In the late 1930s, early 1940s horror was at a low ebb, what with the real horrors going on overseas, blah blah. Boris Karloff made six pictures in 1939, eight (!) in 1940.
And then in 1941, just THE DEVIL COMMANDS.
In 1942, he made just THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, largely because of being tied to the endlessly successful ARSENIC AND OLD LACE back east. With that play's old dark house crashes into Brooklyn comedic vibe, one could surely get a sense that typical Karloffian boogie men were fading under the glaring lamp of Nazism and industry fears the public was scared enough just wondering when the Japanese were coming. ARSENIC showed them the old monsters were now fun; after being scared by the newsreel, audiences found them cathartic. The sense of losing one's place in the iconic understructure comes most to the fore in the much later TARGETS (1969). But, in THE DEVIL COMMANDS, Karloff taps into melancholic desperation of a million housewives and newlyweds terrified to open each new telegram. The public's fascination with hanging and life after death tied symbolically with the sense of suspended animation associated with the home front during wartime. Memories of the first world war still fresh in the collective consciousness, the dread of being a parent of a solider or a war bride encompassed the fact that one could receive letters from the front, weeks after the writer's death, a voice from beyond the grave... mishmashed in the swamp of the collective unconscious alongside the suspended animation of newly minted young brides who'd enjoyed only a few hours of conjugal bliss before their husbands were shipped off to the front
The main storyline for DEVIL is A-typical for Karloff's films of the time, in which he played over and over a kindly scientist turned evil when his formula for bringing life to the dead is stolen by heinous gangsters to bring someone back from public excecution to smite those who falsely accused him, or ratted him out. Inevitably he winds up back from the grave to bump off his betrayers, one... by... one, or else sends his zombie slave do it. This was the more or less same plot for: BLACK FRIDAY, MAN WITH NINE LIVES, BEFORE I HANG, THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG and THE WALKING DEAD.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk, THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) appears at first to follow the trend of bringing back the dead (this time via radio) but manages along the way to invoke something darker and more interesting than the usual gangsters and nooses. Here they're swapped for a mysterious lady spiritualist, played with great depth and malice by Anne Revere.
As pioneering brain wave researcher Dr. Julian Blair, Karloff begins the film a cheerful family man and respected scientist, we see him say good-bye to his loving wife, Helen (Shirley Warde), before she leaves on an errand and is hit by a car, and though she appears in only a few scenes before her death, one still feels the warmth between them. The sense of connection and esteem for one another is palpable and touching, making Dr. Blair's subsequent, prolonged grief after her death something genuinely palpable. Eventually Blair's obsession with contacting Helen from beyond the grave via radio waves starts to be a real turn-off; he spooks his respected colleagues and doting daughter, Anne (Amanda Duff), and is eventually run out of town.
Setting up his equipment in a remote country house, still determined to use his brain wave recording technology to contact his wife "beyond the veil," Blair takes up with a manipulative spiritualist, Mrs. Walters (Revere), abandons his daughter and even helps Ms. Walters cover up the murder of his own maid, when the poor woman gets "too close" to their disturbing secret.
The big secret is a doozy: a gaggle of diving helmet-wearing corpses seated round the table in a combination Frankenstein laboratory and spiritualist seance, the perfect merging of science with the occult! To detail any more would be a sin, but suffice it to say that with Revere's sinister spiritualist, Karloff finds another excellent actress to work with. Where he generated great warmth with Warde, he generates conflicted remorse and determination with his wife's dark shadow, Ms. Walters.
It is to Dmytryk's credit that the film takes some time to let characters develop in both negative and positive directions. The fears of the general scientific community towards something beyond their understanding doesn't stem from a knee-jerk hostility to new ideas as such, but rather the worry that in opening the gate between this world and the next, we risk exposure to some demonic force beyond our power to control. Whereas most scientific communities in these films just snicker and deride, this attitude is at least open-minded and refreshing.
This deviation from simple religious and scientific dogma provides an unusually clear window into the era's fears; in 1941, the U.S. was still dealing with its isolationist stance with regard to the Second World War. Dr. Blair's fellow scientists don't mock him, being too respectful of his previous brain wave research, but they argue: "We don't know what evil may be lurking beyond that veil!" The dread here is less about death than about opening a telecommunications bridge to the afterlife, i.e. once we start messing in Europe's affairs, what's to stop Europe from messing in ours? Once we let the dead back in, what's to keep them out again?
It's a complex narrative for such a short running time (barely an hour) and without Karloff adding so much heart and sympathy it wouldn't be the little powerhouse it is. Revere is great, dark and oddly sexy as the unscrupulous Mrs. Walters, but her horror career never materialized (though the granddaughter of Paul Revere, she was blacklisted, along with Dmyrtryk!). Her performance here will intrigue classic horror devotees, for whom a new scary face is always welcome. In short, one goes into THE DEVIL COMMANDS for Karloff, one comes out with Karloff, and Ann Revere!
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(Portions of this entry were originally written for popmatters in 2003)