The fourth and best of Columbia’s Karloff mad scientist films takes an eerie dip into Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Directed by later Oscar winner Edward Dmytryk, it unfortunately falls back on tired B-movie tropes, but it’s still a minor gem of forties science fiction. (7/10)
The Devil Commands. 1941, USA. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Robert Hardy Andrews, Milton Gunzburg. Based on novel by William Sloane. Starring: Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Amanda Duff, Cy Schindell. Produced by Wallace MacDonald. IMDb: 6.2/10 Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
In the late thirties and early forties horror icon Boris Karloff churned out a staggering amount of mad scientist films, some slightly better than others. Many of of them, five in fact, were made by Columbia, one of the three so-called second tier studios in Hollywood at the time, along with Universal and United Artists. I have previously reviewed The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review) and The Man With Nine Lives (1940, review), and Before I Hang (1940, review) I can’t seem to be able to find online. The last entry in the line was the horror comedy The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) with Peter Lorre. Like that one, The Devil Commands is a welcome (if only slight) deviation from form in a genre that became increasingly repetitive.
Right from the get-go it’s clear that something is different. The film opens with a voice-over, which was extremely rare in mad scientist films. Instead, the scripts mostly revealed exposition in forced dialogues. Here we have a dark house in a storm, and the voice of Amanda Duff (playing Anne Blair):
”This was my father’s house. In Barsham Harbor on nights like this, when lightning rips the night apart, why do people close the shutters that face toward my father’s house, and lock their doors, and whisper? Why are they afraid? No one goes near my father’s house. No one dares.”
This certainly sets a creepy tone, but unfortunately Amanda Duff is no Vincent Price, who can read just about anything and make it sound like Poe. The problem is that the voice-over continues, describing her father and his brilliant work in the Midland University, and unfortunately it sounds as if it was written by a five-year-old.
The other thing that sets this one apart immediately as not being concocted by the usual mad scientist screenwriters is that Karloff’s character’s name isn’t Poelzig, Rukh, Sartorius, de Berghman, Savaard or Kravaal. It’s simply Dr. Julian Blair, a nice, friendly name. The reason is that as opposed to the other Columbia films, this one was based on a novel, more exactly the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane. Both Sloane, the book and his only other novel To Walk the Night are more or less forgotten today, but his fans consider him a writer in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, but a better writer than Lovecraft. I haven’t read the book, but from a few plot synopses, it seems that the film follows the book’s basic outline pretty well. Sloane was a publisher and a writer of horror and fantasy plays and novellas. To Walk the Night got very positive reviews when it was published in 1937, and thus it is no surprise that Columbia acquired the rights to The Edge of Running Water when it came out in 1939.
Dr. Blair has been able to create a machine that can read EEG waves. But instead of simply using electrodes, he has created something that looks like a medieval brass torture helmet, thoroughly creepy. He demonstrates it to his fellow scientists by using his wife (Shirley Warde) as a guinea pig, and a pen starts automatically drawing charts on a giant wall-mounted paper, much like real early EEG machines would. Of course to the early forties audience this must still have seemed very much like science fiction, although the EEG recording device had actually been invented as early as 1924. It wasn’t until the mid-thirties, though, that researchers actually started using it for practical neurological research, and after doing tests on humans, and describing the waves of an epileptic fit, the discovery made headlines, and consequently, movies. Dr. Blair takes the discovery to next level. Not only, he theorises, can we read brainwaves, but interpret the thoughts they convey. In the future, he muses, a machine might be able to read the thoughts of every human being on Earth, just as a radio can pick upp signals from all over the planet. Cheers all around.
In this film Karloff plays an extremely kind and good-natured man, much like he is said to have been in real life. But he is stricken with grief after his wife dies in a car crash later in the evening after the demonstration. When he returns to the lab the following day, the empty machine repeats his wife’s brain charts when he turns it on, convincing him that it is her reaching out from beyond the grave. But when he presents his theory to his fellow scientists and friends, he is, in diplomatic manner mostly absent from these films, softly ridiculed, but mostly warned of the consequences. What evil could it bring, one asks, if we were able to actually open a channel of communication with the dead? ”I know one thing Julian, there are things human beings have no right to know”, says one of them. Although it is strange than none of these scientists raised as much as an eyebrow when Blair proposed a giant mind-reading machine to monitor the thoughts of every human being on the planet. Hmmm.
When Blair tries in vain to reproduce the experiment, he seeks the help of the fraudulent medium Mrs. Blance Walters (later Oscar winner Anne Revere). Although Blair debunks her seance, he notices a strong electric current during her show, theorising that her brain can produce and withstand unusual amounts of electricity, and as a woman she would be able to help him channel the energy needed for reaching his wife – women, he explains, have much stronger brain powers. The brooding and dominant Mrs. Walter at first agrees to help him for money, but later becomes the one who urges him to keep going even when he himself has doubts about the feasibility or ethics about the experiment.
