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The Devil Commands (1941).

October 15, 2010

The Scoop:
If ever there was a classic Hollywood star made for the Halloween season, it was Boris Karloff. Even though he made his name under layers of makeup as the monster in “Frankenstein,” he didn’t need any of that to convey the menace and dread that we expect from our creepiest time of the year. But under all that, he was also a very gifted actor who could temper the spookiness with a level of compassion that could make the scares relatable and human. He brought a touch of class to even the cheapest dreck of his lean years.

That air of Karloff gravitas really improves “The Devil Commands,” which would otherwise be easily consigned to the dustbin with the Poverty Row programmers with which it has so much in common

Karloff plays Dr. Julian Blair, a kind-hearted scientist who is trying to create a machine to read and record brainwaves. But when his beloved wife (Shirley Warde) dies, he goes off the deep end and tries to use his machine to speak to her spirit, despite the protestations of his daughter (Amanda Duff) and his assistant/future son-in-law (Richard Fiske). When he meets a ruthless psychic (Anne Revere), things really go off the rails and the obligatory angry local mob has to storm his remote house. Then things end pretty much as you would expect.

The film isn’t terrible by any means, although it is fairly predictable and mines the same territory as plenty of other worse films of the period. Based on the novel “The Edge of Running Water” by William Sloane, the story is tight and well paced, and the supporting cast is capable. And the effects on the machine are pretty decent, making what is essentially a harmless modern EEG machine look like a gothic dungeon contraption that would be right at home in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab.

But the real treat here is Karloff, who brings subtleties to the role that, frankly, the material doesn’t deserve. But it’s a treatment that’s certainly welcome.

Best Line:
“And yet perhaps the time will come with the door to infinity opens. Perhaps…. Perhaps….”

Side Note:
Directed by future Blacklist victim Edward Dmytryk.

Companion Viewing:
“The Black Room” (1935) and “The Ape” (1940).

She Blogged By Night.

Take a Look:
Another YouTube installment special, thanks to Dr. Bubble:

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