April 16, 2013

Science Meets Seance

The Devil Commands (1941) - Poster
Now Playing: The Devil Commands (1941)

Pros: Dark, forbidding atmosphere; Severe Anne Revere is a deliciously evil villainess
Cons: Ham-handed plot devices move things along briskly, but cause befuddlement and head-scratching

Since the dawn of history and humanity's first, crude attempts at reflective thought, we have been vexed and confounded by the greatest of all questions: what waits for us on the other side? (In my case, I've had a glimpse of the other side, and it's a veritable Shangri-la of green grass, a very nice deck with comfortable, all-weather furniture, and a high-end gas grill guarded by two huge black labrador retrievers, Cerberus and Pluto. Okay, so it's only my neighbor's back yard on the other side of a big wooden fence, but as old as I am, I'm not quite ready to go on the ultimate exploration of the other side, so my curiosity at this point is more earth-bound. And yes, I made up the part about the dogs' names.)

Kidding aside, the 19th and 20th centuries saw an explosion of interest in "the other side" and spiritualism (a horrendous civil war and two world wars that sent tens of millions to early graves, among other catastrophes, did wonders for focusing people's minds on questions of life after death). Gone (or at least held in abeyance) were the certainties of heaven and hell, eternal redemption and punishment from previous centuries. In this new scientific and technological age, there were seemingly as many theories of life after death, and pseudo-scientific methods for testing those theories, as there were people with the time, money and burning desire to answer the riddle once and for all. Ghost clubs and psychical research societies sprouted like weeds in a rundown cemetery.

Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes
and fervent believer in 'the Other Side'.
World renowned celebrities were inevitably drawn into the fray. On the credulous side, physician and writer Arthur Conan Doyle wanted desperately to believe in life after death, having lost his wife at the beginning of the century and a son, a brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews during and shortly after World War I. He belonged to several spiritualists' organizations and wrote numerous essays and books on the subject. On the skeptical side, magician and escape artist Harry Houdini dedicated his energies in the 1920s to debunking mediums and spiritualists (ironically, Conan Doyle, who was friends with Houdini for a time, insisted that Harry himself possessed supernatural powers -- Houdini never convinced his friend that his "powers" were simply based on very cleverly-constructed illusions).

In the 21st century, belief in life after death as another plane of existence apart from divine judgement is at a low ebb, while old-school Heaven and Hell has made a roaring comeback (at least in the United States).  Still, the war between the spiritualists and the debunkers continues, if in a somewhat muted, almost frivolous form (think John Edward and Penn and Teller).

Columbia Pictures' The Devil Commands was made at a time when it wasn't such a stretch to think of death as the gateway to another dimension, or to believe that scientific methods might ultimately reveal what lies beyond. Although it debuted toward the beginning of a war that would send millions more to "the other side" and deal yet another crushing blow to humanity's innocence and faith, the film seems the product of a different place and time altogether, at one and the same time innocent, yet dark and macabre. The mad scientist in this film is no one-dimensional stand-in for Nazi evil, but rather a gentle, scholarly man who has become unhinged by grief.

The film starts out with a long shot of a forbidding cliffside mansion on a dark and stormy night. As the camera tracks closer, one of the main characters, Anne Blair (Amanda Duff), introduces herself in voiceover and grimly intones:
"This was my father's house. In Barsham Harbor on nights like this, when lightning rips the night apart, why do people close the shutters that face toward my father's house, and lock their doors, and whisper? Why are they afraid? No one goes near my father's house. No one dares."
Now that we're thoroughly creeped out, cut to Midland University, seven years earlier. The famous Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is demonstrating an early form of an electroencephalograph to five eminent colleagues. After strapping his assistant, Dr. Sayles (Richard Fiske) into an upright gurney and clamping a bizarre-looking helmet with large electrodes onto his head, Blair confidently tells the group, "you will be the first people with the exception of my wife and my assistant Dr. Sayles, to see the proof that the human brain can give off an impulse that can be recorded!"

Boris Karloff as Dr. Julian Blair - The Devil Commands (1941)
An early experiment in electroencephalography.
As Blair fires up his lab equipment (somewhat reminiscent of a guy named Frankenstein), a large pen slowly records wave forms on a wall-sized chart. (While this technology is, excuse the pun, a no-brainer for us today, one can imagine that this was something of an eye-opener for audiences of the early '40s when all this was very new.) Blair tells his colleagues that each brain has its own wavelength, and no two are alike. He gets a chance to demonstrate on a second person when his wife Helen (Shirley Warde) comes to pick him up. She gamely agrees and dons the equipment. Feminists take note: her graph is much more pronounced and bold than Sayles': "Every demonstration that I've made so far clearly shows that the wave impulse of woman, the so-called weaker sex, is much stronger and more regular than man's," explains Blair. "Evidently there's a greater natural power in the brain of woman, any woman." (Actually, everyone take note, for it will be important later.)

