When the Thursday Horror Picture Show came into being about two-and-a-half years ago, I doubt it would have occurred to anyone that one of the most popular items on the cinematic menu would turn out to be Mexican horror pictures from the 1950s and 60s. But they have. Oh, sure, they look a lot better today than when most of us north of the border first saw them in badly dubbed and incomprehensible cut prints on TV. Even so, the films are strong on atmosphere, light on logic and heavy on the inherent cheesiness in the obviously limited budgets, but all of that combines to produce a strangely lovable and delightfully handmade experience. With that in mind, we have Benito Alazraki’s Curse of the Doll People (1961). The film is ostensibly from an original screenplay by Alfredo Salazar (brother of Mexican horror star and producer Abel Salazar), but the truth is that it’s an uncredited (and presumably royalty-free) adaptation of Abraham Merritt’s 1932 novel Burn, Witch, Burn, which was officially filmed by Tod Browning as The Devil-Doll in 1936. (The 1962 British film Burn, Witch, Burn is an American retitling of Night of the Eagle, an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s 1943 horror novel Conjure Wife and has nothing to do with the Merritt book. Confusing, isn’t it?) The interesting thing is that Salazar’s screenplay is actually far closer to Merritt’s peculiar mix of gangsters, witchcraft and a modern hospital than the official version — with a couple of notable differences.
Salazar’s screenplay drags in a Haitian voodoo priest (the fact that the Haitian priest is white seems to bother no one) and a curse involving a stone idol. But the biggest alteration is that the dolls are about the size of a ventriloquist’s dummy — making them something like homicidal Charlie McCarthys or predecessors to Don Mancini’s Chucky. This was almost certainly a budgetary concern. It’s after all a lot easier to dress up a few midgets than it is to indulge in the effects work necessary to create 12-inch-high living dolls. The fact is, however, that these awkwardly moving, expressionless dolls with sightless eyes are creepy as hell — even when some of their antics are pretty risible. (Even funnier is when someone describes one of these dimunitive monstrosities as “beautiful,” or suggests they would be suitable for a child.) As usual with these movies, it’s a kind of mixed bag. The dolls are definitely unnerving and, to a lesseer extent, so is the zombie who delivers them (he lives in an Egyptian sarcophagus, but that is another matter). But, hey, it’s a lot of fun — and what other film offers you a voodoo priest whose lair includes a disco ball?
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Curse of the Doll People Thursday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.