?In nearly every movie concerning ventriloquists, they are portrayed as schizophrenic, nefarious creeps with serious social problems. Where does this stereotype come from? The art itself goes back to necromancers, who would pretend to act as speakers for the dead for grieving family members who could pay up front. Many believed that ventriloquists were in league with the Devil and in the 18th century there was a formal scientific investigation in France to investigate how ventriloquism actually worked. After the alleged unholy alliance of ventriloquists was debunked, the art flourished throughout Europe and the U.S. from vaudeville to packed theaters. In a documentary concerning the film Magic, ventriloquist Dennis Alwood states that there is some truth in the psychological aspects of the art as it is portrayed by Hollywood. He explains that every professional ventriloquist has suffered from what psychologists call “spontaneous schizophrenia.” The brain of a ventriloquist is working for essentially two people — the ventriloquist and the dummy — and every once in awhile, the dummy will say something unscripted and the ventriloquist will be forced to react to it.
Harmless? Maybe. But what it really boils down to is that the unblinking eyes of the dummy give people an uncontrollable case of the willies, and movies have exploited this for almost a century. There are dozens of films starring these little soulless dolls with big personalities and their ability to make any audience very uneasy. Here are the 10 creepiest.
10) Making Contact (A.k.a. Joey)
Written and directed by Roland Emmerich (record scratch)… yes, that Roland Emmerich, in when he was getting his feet wet in Germany with movies about evil ventriloquist dummies. In Making Contact, a young boy named Joey’s father dies, and he immediately begins acting strange and claims to be talking to his dad on a toy phone. His mother brushes it off as part of the grieving process but then the toys in Joey’s room start going all Poltergeist and start having a party against his will. In a completely unrelated note in the story, the ghost of an evil magician and his dummy Fletcher arrive on the scene and start messing with Joey’s life, as if he doesn’t have enough going on. Fletcher the dummy sounds like Tom Waits and can shoot lightning out of his glass eyes, but in a “twist” it turns out Fletcher is only trying to protect Joey from the evil magician. While it may not be that creepy to TR readers, take into account that this supposedly a children’s movie. 10-year-olds don’t listen to Tom Waits for a reason.
9) Dead Silence
From the creators of Saw, 2007’s Dead Silence relied too heavily on the audience’s inherent fear of dummies. The film took the boring conventions of contemporary horror films and added 101 dummies and the ghost of an elderly ventriloquist who flies around and wags her tongue at people. The filmmakers definitely tapped into the longstanding, popular fear of dummies, but the whole thing feels uninspired and lacks punch. While it fails as an effective horror film, it presents some interesting approaches to performers and their obsession with their craft. The twist at the end is great, but it’s too little too late and involves two characters that had almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
8) Devil Doll
Well known for the amazing lashing it took on a 1997 episode of MST3K, the 1964 British movie Devil Doll is a hilariously bad horror film that features one of the most outlandish ventriloquist tales ever. In its defense, unlike many movies featured on MST3K, its bold outlandishness does make it tolerable to watch sans Mike Nelson and friends. The Great Vorelli is more than a master of voice with a doll on his knee; the man studied voodoo or some shit and can make women fall in love with him by just opening his mouth (he’s like an evil Beatle). His dummy, Hugo (possibly a nod to the dummy in our #2 spot), can do remarkable things like walk around on his own, and mysteriously, Vorelli locks him up in a steel cage at night. If you haven’t figured out Hugo’s “terrible” secret yet, don’t worry because it’s so retarded it’ll make you want to punch the nearest person in the face.
7) Black Devil Doll from Hell
A remarkable piece of ’80s indie horror, Black Devil Doll From Hell features easily one of the most disturbing-looking dummies ever, and also happens to be one of the most awful and offensive movies ever. But that only adds to the charm of seeing a dread-headed dummy rape an old woman. Right? Written and directed by the enigmatic Chester Novell Turner, the film revolves church-going Helen, who purchases a dummy for no apparent reason whatsoever. The storeowner tries to explain to Helen the dummy’s checkered backstory, but is quickly drowned out by the film’s “soundtrack.” After Helen brings the dummy back to her house, the film quickly spirals into the realm of soft-core porno. It’s very hard to watch and it might be impossible to do so without a bottle nearby. It’s honestly plays out like a Fan Fiction Friday. If you’re feeling brave and decide to download a torrent of the film, be prepared for 40 minutes of black following the credits.
Oh, there was another film called Black Devil Doll From Hell made in 2007, but it has no connection to the 1984 film besides the name.