Before his wife can hustle him out of the laboratory to go pick up their daughter Anne from the train station, Blair boldly predicts that eventually he'll be able to record and read the thoughts of any person, and even send pure thoughts like radio waves across vast distances. (Of course, today people send their (im)pure, unadulterated thoughts instantly, to the whole world, in the form of tweets. Heaven help us!)

That same night, tragedy strikes. Helen drops her husband off at the baker's to get a cake for Anne's birthday before heading over to the train station. Circling the block in the driving rain, she crashes the car and is killed instantly. After the funeral, the despondent scientist goes back to his lab to be alone with his grief. Absentmindedly he turns the equipment on, and amidst the crackling of arcing electricity, he sees the exact same waveform being recorded right underneath the one his wife recorded on her last night! And of course, there's no one wearing the electro-helmet. From this he deduces that Helen's brainwaves still exist and can be intercepted, and perhaps he can even communicate with her.

When he tries to tell Anne, Richard and his scientific colleagues the good news, they chalk it up to his overwhelming grief. Blair's intensity frightens his colleagues, and they caution him that if he's truly right, opening up a portal to the dead might have unintended consequences:
1st colleague: But what if you do find a way to pierce the veil between us and them…
2nd colleague: And let the world of the dead back in upon the living?
1st colleague: We don't know what evil may be lurking behind that veil waiting to get through!
3rd colleague: I know one thing Julian, there are things human beings have no right to know!
A seance conducted by Blanche Walters (Anne Revere)
A ghostly visit from the other side or something else?
It's a veritable Greek chorus of fear, loathing and dread. Seeing his boss' frustration with these small, cowardly men, Blair's somewhat simple-minded but good-hearted lab assistant Karl (Cy Shindell) suggests that there are other ways of communicating with the dead -- Karl has been seeing a medium and talking with his dead mother. Ever the scientist, Blair is skeptical at first, but then agrees to attend with Karl. The seance is presided over by the formidable looking Blanche Walters (Anne Revere), a supposed medium.

During the eerie proceedings, as the ghostly visage of Karl's mother hovers over the group and gives her son a comforting message, Blair is sizing up everything. After the seance, Blair stays behind to talk with Walters. He strides over to a nearby wall, brushes aside a curtain and reveals a cabinet from which the ghost -- a dummy wrapped in gauze -- emerges each session. He then traces a wire to a hidden microphone that broadcasts the supposed voices from beyond. Walters is clearly not pleased, and tells him to get out. Blair has one more question for the fraudulent medium: how did she manage to shock him with a strong electrical charge as she held his hand during the seance? "Are you crazy, I've never used electricity at a seance in my life!" she responds indignantly. Just like that, the good doctor concludes that in spite of her phony methods, Walters nonetheless possesses extraordinary brain and energy potential that might just allow her to communicate with the dead for real. He bribes her to come back to the lab with him for some tests (uh-huh), and sensing a meal ticket, she quickly grabs her coat.

Anne Revere as Blanche Walters
Dr. Blair's methods are a real eye-opener for
Blanche, the phony medium (Anne Revere).
Thus begins a dark and deadly relationship. First, Blair puts the phony medium through a series of risky-looking tests involving electricity, and concludes that the woman can both "receive and transmit" huge amounts of energy -- that in effect, she's the perfect antenna for channeling communications between our world and the one beyond. Next, in order to further amplify the effect, Blair hooks poor Karl up to the equipment in a sort of psychic circuit with Walters, and succeeds in frying his brain in the process.

Walters convinces Blair to pack up, send the daughter away, and move out to the remote New England coast where they can resume their experiments without inconvenient questions from the authorities about brain-frying and other dodgy practices. But their work doesn't go unnoticed by the backward, superstitious villagers of nearby Barsham Harbor. They (and the local sheriff) wonder who the dark, severe-looking woman is who refuses to let anyone see Dr. Blair. Who (or what) is the shambling, mute brute of a man who wanders around the mansion's dark hallways? Why have seven fresh bodies disappeared from the local cemetery since Blair and his odd "family" moved in? And what in tarnation are those strange lights and eerie sounds emanating from the Blair house on dark and stormy nights?

Can Anne and Sayles save Blair from himself and the malign influence of Walters before the villagers light the torches, grab their pitchforks and take matters into their own hands?

Cover art - The Edge of Running Water (1939), by William Sloane
The Devil Commands is based on a (now) little-known science fiction/horror novel, The Edge of Running Water (1939), by William M. Sloane. Back in the late '60s I discovered the novel while browsing a drugstore paperback rack. I'm not sure what drew me to it-- the cover art was unexceptional and the understated title didn't cry out sci-fi or horror. But for whatever reason I bought it, and by the time I put it down, I was having disturbing dreams. This, and Sloane's other notable science fiction novel, To Walk the Night (1937) are masterpieces of mood, well-realized and richly-described characters and places, and slowly building suspense. (While Sloane's own output was regrettably sparse -- in addition to the two novels he wrote several plays and edited a couple of science fiction collections -- he became an eminent publisher, and spent the last twenty years of his life as director of the Rutgers University Press.)

