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DEVIL COMMANDS, THE (director: Edward Dmytryk; screenwriters: Robert D. Andrews/Milton Gunzburg/from the novel “The Edge of Running Water” by William Sloane; cinematographer: Allen G. Siegler; editor: Al Clark; music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff; cast: Boris Karloff (Dr. Julian Blair), Richard Fiske (Dr. Richard Sayles), Amanda Duff (Anne Blair), Anne Revere (Mrs. Walters), Ralph Penney (Karl), Dorothy Adams (Mrs. Marcy), Walter Baldwin (Seth Marcy), Kenneth MacDonald (Sheriff Ed Willis), Shirley Warde (Helen Blair); Runtime: 65; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Wallace MacDonald; Columbia; 1941)
“Karloff is allowed to act and shines in a frightingly sensitive and moving performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of Edward Dmytryk’s (“The Caine Mutiny”/”Hitler’s Children”/”Cornered”) passable atmospheric low-budget early films. The goofy old-fashioned horror B-film was shot in two weeks and Boris Karloff turns in a good performance as the sympathetic misunderstood mad scientist. It was adapted by Robert D. Andrews and Milton Gunzburg from the novel “The Edge of Running Water” by William Sloane.

Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is the well-respected and liked head of the science department in his small-town college who is doing research on brain wave patterns and discovers that the specific brain wave fingerprint lives on after death and that women’s currents are stronger than men’s. The Professor believes he’s on the verge of a major breakthrough in communication with the dead in the near future. When his loving wife Helen (Shirley Warde) dies while another car crashes into her while she’s sitting in her parked car, the Professor becomes despondent and locks himself in the lab to continue working around the clock on his experiments using his weird “radio tube” machines. But this time he ups the ante and tries to make communication with his dead wife. His dim-witted lab assistant Karl (Ralph Penney) tells him of a medium, Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere), who can communicate with the dead and takes him to her seance. The brilliant Professor proves that she’s a charlatan but finds she has a great ability to absorb electrical shock and pays her to come back to his lab to be the subject of his experiments. Not heeding the warnings of his colleagues who scoff at him, his 20-year-old daughter Anne (Amanda Duff) who wants to care for him during his time of overwhelming grief, or his trustworthy scientific assistant Dr. Sayles (Richard Fiske) who believes he has gone too far, the Professor continues the experiments with the medium and Karl from a different New England location, along the seacoast in a creepy house that every horror film seems to come up with, and comes under the evil influence of the greedy medium. It leads to the accidental death of his maid, Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams), being hounded by her irate husband (Walter Baldwin), suspected by the rational snooping sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) of being a grave robber, and then having to face the lynching party of the fearful locals who hate his guts. As one can imagine in such films, the experiments go bad and the once nice guy Professor is in big trouble when he can’t explain any more what he’s up to.

Though the science part is hokum, Karloff is allowed to act and shines in a frighteningly sensitive and moving performance. It concludes by emphatically stating that “There are things that human beings have no right to know.” In this case, they certainly may have been right.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”