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Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Devil Commands

The fourth of Columbia's "mad doctor" films with Boris Karloff is The Devil Commands. (TDC) There are many similarities with the prior three, yet just as many differences. Like the others, TDC is a horror/sci-fi hybrid with the science part in a secondary role. Nick Grinde did not direct this one. Instead, Edward Dmytryk directed. (he would later gain fame with The Caine Mutiny ('54)) One of the screenwriters, Robert Andrews, worked on the third film, Before I Hang.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Julian Blair is a well respected scientist at Midland University. His work regards the power of thought being captured, recorded or transmitted. His machine records "brain waves" of his assistant, then of his wife Helen. All is happy and congratulatory. On the way home, Helen is killed when a truck hits her car. Distraught, Blair seeks distraction in his lab. When he turns on his sparking machines, the needle moves again, repeating Helen's pattern. He is convinced that Helen's consciousness survives beyond the grave and is trying to speak to him. His scientist cohorts think he's lost his mind. His simple-minded helper, Karl, takes him to a "spirit medium," Mrs. Walters, to contact the dead. Blair sees through her parlor tricks, but senses Walters has a receptive brain. Walters senses great fortune if Blair is successful. Ann suggests he get away to some remote New England town and work in private. He does, but the townsfolk don't like it. Bodies go missing from graves. Blair's housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy dies when she accidentally turns on the sparky machines. Walters fakes her death as having fallen off the cliff between the house and town, but her husband is convinced that Blair killed her. The missing bodies are in Blair's lab, all seated at a techno-seance table, wearing metal hazmat suits with neon tubes and wires sticking out of them. The added brain-receiver power works. With full sparky power on, a tornado appears in the center of the table. The needle plots Helen's pattern. Blair hears a raspy "Julian…" He turns up the power to get a better connection, but it kills Walters. Ann and Richard arrive at the Sheriff's behest. Blair is convinced that Helen communicates when Ann is around. Richard won't allow her to be hooked up, so Blair has Karl lock him away. Blair does hook up Ann. The sparky things spark. "Julian….Julian…." The last time, it was clearly Helen's normal voice. Blair cranks it up more, but it causes the house to start breaking up. His own safety strap breaks loose and he's swept into the tornado. The angry mob storms the house with clubs and torches, but flee when the house starts to break up. Ann narrates that they never found her father. Some say his spirit still lives in that house. Human beings are not supposed to know what lies beyond the grave. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
As always, Karloff's acting is the major plus of the film. Even though it is a low-budget affair, he brings a sincerity to the role that lifts the film from the dross of typical B-movies. For one's inner 12-year-old, all the sparky machines and Man-In-The-Iron-Mask helmets with neon ear cones, have gadget appeal.

Cultural Connection
Each of the four films dealt with death. As war raged in Europe (Pearl Harbor had not happened yet when TDC was in theaters), death was more of a front-and-center issue. Nor was death as neatly pasteurized as it has since become. Back then, there was more of a personal connection.

Sad Scientist -- Karloff's Dr. Blair is more of a tragic figure than his prior "mad doctor" roles. Dr. Laurience in The Man Who Lived Again ('36) was obsessed, cold-hearted and a little bit lustful. Dr. Savaard in The Man They Could Not Hang ('40) started out altruistic, but turns to deadly vengeance. Dr. Garth in Before I Hang is a well-meaning man, but the blood of a killer in his serum turns him into an unwitting murderer. Dr. Blair is driven by hope (and grief) over his lost wife. Deaths happen, but more by accident than malice. The more palpable evil in TDC comes from Mrs. Walters.

Mrs. Mephisto -- The Mrs. Walters character is Blair's Mephistopholes. Blair (like Faust) seeks knowledge beyond the mortal world. Walters, coldly driven by the prospect of immense power and wealth, helps Blair and pushes him on when he has qualms. She withheld Ann's letters from Blain so he thought she didn't care about him anymore. She had a cold enough heart to rob graves, though it is never stated how the bodies came to the lab. She rather coldly deals with the accidental death of Mrs. Marcy, and chastises Blair for fretting over lying to the Sheriff. Mrs. Walters may well be the "Devil" cited in the title. She gets her just desserts, though.

A Hint of Occult -- While still a horror/sci-fi pictures, TDC suggests that something of Helen's consciousness did continue after her death. She becomes an almost literal Ghost in the Machine, though little conjecture is made over just what's going on. Beyond the graph plots, there was little corroboration that Helen was trying to communicate with Julian. In fact, he may have imagined the voices. His dangerous electric devices managed to damage Karl's brain, kill Mrs. Marcy and Mrs. Walters -- maybe even himself, but TDC treads lightly on the ghosts aspect.

Based on the Book -- The kernel of the story comes from a novel written by William Sloane in 1937, "The Edge of Running Water." Reviews of the book give it middling marks. While the movie follows the basics of the novel, the movie is apparently more cohesive and better paced. Sloane only wrote two novels. The other was "To Walk the Night" which was also made into a movie in 1963 called "Unearthly Stranger."

Bottom line? TDC is a watchable enough film, even if one isn't a Karloff fan. It moves along, avoiding slow talky parts . The characters all read quickly enough without laggy development. The sparky machines and metal helmets are steampunk cool. As sci-fi, it's a bit thin, but it's still fun to watch.


Randall Landers said...

This one has always reminded me of THE OUTER LIMITS episode "The Borderland." Both are eerie, both involve contacting the dead, and mediums who are not nice people. Very watchable!

Nightowl said...

I was intrigued with the (supposed) role of "science" in making that connection -- in lieu of the usual mystic paranormal magic stuff.

It was interesting that brains helped. Even dead brains were presumed to have extra antenna power. The "seance" with dead bodies in metal hazmat suits was a very curious visual.