Blair loses his job at the university because of his experiments, when his assistant Karl (Cy Schindell) is nearly electrocuted to death and because of it becomes a lumbering Frankensteinean assistant (something I could have lived without in this film), and sets up shop in a secluded house in a small village, where he and Karl (of course his name is Karl) set out to rob fresh corpses from the graveyard in an effort to amplify the the brain energy needed. Naturally the villagers turn suspicious, and we get more Frankenstein (1931, review) allusions with an angry mob marching on the house.
This is well past the point where in another film, Karloff would have turned murderous and vengeful madman, but surprisingly this never happens. He does turn bitter and manic when he is shunned by the scientific community, and even his daughter won’t stand by him in his experiment, but in this film Karloff remains a more or less likeable character throughout the plot. He never talks of revenge, and the one ”murder” that happens is accidental, when the maid happens to get locked inside his lab, now filled with five dead bodies strapped to each other in brass helmets around a table, seance-style, and the energy of it all is simply too much for her brain to bear. This is the point where Blair wants to pull the plug, but Mrs. Walters urges him on. Finally with the help of his daughter (Duff) he is able to reach his wife momentarily, but at the same time he seems to open a hurricane-like vortex to the the other side, which brings down the whole lab, killing him but not her.
Despite what I’ve said about the deviations from form, let’s not kid ourselves: this is in most senses a very traditional mad scientist film. A kindly scientist makes a scientific breakthrough, but is scorned by his contemporaries, and driven by a personal loss turns the initially well-meant discovery into something dark and dangerous. Shunned by society he puts up shop in a small community that turns against him, partly out of ignorance, partly because it is really the only sensible thing to do, and all ends in tragedy, at least for the scientist. There is also the compulsory daughter/fiancée and her boyfriend/second love interest who is usually played by a handsome-ish but anonymous B movie staple actor, whose role is in nine times out of ten completely redundant. This time it is Dr. Richard Sayles, played by Richard Fiske, and although I just watched the film, I can’t really remember anything he said or did in it. At least in The Devil Commands he isn’t a journalist, as he tends to be in most of these movies.
Even though the four mad scientist films Karloff made for Columbia were strictly treated as B unit fare, the studio had enough chops to hire decent directors, crew and actors, and the films avoid becoming complete parodies of themselves, which Universal unfortunately wasn’t able to avoid with the slowly waning quality of their horror movies. The tone of The Devil Commands is more in line with traditional ghost stories than the typical mad scientist movies, enhanced by the (admittedly hokey) voice-overs that return throughout the movie, mostly describing Dr. Blair’s state of mind – something which is nonetheless written down in my book as sloppy literary adaptation.
I will give the film this though, that it is one of the very first cinematic examples of what one might call “cosmic horror” in the Lovecraftian vein. The notion of the terror lurking in “the void” or “the beyond”, separated from us only by the flimsiest veneer of reality was a favourite subject of Edgar Allan Poe, fascinated as he was by what lay beyond death’s door. H.P. Lovecraft, on the other hand, imagined it more as a parallel reality filled with nightmarish terrors, and that if one but scratched the surface where the two dimensions met, a host of mouths with fangs and writhing tentacles would spill into our plane of existence. In this sense, the movie falls more in the Poe category.
Though the set designs in the movie reveal the film’s low budget, I do tip my hat to some of the gadgets and designs. The EEG charting machine with its creepy helmet and the wall-mounted recorder, as well as the effective scenes of the ”electrical seance” deserve praise. The ever-present Strickfaden spark generators that no mad scientist film seems to be able to live without, on the other hand, also reveal a lack of originality.
While the other Columbia Karloff director Nick Grinde gave his three Karloff films a workmanlike, but unassuming character, this film has more of a personality, thanks to the direction of Canadian-born American Edward Dmytryk. Dmytryk had made his full-length directorial debut just two years earlier, and freelanced for a number of studios’ B-movie units. Dmytryk would later emerge as a major director, dealing mostly in film noir and war films, and he won an Oscar for best direction in 1947 with Crossfire. But the same year, he became blacklisted as one of the famous Hollywood Ten who refused to name communist affiliates before Congress. However, Dmytryk changed his stance in 1951 and betrayed his former party affiliates by naming several communists in Hollywood. He was rehabilitated and made perhaps his best known film, The Caine Mutiny (1954). In his early years he directed another sci-fi horror film, Captive Wild Woman (1943, review).
The real stars of The Devil Commands are the actors. Karloff is, as always, charismatic, and continues to give his mad scientists subtle nuances that differentiate them from film to film – he almost turned this into a science. He also clearly relishes in the fact that for once he gets to portray a scientist who remains sympathetic throughout the film. He is, however, overshadowed by the superb performance by Anne Revere as Mrs. Walters. Revere, in goth attire, is a domineering and dark presence through the film, slowly turning Blair into her own pawn, taking control of the experiment.
