D: The Devil Commands (1941)

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We don’t hear much about William Milligan Sloane III these days. He wasn’t a terribly prolific writer, and most of his output was in the 1930s. He started as a playwright, and eventually published two novels combining science fiction and horror – To Walk the Night  and The Edge of Running Water – that are still being reissued to this day. I first ran across Sloane when I was helping my childhood friends pack, around 1970, I think, and his father had a copy of To Walk the Night. It had a striking cover, and a writer I had never heard of before. I decided to find a copy, but inter-library loans weren’t a thing – it probably didn’t help that I got that novel confused with Running Water. Then I found out that had been made into a movie starring Boris Karloff, which I bought on DVD back in those halcyon days when everything was coming out on DVD, and then I decided to wait until I was 60 years old to watch it. (As we know, I try to do a Boris Karloff movie every Hubrisween)

Dr. Julian Blair (Karloff) Has invited his colleagues to witness his exciting new invention, the EEG. (I kid. The electroencephalogram was first used on humans in 1923 and was only beginning to be experimented with as a medical tool in the 30s, when Sloane wrote this) The device, using a bizarre helmet and a lot of electricity (yay! a jacob’s ladder!) draws the pattern of his assistant’s brain on an enormous graph. Blair tells his impressed fellow scientists that each brain pattern is different, but as individual as fingerprints, as he demonstrates on his wife, Helen (Shirley Warde) who has one of the strongest brain waves he’s recorded.

Alas, that very evening, Helen is killed in an auto accident. Bereft after the funeral and unwilling to go back to their home, he goes to his lab and turns on his equipment, just for distraction…  and Helen’s brain wave begins to etch on the giant graph, even though she was buried that morning. No one believes Blair, not even his concerned daughter Anne (Amanda Duff), except for his manservant, Karl (Cy Schindell) who has been seeing a medium to speak to his deceased mother.

Intrigued, Blair accompanies Karl to a seance run by Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere). Blair easily sees through her fakery, but cannot explain the high voltage he felt through the table, sitting next to her. Experiments find that Mrs. Walters can absorb a high amount of electricity with no harm, and in fact while hooked up to Blair’s equipment (and bolstered by Karl as an extra resistor), Helen’s brain wave does indeed register again – but unfortunately the high voltage cooks Karl’s brain.

Walters realizes that Blair is onto a discovery that will make him very, very rich, and decides she wants in on it. They escape to a remote house near a harbor, guarded by the now brutish Karl, and years pass. The local sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) comes calling one night because A) people are talking, and B) dead bodies have been missing lately. Mrs. Walters sends him away brusquely, but he prevails on the housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams) to sneak into that forbidden lab and see what’s what. This she does, to find that Blair has moved up to a table with six of his ungainly apparati, he’s upgraded from jacob’s ladders to neon, and those suits contain the missing corpses. In a panic, she accidentally turns on the devices, and a glowing vortex opens in the table, drawing everything toward it. The corpses are strapped down. She isn’t.

Things are really moving to a head now. Mrs. Marcy’s husband (Walter Baldwin) doesn’t buy the evidence planted that his wife fell off a cliff into the harbor and starts putting together a lynch mob, Anne has finally tracked down her father, and… gosh, things just don’t turn out very well.

The Devil Commands is directed by Edward Dmytryk early in his career – he’d later go on to better known fare like Back to Bataan, The Caine Mutiny,  and Warlock. His direction is crisp and clean, and he wisely spends most of his camera time on Karloff and Revere. Karloff is his usual greatness at a role in which he excelled – an utter madman whose mania is absolutely understandable. Even when he is suggesting something dreadful, he seems considerate and caring, and by the final act of the picture he is visibly tortured by the terrible things he’s done. Anne Revere pulls off the neat trick of being a match for Karloff – her Mrs. Walters is one of the great Lady Macbeths of the screen, willing to cut through anything and anybody to make sure Blair will produce the breakthrough that will be her road to riches.

You know. THIS guy.

The most unusual thing is seeing Kenneth MacDonald as the sheriff, who is a calm, collected officer of the law who’s just trying to make sure everything is peaceful in his town. Like me, you’re probably more used to seeing MacDonald as the bad guy in Three Stooges shorts. Blair’s assistant and Anne’s love interest Richard Fiske is called upon to do little more than be concerned and chauffeur Anne around, and poor Anne isn’t even that interesting.

The tone of the movie is a little more elevated, a bit more thoughtful than Universal’s horror offerings. At a brief 65 minutes, it doesn’t have a chance to wear out its welcome, though it does come close. And even as a lesser known Karloff movie, it bears checking out.

Not really a trailer, but what do you want for free?

 

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