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  Devil Commands, The Can't Let Go
Year: 1941
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Stars: Boris Karloff, Richard Fiske, Amanda Duff, Anne Revere, Ralph Penney, Dorothy Adams, Walter Baldwin, Kenneth MacDonald, Shirley Warde
Genre: Horror, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Dr Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) has hit upon a brainwave - or rather, other people's brainwaves, as he is researching how to record them with a view to, effectively, reading minds and recreating their thoughts and processes scientifically. He prides himself in demonstrating his findings to a team of contemporary boffins, and they are all impressed, but unsure where all this could lead, so when he brings in his wife (Shirley Warde) to wear the apparatus and show how women's brainwaves are more powerful than men's, they make approving noises yet hold back from committing themselves to absolute endorsement. However, tragedy is right around the corner, as when they venture out on a stormy night to get a birthday cake for their daughter Anne (Amanda Duff), there is a crash...

The Devil Commands, which featured no devils commanding before you ask, was the fourth of Karloff's mad scientist movies from the Columbia studio - he would make five, the last spoofing the previous quartet. This time they were still taking things straightfaced, and based their script on a very well-regarded science fiction novel called The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane rather than concocting an original premise as before, though you would be hard pressed to notice any difference since they were all in the tradition of horror pulp. What was pleasing about this was its frequent visual resemblance to the covers of those magazines that would carry this kind of story, particularly when Boris began to really get cranky with his experiments and involved the use of dead bodies.

With his wife now dead thanks to that accident in the storm, Dr Blair grows obsessed with proving she has not gone completely from this world, which in a less wacky production would be the basis for genuine heartache for the characters, after all the reason many attend mediums is because they cannot bear to let the dead go. So it is with the scientist, who visits a psychic, Mrs Blanche Walters played with icy reserve and imposing countenance by Anne Revere, that actress who specialised in the careworn mother roles, but here exhibited a real knack for chills that suggested she could have been a boon to the horror genre. As it was, ten years after this she was a victim of the Blacklist and struggled to find work, a terrible shame for one with so obvious a talent, but it is roles such as this which have film buffs looking her up to see what else she had appeared in and were not disappointed at her quality.

Nevertheless, this was Boris's show, and he transformed from kindly husband and father into a madman consumed with regret and a drive to contact his deceased partner. To achieve this, he moved into an old mansion house by a cliff with Mrs Walters, estranged himself from Anne, and collected a few corpses from the local graveyard to place in what looked like diving suits hooked up to the electrical mains. Somehow (the actual science was somewhat shaky, as you can imagine) this brings voices from the ether through an indoor whirlwind in the centre of the ring of bodies, which would indicate some degree of success, but he remains unsatisfied: he needs a more concrete communication. When his housekeeper allows her curiosity to get the better of her in a splendid sequence that sets off the process and scares her to death, literally, the stage is ready for Blair's comeuppance, though not before some absurdly over the top conclusions. And yet, the grief motive means you do not laugh as much as you would with a less sincere performance, courtesy of Karloff, who sells the sadness of the situation with style.

[This is included on the six film Blu-ray box set Karloff at Columbia from Eureka, and has these features:

O-Card Slipcase | All six films presented in 1080p across two Blu-ray discs | Optional English SDH subtitles | Brand new audio commentaries on The Black Room, Before I Hang, and The Boogie Man Will Get You with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby | Brand new audio commentaries on The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, and The Devil Commands with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman | PLUS: Collector's booklet featuring writing on all six films by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster); film critic and author Jon Towlson; and film scholar Craig Ian Mann.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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