horror novelist.

The Devil-DollThe Devil-Doll should have been a classic slice of 1930s horror cinema. But instead, it turned out a curate’s egg – largely due to its extravagant liberties with the source material.

Browning’s main alteration is to completely remove the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Lowell, and instead make Madame Mandilip the central character. In the book, the villainess has almost no backstory – we learn that she was taught to make her evil dolls by a lover in Prague (a possible reference to that city’s legendary golem) but beyond this her history us unknown. Browning, then, was forced to come up with a backstory of his own, and the result is genuinely bizarre.

The film starts by introducing us to Peter Lavond, a Parisian banker played by Lionel Barrymore. Lavond was framed for murder and bank robbery by three crooks (loosely derived from Ricori’s gangsters in the book) who went free while he was unjustly incarcerated for seventeen years. The opening scene has him escaping from prison, aided in his escape by a scientist named Marcel who takes Lavond back home with him.

There, Marcel and his wife Malita show Lavond what appear to be a set of toy dogs. They explain that these are in fact living animals, miniaturised through an unknown process; Marcel’s dream is to shrink every creature on Earth, thereby ending world hunger (how humanity could continue its agricultural practices in this state is never explained). The one drawback is that the shrinking process damages the subjects’ brains, the reason the dogs are left in a catatonic state. Only when a person concentrates their will on the dogs do the tiny animals wake up and frolic about.

While Lavond looks on aghast at their experiments, Marcel and Malita then shrink down their servant Laschna – who, rather than a hypnosis victim as in the novel, is “an inbred peasant halfwit” from a Berlin slum. Marcel is so excited by the results that he has a fatal heart attack, and Malita begs Lavond to help her continue her husband’s work. Lavond, uncomfortable with the idea but also seeing a potential method for getting revenge on the three men who framed him, ultimately agrees. Together, Lavond and Malita set up a toy shop in Paris, where Lavond equips the miniaturised Laschna with a tiny needle dipped in a paralytic drug, ready to pick off the three crooks. As a fugitive, Lavond is forced to disguise himself as an elderly woman named… Madame Mandilip.

And so, the stage is set for a rough approximation of Merritt’s story.

There is much to enjoy in Barrymore’s double role as world-weary fugitive and sweet old lady, but it owes little to Merritt’s story. In the novel, Mandilip is a woman with masculine physical traits, but there is nothing to indicate that she is actually a man in drag. So where did Tod Browning get this idea?

The answer is simple: from one of his earlier films.

Browning had previously directed The Unholy Three, a 1925 film adapted from a story by Tod Robbins; this was a popular success at the time, and later remade as a talkie in 1930 without Browning’s involvement. The plot features Lon Chaney as a criminal who disguises himself as an elderly female shopkeeper, complete with baby in pram. While he keeps his customers distracted, the “baby” (actually a sideshow dwarf played by Harry Earles) steals their valuables. The Devil-Doll reuses this idea, with false dolls standing in for the false baby. The similarities between the two films formed part of The Devil-Doll’s promotional campaign, which billed it as being “Greater than The Unholy Three”.

Any viewer familiar with Browning’s earlier film will feel déjà vu getting stronger as The Devil-Doll progresses. The Unholy Three has a memorable scene in which a detective visits Chaney’s character – still disguised as an old woman – for questioning. There, the detective begins idly fiddling with a toy elephant, little realising that it contains stolen gems, and very nearly blows the criminals’ cover. This scene is re-staged in The Devil-Doll, with a detective visiting Mandilip’s shop and nearly buying a toy that contains stolen jewels, Mandilip dissuading him at the last minute. Both scenes are well-staged and testify to Browning’s skill at building tension, but the latter seems out of place: it is a scene from a crime film about stolen jewels, not a horror film about dolls coming to life and stabbing people.

Another interpolation is the character of Lavond’s daughter, Lorraine. She believes her framed father to be guilty, and blames him for dooming her to a life of drudgery as she works to support both herself and her grandmother. Lavond can only visit her by disguising himself as Mandilip as he listens to her heart-rending story. Lorraine is not found in Merritt’s novel, but she does have a rough counterpart in The Unholy Three: Chaney’s character in that film has a girlfriend who yearns to escape from the criminal underworld. It is his love for this young woman that ultimately leads him to confess his involvement in the crimes, even though he knows that she has chosen to be with another man. She represents his conscience, just as Lorraine represents the conscience of Paul Lavond.

In The Devil-Doll, after Lavond has shrunken the first crook and paralysed the second, he manages to scare a confession out of the third. He has cleared his name, but he now faces potential comeuppance for his involvement with the dolls. He decides to fake his death, leaving his money to Lorraine and her boyfriend Toto. The final scene has Lavond, in a different disguise, meeting Lorraine one last time to assure the girl that her father loved her and accepted her forgiveness. Again, the scene is effective, but out of place in a horror film. It is a world apart from the final chapter of Merritt’s novel, which has Lowell and Ricori discussing the ancient roots of Mandilip’s magic.