Revere is one of the few actual A-list actors to have contributed to this line of mad scientist films, along with names like Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone, neither of who had much love for the genre. Revere was one of those few actresses that entered the movie industry at a mature age. A household name on Broadway for many years, she made her film debut when she was 31 in 1934, but didn’t return to Hollywood until 1940, and by then she was back to stay. She soon found herself playing many strong maternal roles in A films, often as the mother of the films’ protagonists, but also spanned to portray unstable and crazy women. Between 1947 and 1951 she played, among other roles, the mothers of Gregory Peck, John Garfield and Montgomery Clift. Her role as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in National Velvet (1944) earned her an Oscar win, and she was nominated two more times. After being blacklisted she returned to Broadway, where she won a Tony award for her role in Toys in the Attic in 1960. She appeared sporadically on TV in the late fifties, sixties and seventies.
The rest of the actors are almost all picked from Columbia’s stable, and include minor character actors like Richard Fiske (The Spider’s Web , Before I Hang) and Kenneth MacDonald, who was typecast as sheriff, which he also plays in The Devil Commands. He also had roles in Before I Hang, the serial The Monster and the Ape (1945) and TV series Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1955), and had an uncredited role in the ”inner space” film Fantastic Voyage in 1966. Fiske was killed in action in France in 1942.
Amanda Duff had a short and anonymous film career, and The Devil Commands was the last of her eight films. She is OK in her role, without either shining or bombing. Cy Schindell as the slow-witted and later apathetic assistant Karl appeared in over 150 films, where, because of his large frame, he often appeared in uncredited bit-parts as henchmen and brawlers.
Dorothy Adams in a minor supporting role is perhaps best known as wife of noted character actor Byron Foulger (see The Man With Nine Lives) and mother of TV star Rachel Ames of General Hospital fame. Adams appeared in over 150 films, mostly in small roles as servants, housekeepers, slave women, and poor women. Especially good in the film is Shirley Warde in her small but important role as Mrs Blair. She gives a charismatic and natural performance as Karloff’s loving wife, and it is a shame she didn’t make more than seven films, and performed mostly on stage.
Little known cinematographer Allen G. Siegler does a good job with the guidance of Dmytryk, without doing anything very surprising. He also worked on the sci-fi film Unknown World in 1951 (review). Editor Al Clark helps in moving the sometimes cumbersome story along. Clark was nominated for five Oscars throughout his career, and also worked on The Man With Nine Lives, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959), The Underwater City (1962) and the TV series The Twilight Zone (1963). Art director Lionel Banks, presumably in charge of designing the memorable mind-reading machine was nominated for Oscars seven times. Assistant director George Rhein performed the same duty on the influential 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet (review). Stock music was used in the film.
The Devil Commands continues the curious tradition of hilariously misnaming the Columbia Karloff pictures. In The Man They Could Not Hang, they both could and did hang Karloff. The Man With Nine Lives was one of the few Karloff films where he actually had only one life, and in Before I Hang he didn’t actually hang at all. And in The Devil Commands, the devil doesn’t command anything.
The movie has the distinction of being included in William Everson’s go-to horror bible Classics of the Horror Film, in which he calls it “by far the best of the quartet” of Karloff’s Columbia horrors (the fifth film on the contract was a comedy). And while the other three movies are somewhat contested among modern critics, with ratings mostly ranging between 1/5 to 4/5, the ratings for The Devil Commands are generally clustered between 2.5/5 and 3.5/5 stars. Richard Sheib at Moria falls in the first category, writing that the film is “an interesting effort, better made than most, although far from a standout classic”. Derek Winnert represents the latter, and calls the movie “gripping and enjoyable”. Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind gives The Devil Commands 4/5 stars, writing that “it is a great little movie that does not rely too heavily on special effects, but on the actors to create the mood and the environment of the film and to make it believable for the audience. The Devil Commands succeeded in doing so and is a small gem in the art of good filmmaking.”
All in all The Devil Commands is a rather refreshing and well-made mad scientist film, owing a great debt to its literary roots. Unfortunately it gets bogged down in mad scientist tropes, and the middle part of the film treads water, as nothing much interesting happens and we just wait for the finale. The ridiculous science also leaves the viewer a bit baffled, as we for example get no actual explanation for how we move from reading EEG curves to reading thoughts or communicating with the dead. A big plus for the climactic final scene with some nice special effects of the vortex to the afterlife. In the end, the The Devil Commands’ ideas are better than its execution, but it nevertheless treats it ideas with respect and some intelligence. With a larger budget and a more ambitious screenplay this film could have been a true classic, but unfortunately the screenwriters have tried to hard to shoehorn the story into the tried and tested Karloffian mad scientist formula. But it’s still an intriguing little B-movie gem.
The Devil Commands. 1941, USA. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Robert Hardy Andrews, Milton Gunzburg. Based on the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane. Starring: Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Amanda Duff, Cy Schindell, Richard Fiske, Dorothy Adams, Walter Baldwin, Kenneth MacDonald, Shirley Warde. Cinematography: Allen G. Siegler. Editing: Al Clark. Art direction: Lionel Banks. Assistant director: George Rhein. Sound: Philip Faulkner Jr. Props: Dallons Laboratories. Musical director (stock music): Morris Stoloff. Produced by Wallace MacDonald for Columbia.