‘The Devil Commands’ or — Electronic Medium?
“Never have we witnessed upon the screen such a hodge-podge of scientific claptrap,” New York Times, 3 Feb, 1941. That critic was correct because ‘The Devil Commands’ (1941) is, indeed, a load of scientific claptrap and then some… and it’s all the better for it.
Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) has invented a machine that can read people’s brainwaves, something he believes will one day lead to a new form of instant communication for humanity. However, after his wife dies in a birthday-cake-buying/automobile-accident and her own distinct brainwaves start appearing on his device Dr. Blair is convinced he can contact the dead.
On his assistant’s insistence Dr. Blair visits, and then exposes, a fraudulent medium called Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere) only to discover that although she possess no supernatural abilities Mrs. Walters can withstand vast doses of electrical power making her the perfect conduit for contacting his dead wife (the science here is a tad speculative).
However, being the scheming charlatan that all mediums are Mrs. Walters sees and grasps an opportunity to control and exploit Dr. Blair herself and it’s not long before she has the poor doctor under her control, convinced him to quit his job, leave town and set up a laboratory in a remote, storm-lashed New England mansion overlooking the sea where they can dig up dead bodies and carry on the doctor’s experiments without fear of being disturbed. Imagine the power just within their grasp!
Despite the title and the explicit dabbling in an afterlife ‘The Devil Commands’ plays out less like a supernatural chiller and more as a dark noir revolving around domestic abuse, especially when Mrs. Walters gets her hooks into Dr. Blair. This angle of abuse is further enhanced by some unnervingly faint intimations of incest when Dr. Blair realises it’s his own daughter that could act as the perfect replacement for his dead wife. There’s some real chilling undercurrents flowing through here.
And although the films plays with the concept of voices from beyond it deals with this less as an aspect of spiritualism (it rightly mocks the world of mediumship and belief in the paranormal for the inherently abusive, ignorant, gas-lighting load of bollocks it is) and more as a form of previously undetected radio waves, hence allowing Karloff to kit his laboratory out in all sorts of crazy, electronically powered, “modern” looking equipment. Even so, this modern slant still can’t stop the climax from relying on the old “townsfolk rise up and march with pitchforks” cliché, but we’d be rather disappointed if they didn’t I guess.
Director Edward Dmytryk brings his usual eye for atmosphere and pacing to it all, even if he doesn’t quite take the film by the scruff of its neck and wring it for all its worth as he does with his best work, whilst cinematographer Allen G. Siegler captures some excellent black and white imagery so this is a real treat for old movie fans.
Karloff is a joy, as always, to watch on screen, especially the more demented he gets, and more than makes up for a few of the other characters being a tad wet. Anne Revere, however, relishes her role as the manipulative Mrs. Walters.
‘The Devil Commands’ is a load of scientific claptrap but it’s also a great Columbia horror/mad scientist flick that packs a load into its 61 minute run time. It neatly balances scientific hubris, obsessive love, terrors from beyond, phony charlatanism, electronic séances and helmets with light bulbs attached to them in a delightfully enjoyable way.
Quite frankly, I think this one is ripe for a remake.