The Devil Commands (1941)
Dir Edward Dmytryk
Written by Robert Hardy Andrews, Milton Gunzburg based on a story by William Sloane
Starring Boris Karloff, Richard Fiske, Anne Revere, Ralph Penny
What we got here is a simple, elegant mad scientists tale with Karloff as a guy whose hope that he can somehow bring his wife back from the dead gradually turns him into a madman. Unlike a lot of mad scientists from this era, Karloff’s Julian Blair is actually a real nice guy, not an egomaniacal monster or a cold, amoral egghead. He genuinely loved his wife and is really destroyed by losing her, and understandably instantly obsessed when he gets even a faint bit of evidence that he may still be able to communicate with her somehow. Alas, just like poor Frankenstein, his colleagues inexplicably don’t approve of his work or seem to care at all that he genuinely seems to have stumbled upon a possible method for communicating with the dead. Seems like that would be the kind of thing other scientists would be interested in, but I guess not. So he has to take his enterprise underground, where things turn a little shadier when a self-serving phony medium (Academy-award-winner Anne Revere, GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT) decides to become his partner.
The feel is maybe macabre more than outright horrifying, since Karloff remains fundamentally a nice guy who is just blinded by his desire to see his wife again. Revere is a much better antagonist in the Lady Macbeth role, egging him on and pushing him to darker places. But she’s kind of underdeveloped, and despite a great performance the character doesn’t really go anywhere. That kind of defines the problem with the movie: it’s technically quite well-made, and boasts a few strikingly designed images, but it isn’t structured very well. Karloff is off the deep end pretty quickly, and there aren’t really any other major characters so there isn’t much conflict or anything which could really be called an arc. The second half of the movie is mostly about Karloff trying to avoid detection from (rightfully) suspicious locals, which creates some tension I suppose, but not really enough of a story to hang the whole narrative on.
|This is all very scientific, look, they got lightbulbs and everything.|