Comedy, Ghosts, Horror, Supernatural

Black Devil Doll From Hell/Tales From The QuadeD Zone (1984,1987)

Comments Off on Black Devil Doll From Hell/Tales From The QuadeD Zone (1984,1987) 07 February 2014

Black Devil Doll 1

Studio: Massacre Video

Home Video Release: 1984, 1987

DVD Release: November 12, 2013

Rating: Unrated

Directed by Chester Novell Turner

Review by Tim Bodzioney


If you like your terror adult and strong

Welcome here, you can’t go wrong

Dolls will kill, the dead will too

It’s all right here to entertain you!

Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha

At the beginning of any form comes the opportunity for new talent to emerge.  No matter what media this holds true. From cave drawings to the Internet each new technology produces new artists.  A superficial look at the emergence of image/sound reproduction of last 150 years begins with the introduction of the photograph in the mid 19th century.  From the photograph through moving pictures, recorded sound, radio, sound movies, television all the way through 21st century digital media each new technology has produced talent that otherwise would not have flourished.

There were some like Francis Ford Coppola who believed that with the advent of consumer video and with it the portability and ease of use, coupled with the rise of the Internet, the system of big studio distribution would come crashing down.  We would suddenly see works from all corners of society.  I believe Coppola in an interview even mentioned the possibility of 12-year-old female auteurs.  All voices, no matter how disenfranchised would be heard.

To some degree this is true — for prove, just go to YouTube (or any number of sites).  But the giant media corporations have proven more resilient and the recent net neutrality ruling will unquestionably set back this movement by closing distribution to all deemed controversial or more importantly, unprofitable.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here, in fact about 30 years ahead.

Theatrical film distribution was dealt a serious blow with the rise of cable television and home video.  In the mid to late 1970’s neighborhood (or second-run) theaters began to disappear.  By the mid 1980’s most drive-ins and revival houses would follow.  This left only large chain-owned multiplexes for film exhibition.  Most cities had one or two independent venues for art house product.  Big studios/corporations more than every controlled what the public could see in home or on the big screen.

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But with cable and home video we saw the rise of cable public access and direct-to-video movies. For a brief period it looked as if the public might see product from sources outside of the corporate controlled studios.  That’s where Black Devil Doll From Hell and Tales From The QuadeaD Zone come in.  Both were directed by Chicago based, amateur filmmaker, Chester N. Turner.

Chester N. Turner is an original — an African-American film buff that learned filmmaking through correspondence courses.  Turner’s first effort, Black Devil Doll From Hell is from 1984.  It’s the story of Helen Black, a repressed, church-going woman who discovers her sexuality through a demonically possessed ventriloquist’s dummy.

Turner’s second feature, Tales From The QuadeaD Zone is an Amicus-like anthology with three stories, two separate stories and a third that serves as the piece’s wrap-around.  The connecting piece, Unseen Vision concerns a mother reading stories from a book called, Tales From The QuadeaD Zone to the ghost of her dead child.  The first story she reads to the child, Food For… is about a poor rural white family struggling with too little to eat.  The second story, The Brothers is a fraternal revenge tale gone awry from beyond the grave.

These are wacky movies to be sure.  I struggled with how best to approach this review.  Should I treat these movies like any other movie and attack them for their faults, which are plentiful?  The scripts are terrible, with laughable dialogue.  The acting is uniformly poor.  Some of the special effects are ridiculous — yellow Chroma key used for ghosts.  The music is awful.  Direction is awkward with poor staging and non-existent tension.  There is no sense of urgency to any of the scenes.  There is no pacing — scenes just play on and on, often past the point of any sort of revelation.  The editing is crude.  It’s almost as if Turner just slapped take to take together minus the slates.  Reaction shots would be more effective with tightening.  Sound mixing is just as bad with music often drowning out dialogue.

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All of the above mentioned faults could probably be attributed to lack of filmmaking experience and budget.  Some of these problems could stem from working on an unforgiving format like VHS.  But sometimes Turner covers well for his lack of budget and experience.  Practical special effects as in the case of objects floating, unseen ghosts sitting on furniture, and stabbings are sometimes well done.  Turner shoots the scenes of the doll moving (played by a young nephew) from behind so you never see the doll’s face while in motion.  Action scenes are shot either in slow motion or by dropping frames.  This is Turner at his most resourceful.

