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The Devil Commands

The Devil Commands(1941)

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teaser The Devil Commands (1941)

In 1938, Universal Pictures reissued their horror favorites Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) on a double-bill that cleaned up in neighborhood theaters across the country, often setting attendance records and inspiring theater owners to schedule around-the-clock screenings. Universal responded by returning to active production of their horror slate, beginning with Son of Frankenstein (1939), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Other studios took note and instituted a stream of horror films to compete. Columbia Pictures signed the genre's top star, Boris Karloff, to a contract for five pictures to be produced by their B-unit. The studio had no budget for elaborate makeup and monsters, and exotic locations were out of the question since the films utilized mostly standing sets, so all of the films featured Karloff as a scientist with ambitions that drove him to nefarious deeds in his quest to meddle in the domains of Life and Death. The "Mad Doctor Series" (as the films are now referred to) got off to a start with The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), followed by The Man with Nine Lives and Before I Hang (both 1940), all directed by Nick Grinde in rather bland and derivative fashion.

The fourth film in the series, The Devil Commands (1941), was directed by Edward Dmytryk, and for most Karloff fans is the favorite of the Columbia series. It features a believable motivation for its Mad Doctor antics, some moodily effective cinematography and special effects, a dark and menacing performance by co-star Anne Revere, and some genuinely macabre shocks compared to the mild horror of its predecessors.

Most of The Devil Commands unfolds as a flashback, as Anne Blair (Amanda Duff) tells the story of her father, Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff), and his strange experiments in communicating with the dead. Seven years previous, Dr. Blair was a respected scientist at a large University. One night he gathers several fellow scientists together, including Dr. Richard Sayles (Richard Fiske), to demonstrate the results of his experiments which show that each human brain emits a specific wave pattern. Blair's wife Helen (Shirley Warde) interrupts the meeting, and Dr. Blair playfully has her don the helmet which, connected to exotic electronic equipment, etches her brain wave pattern on a screen. (Dr. Blair explains that women emit stronger signals than men). The Blairs leave to pick up their daughter Anne at the train station, but along the way Mrs. Blair is struck by a car and killed. Dr. Blair is devastated, and returning to the dark lab, he turns on the brain wave machine and Helen's pattern once again appears on the screen he feels that she is trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave. Dr. Blair and his dimwitted assistant Karl (Ralph Penney) seek out a supposed medium, Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere). Although Blair exposes her as a fake, he discovers that her brain does emit powerful impulses and her body can withstand intense electrical stimulation; Blair wants to use her to create a powerful electro-telepathic circuit which will facilitate communication with his dead wife. The bizarre trio moves to the New England town of Barsham Harbor and set up their ever more gruesome experiments, which include freshly-dug local corpses wired into the laboratory circuit.

In his autobiography It's a Hell of a Life, But Not a Bad Living, Edward Dmytryk called Karloff " extremely thoughtful and unselfish person who made the whole effort worthwhile. A man of moderate height and kindly mien, he is the only actor I ever knew who could actually 'play it big' physically, I mean and scare you to death in the bargain." Dmytryk had little to say about the film itself, just that " gave me an opportunity to experiment with lighting and photographic effects." The director also discovered that a certain percentage of the public is simply not interested in films of the horror genre. "We sneaked The Devil Commands before a packed house in Inglewood [California]. When the main title, announcing a Karloff film, flashed on the screen, fully half the audience got up and walked out. It was a shock until I realized that there were a lot of people who just didn't want to see a Karloff film, no matter how painstakingly it had been made." In spite of the audience reaction to this genre film, Columbia Pictures liked Dmytryk's work on it, and assigned him to helm more B-movies. "In the next eighteen months," he wrote, "I did a number of films for them a couple of Lone Wolfs, a Boston Blackie, and a few others I find it easy to forget."

The "science" of The Devil Commands certainly does not hold up to any careful consideration. As David H. Smith writes in his article on the film appearing in Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Boris Karloff, "adding human corpses to the circuit channeled by Mrs. Walters to increase her telepathic receiving capacity makes for a terrifically ghoulish mise en scene, but it is not remotely logical." Fortunately, Dmytryk's film does not rely on its shaky science for impact; it works on the viewer on a more emotional and visceral level. In an article on Columbia's horror films ("Hail Columbia?" in Monsters from the Vault Vol. 2 No.4), John Stell observes "Whereas the other similar Karloff films had Boris obsessed with science for the sake of science, the connecting element of The Devil Commands is a man's love for his wife, something more understandable and sympathetic than the scientific double-talk offered by the other films. This focus has a much more emotional punch and gives the film a truly haunting quality that the other films did not possess."

Karloff may have been somewhat distracted during the filming of The Devil Commands, although it doesn't show in his carefully shaded performance. During shooting he had signed on with stage producers Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay to star in his first Broadway production, Arsenic and Old Lace, written by Joseph Kesselring. Dmytryk indulged his star by rushing the takes on the final day of shooting so that Karloff could get to the airport to report for the New York rehearsals for the play, which was scheduled to open January 10, 1941 at the Fulton Theatre. The play, of course, was a smash hit, and undue comparisons may have contributed to the less-than-glowing notices that his latest Mad Doctor picture received when it opened less than a month later. The reviewer in the New York Times, for example, immediately holds the film up to comparison with the completely different stage show playing down the street, saying "if Hollywood, and the Columbia studios in particular, can't do any better by Boris Karloff than The Devil Commands, then it is much to be desired that Arsenic and Old Lace will keep that gentleman occupied on the Broadway stage ad infinitum. For never have we witnessed upon the screen such a hodgepodge of scientific claptrap as is represented by the film currently showing at the Rialto." In England, where the film was censored of some of the more macabre scenes as well as any hint of literal waves from beyond the grave, Kinematograph Weekly nevertheless called the film a "spectacular thriller" and said, "the opening sequences depicting the devotion of Blair to his wife and his reactions to her untimely death are tender, but in spite of introspective treatment, human values are eventually eclipsed by a growing catalogue of manufactured thrills. Fortunately the star is equal to all occasions."

Predictably, the fifth and final film resulting from Karloff's Columbia contract took advantage of his Broadway success. The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) was a pale rewrite of Arsenic, and was a poor consolation prize for Karloff missing out on the film version of his hit play, which Frank Capra shot in 1941 with Raymond Massey in Karloff's role. (Capra's film was contractually obligated to sit on the shelf until the play had finished its Broadway run, so it didn't see release until 1944). Sadly overlooked at the time of release, The Devil Commands remains the sole gem of Karloff's Columbia Mad Doctor series.

Producer: Wallace MacDonald
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Robert D. Andrews, Milton Gunzburg; William Sloane (novel "The Edge of Running Water")
Cinematography: Allen G. Siegler
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Film Editing: Al Clark
Cast: Boris Karloff (Dr. Julian Blair), Richard Fiske (Dr. Richard Sayles), Amanda Duff (Anne Blair), Anne Revere (Mrs. Walters), Ralph Penney (Karl), Dorothy Adams (Mrs. Marcy), Walter Baldwin (Seth Marcy), Kenneth MacDonald (Sheriff Ed Willis), Shirley Warde (Helen Blair)

by John M. Miller

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