Columbia's adaptation does as good a job as can be expected of capturing the novel's dark mood and some of its more disturbing details in a crisp 65 minute running time. One of the very interesting elements of both book and movie is the mad scientist's technological simulation of a seance circle. From the book:
"The apparatus itself was so much of a nightmare that my glance slid off it the first time without any precise attempt to understand what I saw. My impression was of seated figures, human and yet horribly not human, ranged round a black table with a sort of lectern at one end…  There were seven of them. One, with its back toward me, at the rear end of the table, and three along either side. … They were, I saw, all alike, all polished till the copper of their wires glowed, and they were holding hands. At least, their arms ended in five filaments of wire and these were, in each case, linked with the fingers of the figures on either side. From head to foot they were made of wire and there was something terrible in the fact that I could look clean through them."
A "scientifically enhanced" seance - The Devil Commands (1941)
Science melds with the occult to produce a seance
straight from the bowels of Hell!
The movie takes this chilling description and adds an even more macabre element to it (which I hint at above). When Karloff/Blair fires up the apparatus, it moves in an uncanny and unsettling way. The Devil Commands is the most interesting and unusual of director Edward Dmytryk's B assignments, predating his breakout Murder, My Sweet (1944) by several years (see also my review of another Dmytryk-helmed B horror-thriller, Captive Wild Woman). For Boris, the film was another in a long line of cookie-cutter mad scientist roles, but to my mind, the unusual story, Dmytryk's solid direction, and the eerily effective production design set it a notch or two above his other horror-thriller programmers from this era.

But the film really belongs to Anne Revere (Blanche Walters). She exudes a quiet menace that is right up there with Gale Sondergaard's evil best. She's bad enough scamming credulous rich people as a fake medium, but when she gets her hooks into poor Dr. Blair, all hell (literally) breaks loose. Revere was nominated 3 times for a best supporting Oscar, winning for her role as Mrs. Brown in National Velvet (1944). (Ironically, both she and Dmytryk were caught up in the anti-communist blacklist hysteria of the late '40s and early '50s. She stood her ground, and didn't make another movie for 20 years. Dmytryk recanted and named names, saving his career, but earned the enmity of many who never forgave him.)

Whether you're a Boris Karloff fan, curious about Anne Revere's B movie career, or just intrigued by Gothic-tinged horror with a sci-fi twist, The Devil Commands is well worth checking out on Amazon Instant Video or DVD.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Amazon DVD

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

An Anne Revere tribute:


  1. This is a fantastic post,about one of my all time favorite Boris Karloff films as well as top classic horror gems. Brain I've nominated you for Versatile Blogger Award my long lost brother... teehee

    1. Hi Joey!
      I remember the movie making a big impression on me as a kid, and then being just amazed by the Sloane book in junior high school -- it was so different from the all the other science fiction I was reading at the time. It wasn't until years later that I figured out the connection between the two.

      Thank you so much for the Versatile Blogger nomination! The great thing about the Liebster and the Versatile Blogger is discovering all the like-minded, talented people out there with the same love of old movies. (And sometimes, discovering people whose tastes and background are so similar to yours, it's positively eerie!) :)

  2. Hey Brian,

    I found your site through Terrorthon, which I am also participating in, and I must say I am absolutely blown away by your work! This is an amazing website and can't wait to do a little more exploring. Great stuff!

    Anti-Film School

    1. Thanks for the very kind words Steve! I'm looking forward to the Terrorthon, and am glad someone's covering the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

      Love the "retro drive-in aesthetic" of your site, and the name is too cool for school! :) Suffice it to say I'm now subscribed!

  3. Ola entrei para conhecer,e gostei....Meu abraço.SU

    1. Que bom que você gostou da postagem no blog Suzane!

  4. Lovely article giving this movie its due.

    1. Thank you! I think the inspiration of the source material -- Sloane's novel -- sets this apart from the usual run of Karloff's mad scientist programmers. While it takes great liberties with the novel, it captures the dark atmosphere of the original very nicely!

  5. I liked your description of "the other side" – sounds good to me!

    I haven't seen "The Devil Commands" but it looks like a real treat. Since I'm a bit of a fraidy cat, I won't keep an eye out for the book, but I will watch for the film. Thanks for recommending!

    1. I've confirmed it, the grass really is greener on the other side! :) I can understand your reluctance to look up the novel, but the film is well worth the modest rental price to stream-- one of Karloff's best from this period.