I was initially prepared (as I believe most of its contemporary audience) to laugh at these movies.  Yet, the more time I spent with these movies and the more I listened to the likable and earnest Turner the more ambivalent I became.  I‘m always embarrassed to admit that after repeated viewings I finally found myself eventually moved by the sincerity of Ed Wood’s Glenda Or Glenda? — though the movie is still funny to meThe same goes here.

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In some ways the very lack of style make the movies seem like strange time capsules from urban, or as in the case of Food For…, rural Reagan America.  I’ve sat through a lot of empty, stupid movies (horror or otherwise).  But in Turner’s defense, each of these stories contains serious elements — sexual awakening, grief over the loss of a child, poverty leading to desperate acts, and sibling rivalry are the themes.  All universal.  All of the characters are working class or struggling economically giving the movie a more genuine reflection of that world than most Hollywood movies of the era.

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Both movies contain a commentary track with Turner and star (of both movies), Shirley L. Jones.  They were a couple when both movies were made and talk about family members helping behind and in front of the camera.  The productions being like Mom and Pop businesses with family members pitching in with everything from acting, production, special effects, art work, to distribution.  Distribution was done in the form of driving from video store to video store in the region to sell the movies.  The locations (around Chicago and Alabama) were homes and businesses of family and friends with little set decoration.  Seeing furniture covered by protective plastic made me think of visiting an aunt’s home in 1972.  This does lend a strange authenticity to the movies.  Listening to Turner and Jones discuss the movies is almost like listening to a couple discuss old home movies.

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In many ways, Black Devil Doll From Hell is a rough ride.  I don’t feel qualified to address gender issues, but the movie sure has a misogynistic streak that sometimes makes it hard to watch.  Was this unintentional or was Turner just trying to be outrageous?  Does female sexual pleasure have to be equated with an evil force?  Can women only be fornicating party animals or church going robots?  Are there no in-betweens?  The scenes of rape are humiliating (as if depictions of rape can be otherwise?).  This is exacerbated by the knowledge that Turner and Jones were a couple.  Though there seems to be no embarrassment or awkwardness by either of them when discussing these scenes in both the commentary and the documentary.   After Helen’s sexual awakening we have two scenes of her trying to recapture her initial pleasure by sleeping unsuccessfully with two other men.  One a sexual predator only concerned with his own pleasure and the second a sincere partner who is unable to live up to Helen’s first experience.  There is almost poignancy to this scene as we watch two people try to connect and fail.  If only we could have gotten a little more of this type of interaction.

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I know this is a horror movie, but the idea of a ventriloquist dummy as a sex god is silly.  It’s too literal.  Any story with a ventriloquist’s dummy, from Dead of Night to The Twilight Zone, to Magic is about the ventriloquist.  They are about the ventriloquist’s mental/sexual conflicts, not those of the dummy.  I do like that the dummy is made up to look like a farmer Rick James – that’s funny.

Turner states in a documentary included on one of the discs that he didn’t have enough money to shoot on film.  Unable to attract investors he decided to shoot on VHS.  He talks a bit about his influences, Universal horror movies, Hitchcock, and Rod Serling.  Of the three, the only recognizable one is Serling.  Both movies could have been Twilight Zone episodes from, well… The Twilight Zone.  Turner also states that the script for Black Devil Doll From Hell was written in a matter of days.  He claims that the movies were shot for under $10,000 and that includes equipment and meals.  Does this excuse it from the type of criticism I level above or am I taking it too seriously?

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Both movies have been transferred from Turner’s VHS masters and look like what you would expect — terrible.  The disc of Black Devil Doll From Hell includes the recut/rescored version that was distributed to video stores in the 1980’s.

As I wrote above, Turner does come off as likable in both the commentaries and documentary.  He tells of selling the retitled Black Devil Doll From Hell (original title: The Puppet) to a Hollywood video distributor only to be cheated.  Turner is certainly to be commended for his tenacity in getting these movies made and distributed.  Since Massacre Video has picked up the movies they have gotten a fair amount of attention that has included at least one theatrical screening in Los Angeles.  Turner has made appearances on the fan convention circuit and even has had an article written about him and the movies in the Sunday New York Times Arts section.  Perhaps this is Turner’s fifteen minutes, or maybe he was 30 years ahead of the curve?


Rating: ★★☆☆☆







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