Dialing Up the Dead
Horror icon Boris Karloff has one of his most resonant roles in The Devil Commands. As pioneering brain wave researcher Dr. Julian Blair, he brings his characteristic mix of menace and vulnerability. Blair begins the film a cheerful family man and respected scientist, but the untimely death of his wife Helen (Shirley Warde), drives him away from his respected colleagues and doting daughter Anne (Amanda Duff).
Deciding to use his brain wave recording technology to contact his wife “beyond the veil,” Blair takes up with a manipulative spiritualist, Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere). He abandons Anne, moves to a remote village to conduct his sinister work, and even helps to cover up the murder of his own maid, all the while maintaining audience sympathy.
The Devil Commands was shot on a tight schedule and budget by director Edward Dmytryk. (Following this film, he made a name for himself with films noirs like Murder, My Sweet , and then was blacklisted; after naming names, he returned to Hollywood to make The Caine Mutiny  and The Young Lions ). It is to Dmytryk’s credit that The Devil Commands, though just over an hour long, takes some time to let characters develop. For instance, though Mrs. Blair appears in only a few scenes before her death, one still feels the warmth between the couple, making Julian’s subsequent, prolonged grief believable. This is a case where an intelligent director, star, and script work a genre for a purpose deeper than cheap thrills.
Despite a rushed ending that leaves many questions unanswered, this little gem of a shocker features strong characters and provocative questions throughout. The DVD presents its black and white picture with crisp detail and the sound is good, though extras (aside from a few trailers for unrelated recent releases) are nonexistent. Nonetheless, for classic horror fans, particularly Karloff devotees, this DVD will be a revelation.
That said, he isn’t the film’s central ominous figure. That would be Anne Revere, dark and oddly sexy as the unscrupulous Mrs. Walters. Revere probably could have become a horror icon in her own right if she wanted to, or had been given a chance (ironically, this descendent of American patriot Paul Revere was blacklisted, like her director). Her performance here will intrigue classic horror devotees and casual fans who may never have heard of her, or seen this film before.
Along with the rest of the film, Mrs. Walters provides an unusually clear window into the era’s fears; in 1941, the U.S. was dealing with its isolationist stance with regard to the Second World War, and of course, about to enter it following December’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The anxiety attending this decision is mirrored in Blair’s own rejection of his family and respectability in order to pursue his wife’s phantom. His quest is a funhouse mirror inversion of sending young soldiers overseas to die. Here he will bring Helen back from over the seas of death, via encephalographic radio.
Blair seeks to prove that the electric current generated by the human brain doesn’t fade after death (and, not incidentally, that women’s currents are stronger than men’s), and living brains can be harnessed as receivers of a deceased person’s brain waves. In other words, humans can be made into portable radios. Though the idea is presented here as science fiction, it seems, within the context of the film, very possible. When his ideas are initially dismissed, Blair answers, “They called radio impossible!”
Indeed, his fellow scientists don’t mock him, being too respectful of his previous brain wave research, but they argue that to use science to bridge the gap between life and death is irresponsible: “We don’t know what evil may be lurking beyond that veil,” one declares. The dread here is less about death than about opening a telecommunications bridge to the afterlife, and what wickedness might seep through.
This idea, and its illustrative set piece—involving a séance of corpses in diving helmets, whirling around in a small tornado—is surely one of the most unusual in early 1940s horror cinema. Back then, the genre was preoccupied with zombie gangsters, wolfmen and catwomen, and women frozen in trances. At the same time, messages from beyond the grave were frequent during both World Wars, with letters sent by soldiers arriving weeks after their deaths to grieving loved ones. “Werewolves” were alive in Europe in civilized men reverting to savagery on the battlefield, and “zombies” were common in post-traumatic soldiers returning home and women who waited by the phone in catatonic trances to hear if their husbands or sons were alive or dead.
The Devil Commands also presents a more concrete fear, of technology running amok and blurring the line between life and death. Dr. Blair’s idea probably seemed plausible at the time, certainly no more difficult to fathom than, say, electroencephalograms or TV. And if we sympathize with Blair’s grief, we also come to agree with his colleagues: he’s placed his personal obsessions above the welfare of others, putting the town, even all humankind, in jeopardy. Our growing terror mirrors that of the world’s population in 1941, watching as science and technology move from creating new wonders like radio to new horrors like the atomic bomb.