6) “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” from Tales From the Crypt
From Richard Donner, the director of The Goonies and Lethal Weapon, comes this gem from the ’90s horror anthology series. Don Rickles plays old-school ventriloquist Mr. Ingles, whose dummy is named Morty. In one of his best roles, Bobcat Goldwaithe plays Billy, a rookie ventriloquist who idolizes Mr. Ingles. He invites Ingles to his first public performance, which he bombs miserably; Billy returns to Ingles’s house for advice, and the horrible truth behind Morty the dummy is revealed. It’s hilarious, gory, and very well acted, and the Morty reveal is gross and hilarious — although so were all the best Tales From the Crypt episodes. (NOTE: Video is NSFW).
5) The Great Gabbo
This 1929 movie is possibly the first film to depict a ventriloquist, and probably not coincidentally it’s also the first film to depict a ventriloquist as psychologically unstable and driven insane by competing personalities. Silent film icon Erich von Stroheim plays Gabbo; accompanied by his dummy Otto, the two become famous throughout Europe but develop an unnatural closeness. This relationship drives away Gabbo’s girlfriend/assistant, who leaves him for another entertainer. In a nice change of storytelling for the dummy-horror genre, Otto is actually a really nice dummy and what little humanity is left in Gabbo is reflected through bug-eyed Otto. But sadly, the loss of his girl drives Gabbo over the edge. It’s a great early movie and the last few minutes are haunting in that “this is old and haunting” way.
4) “The Dummy” from The Twilight Zone
In this classic 1962 episode, ventriloquist Jerry Etherson (played by Cliff Robertson — Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man films) is convinced that his dummy, Willie, is alive. He wishes to leave the dummy behind and move to another city, which sounds like a perfectly logical solution to escape an inanimate doll. But his agent, Frank, thinks Jerry is just a drunk schizo and knows that running won’t eliminate his delusions. So Jerry tries out a new dummy named Goofy Goggles and finds him a whole lot more pleasant than Willie… but Jerry soon finds out that he can’t just lock Willie in a case and expect him to go away, because Willie has other plans. The same dummy is used in the 1964 episode “Caesar and Me.”
3) “The Glass Eye” from Alfred Hitchcock Presents
This 1957 TV episode is told by a man named Jim, and by Jim I mean an uncredited William Shatner. Jim and his wife are going through the belongings of Jim’s sister, Dorothy (played by Driving Miss Daisy‘s Jessica Tandy), when they come across a mysterious glass eye. Jim explains to his wife how the glass eye relates to the story of his sister’s only love, the ventriloquist Max Collodi. Forty years earlier, Dorothy saw Collodi perform and fell madly in love with him, following him across the country and eventually gaining an audience with him. Without giving away too much, the episode also stars Billy Barty, who played Gwildor in the MOTU movie.
2) Dead of Night
The final tale in the classic 1945 British horror anthology film Dead of Night is called “The Dummy;” arguably, it’s the most influential ventriloquist story of all time. It concerns a successful ventriloquist named Maxwell Frere who believes his dummy, Hugo, is really alive. Maxwell, played by Michael Redgrave, is playing a gig in Paris when Hugo begins to converse with rival ventriloquist Sylvester Kee, who is enjoying himself in the audience. The business savvy Hugo invites Sylvester back to the dressing room where he witnesses a bizarre interaction between Maxwell and Hugo. Years later, a drunken, paranoid Maxwell believes that Sylvester has stolen Hugo. What happens next lands Maxwell in an asylum. Some genius psychologist believes that putting Hugo in the cell with Maxwell will be the cure, and what follows is the most haunting ending in ventriloquism history. Although only 30 minutes long, “The Dummy” manages to convincingly reflect the unbalanced mentality of Maxwell and deliver a knock-out blow during the final seconds. In the immortal words of Hugo, “Good night, sleep tight, and wake up sober.”
Directed by Richard Attenborough in 1978, Magic is the Citizen Kane of ventriloquism movies — hands down. Sir Anthony Hopkins plays a young, bright-eyed ventriloquist and magician named Corky, who is looking to make it big in the entertainment industry with his unique act that features sleight of hand and some serious misdirection by his dummy, Fats. Executives from NBC offer Corky a pilot, but Corky refuses to take the required medical exam because of his “principles.” In actuality, Corky just doesn’t want them to poke around his head and discover he’s completely mental. So Corky retreats to the boondocks of upstate New York where he reconnects with an old flame from high school; unfortunately, Fats takes this renewed romance personally.
What makes Magic so remarkable is the juxtaposition between a romantic drama and psychological thriller. One second there are moments of gentle melodrama, then the camera will quickly cut to a shot of Fats sitting stationary in an armchair — eyes half closed — while Jerry Goldsmith’s unsettling score plays. There are so many remarkably disturbing scenes in the film, but the Simon Says-esque scene towards the end stands out in the ventriloquism genre or any horror movie for that matter. As Fats shouts out orders, Corky frantically obeys until he commands Corky to “get a knife.” Corky does as he’s told, but the ending is not what you’d expect.