BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE DEVIL COMMANDS

By • Aug 26th, 2003 •

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(Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment) 1941
65 mins / B&W / 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Clive Hirschhorn, in his handsome coffee table book ‘The Columbia Story’, says “THE DEVIL COMMANDS was probably the worst film that Boris Karloff ever made.” Yipes! Looking for hyperbole, I guess, or perhaps given a free reign by Columbia to denigrate any of their smaller films he wished in order to make his high praise for some of the bigger ones seem more genuine, the author lit into other Karloff vehicles with equal disdain. 1932’s BEHIND THE MASK is assassinated in print as he describes the narrative’s crisis as “Dangerous work – and dangerous for audiences, too, as they might easily have died laughing at the sheer ineptitude of the screenplay…even director John Francis Dillon’s use of atmospheric graveyard scenes, storm-tossed nights, and Frankenstein-like laboratories, could not save his film from the shlock horror it was.” About 1935’s THE BLACK ROOM [which I love], “Director Roy William Neill’s direction clearly aimed for Gothic horror with shots of ravens, graveyards, foreboding castles and shadows of cats – but nothing worked, except the expert double exposure featuring the two sides of Karloff.”

I’d prefer to write Hirschhorn off as someone who just doesn’t have a feel for the horror ‘B’s of the period, and therefore shouldn’t have been writing about them. But then he goes and praises BEFORE I HANG and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU. So I don’t get it?

Columbia was a little ill-at-ease with Karloff’s horror vehicles, which were not their stock in trade the way Universal’s were. And unlike RKO, where Val Lewton thrust Karloff in an entirely new and poetic direction, Columbia tried, often clumsily and in that way that Hollywood still utilizes to homogenize their releases, to take the workable elements from the Universal formulas and stir them into their programmers for safety sake. Hence the derivative music, the angry mob at the end, the inquisitive police chief, the somewhat brain-damaged, threatening assistant, the dull concerned daughter and her equally dull boyfriend. All these script elements are crutches, as are references to a) REBECCA (Hitchcock’s film must have had quite an impact; Lewton borrowed from it too, in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE), employing both a haunted voice over and a masculine ‘Miss Danvers’ character, b) H.P.Lovecraft, c) Edgar Allan Poe, d) the medium-busting exploits of Harry Houdini, e) the final invention Thomas Edison was working on – a device to communicate with the dead – which he died before finishing…all of which impresses me with the screenwriters’ powers of research. And, like most of the Columbia horrors of the period, it’s pleasantly intelligent and a bit too sedate. But it’s never bad, and it’s a lot of fun. My only problem with it is its lack of a true payoff ending. Either they chickened out, or couldn’t make it work in the editing, or the censors thought that the ‘contact with the dead’ element was a little too sacrilegious. I’ll guess the latter. It’s also possible that, like FORBIDDEN PLANET’s odd third act moment when Morbeus confronts the monster from the Id but we see nothing except his arms outstretched (rumor having it that the effects tab needed for that shot was vetoed by the studio), the budget ran out before the effects needed for the final scene of THE DEVIL COMMANDS were accomplished.

Karloff plays a respected scientist working with brainwaves who, after his beloved wife is killed in a car accident, veers off in a new direction, trying to use his inventions to contact her in the afterlife. He alienates his peers, distances himself from his daughter, fries the brain of his trusty assistant, and enlists the aid of a mercenary medium (well played by Anne Revere) who protects him from the world as he plows on, stepping irredeemably over the line of medical ethics.

An early work by director Edward (THE YOUNG LIONS, THE CAINE MUTINY, THE CARPETBAGGERS) Dmytryk, the film is characterized by interesting performances, nice lighting, and a brisk pace. But the director is least successful with Karloff who, while quite good at times, at others doesn’t seem quite ‘into it.’ Maybe he and Dmytryk didn’t hit it off, or maybe he saw the vehicle in much the same way as Hirschhorn would view it several decades later.

I happen to like it, with all its fun ideas and forward drive. I think it’s debatably a 40’s collectible. There is some negative wear – verticle scratches in one section – which are unfortunate, but they don’t ruin things. There are no supplementary features on the disc dealing with the feature, and perhaps there should have been, as the program is only 65 minutes long. What supplements the DVD does have are trailers for other upcoming Columbia TriStar releases, such as Tsui Hark’s VAMPIRE HUNTERS, which trailer fails to make that film alluring, not a good sign.


Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Story by William Sloane.
Screenplay by Robert D. Andrews and Milton Gunzburg.

Featuring:
Boris Karloff, Richard Fiske, Anne Revere, Amanda Duff.

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