As well as The Unholy Three, The Devil-Doll is influenced by the mad scientist films typified by Universal’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the former of which was also co-written by Garrett Fort. It does away with the supernatural content of the novel, in which Mandilip’s dolls are models brought to life with black magic in the likenesses of her victims; instead, the dolls are the victims, shrunken down through a loosely-defined process of mad science. They are close cousins to the tiny people created by Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein.

Lavond/Mandilip’s partner in crime Malita, a character created for the film, is a grab-bag of mad scientist visual cues. Actress Rafaela Ottiano portrays her as a female version of Rotwang, the unhinged inventor from Metropolis (1927). She sports a shock of black hair with a white streak, an unmistakable lift from The Bride of Frankenstein‘s title character. She also carries a crutch, befitting her role as Mandilip’s assistant: after all, no “Igor” would be complete without some sort of disfigurement.

The Devil-DollWhile the Mandilip of Merritt’s novel is unambiguously evil, like the wicked witches of legend, the Mandilip and Malita of Browning’s film are rather more complicated. In mad scientist tradition the two characters have questionable methods but understandable aims: Lavond/Mandilip seeks to clear his name and punish the men who framed him, while Malita hopes to continue her dead husband’s plan to help feed the world. Malita also inherits the self-destructive tendency that plagues cinematic mad scientists: when Lavond announces at the film’s climax that he will abandon his experiments, Malita ends up destroying the whole laboratory in a rage, killing herself and nearly taking Lavond with her.

The Devil-Doll is above all an incoherent film, half crime caper and half mad scientist movie, with occasional glimmers of Merritt’s supernatural horror shining through the cracks. Its strongest sequence is, not coincidentally, the only one lifted directly from Merritt – namely, the scene in which the schoolgirl doll kills John Gilmore. Here, it is the miniaturized Laschna who awakes in the arms of a sleeping girl, before crawling out of bed and stabbing the child’s father with a poisoned needle. The special effects are well-done for their time, and the sequence as a whole hints at the horror classic that The Devil-Doll could have been.

The Curse of the Doll PeopleBy this point, it was clear that Hollywood had little interest in Merritt’s stories beyond source material for riffs on other films. Seven Footprints to Satan had been turned into a spiritual successor to The Cat and the Canary, while Burn, Witch, Burn! became a strange hybrid of The Unholy Three and Frankenstein. South of the border, however, things were a little different. There was one more Merritt adaptation to be made, this time from Mexico…

The Curse of the Doll People (original title Muñecos infernales; literally “Infernal Dolls”, this was also the Spanish title of Browning’s film) is a 1961 film directed by Benito Alazraki and written by Alfredo Salazar. Although A. Merritt is nowhere to be found in the credits, the plot is unmistakeably derived from Burn, Witch, Burn!

Admittedly, the film does take a number of liberties with its source. The most obvious change is that the hero and villain have had their genders swapped: Dr. Lowell becomes the glamorous Karina (played by Elvira Quintana) while Madame Mandilip is reimagined as a male bokor who – in an oddly prescient detail – resembles Charles Manson. The evil magician is given a clearer motive than Merritt’s Mandilip, as he is picking off the archaeologists who stole an idol from him back in Haiti. Laschna, meanwhile, is replaced with a rotting zombie who sleeps in an Egyptian sarcophagus; as the film dispenses with Mandilip’s toy shop, the zombie’s main purpose is to deliver the deadly dolls to the door of each victim.

The Curse of the Doll PeopleDespite these alterations, The Curse of the Doll People is a far more faithful adaptation of Burn, Witch, Burn! than Tod Browning’s version. While the characters are altered, their fundamental roles in the narrative are much the same. The story deals with black magic, not mad science, and retains such memorable images as the knotted hair, the convulsing victims and the crucified doll. It also faithfully adapts the sequence where Lowell dissects the doll that was run over after attacking Ricori: a key scene in the book, but nowhere to be found in the first film version.

The Curse of the Doll People evidently had a lower budget than The Devil-Doll, and lacks that film’s sophisticated camera tricks. Instead, the Mexican film portrays the living dolls using short people (whether they are children or dwarf actors is unclear) wearing masks. The results are easy for modern viewers to scoff at, but the living dolls do have an “uncanny valley” aspect missing from the creations of The Devil-Doll.

The Curse of the Doll PeopleAlas, The Curse of the Doll People is let down by its overall execution. Tod Browning’s skilled direction is sorely missed: the film gets off to a slow start, with an over-reliance on dialogue during the opening sequences, and never creates the atmosphere necessary to make the most of its limited special effects. The final nail in the film’s coffin – as far as the English release is concerned, at least – is the questionable dubbing, where the heroes sound flat and the villain ludicrous. The Curse of the Doll People retains its share of fans, largely due to its camp value, but few watching it today would guess that it was based on a book by one of the better novelists from the era of American pulp horror.

So ends the story of A. Merritt on film. Although one of the most popular horror authors of his day, he was not particularly well-served by the cinema. The three films adapted from his works are a strangely inconsistent mix; each one has its strengths and weaknesses, but somehow, none captured the flavour of Merritt’s writing.

That said, it is perhaps too early to close the door altogether. There is still a possibility that some enterprising filmmaker or another will turn to Merritt’s works for inspiration, particularly as they slip into the public domain. Maybe the definitive A. Merritt film will someday be made…

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