Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
The Devil Commands (1941)
"I'm not really Julian's wife. I'm guinea pig number 1 for his experiments."- Helen Blair (Shirley Warde)
Stars: Boris Karloff, Richard Fiske, Amanda Duff, Anne Revere
Other Stars: Ralph Penney, Dorothy Adams, Walter Baldwin, Kenneth MacDonald, Shirley Warde
Director: Edward Dmytryk
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (minor violence, mad science)
Run Time: 01h:04m:23s
Release Date: 2003-08-26
DVD ReviewIn 1939, Columbia Pictures, seeking to cash in on the second horror boom ushered in by Universal's Son of Frankenstein, signed Boris Karloff to a five-picture contract. The first four films shot under this contract all feature Karloff as a mad scientist, and together they form an uneasy little tetraology. By far the best of the four is the last, 1941's The Devil Commands, helmed by Edward Dmytryk, who would go on to much bigger things such as The Caine Mutiny.
Karloff stars as Dr. Julian Blair, who has developed a primitive form of what would become known in the 1960s as an EEG. In this version, however, each person's brainwaves are not only distinctive, but consistent. When his wife Helen (Shirley Warde) is killed in a car wreck, Dr. Blair realizes that her brain waves are still being picked up by his machine, convincing him that she is still present in the ether. Falling in with Blanche Walters (Anne Revere), a spirit medium, he obsessively works to try to communicate with Helen again, even if it requires robbing graves for experimentation material.
Karloff turns in a terrific performance here, one of the best of his film roles in the 1940s. He manages the loving husband, the grieving widower, the dedicated scientist, the obsessive searcher and the utterly deranged madman all plausibly and sensitively in the space of a little over an hour. One of his best bits is his exposure of Mrs. Walters' medium act, where he begins as the skeptical scientist but talks himself into believing some fairly outlandish pseudoscientific material. Anne Revere does a splendid job in support, acting as a fraudulent Lady Macbeth encouraging Blair's obsession into madness. Amanda Duff as the frightened daughter Anne Blair doesn't get much to do other than act concerned, until the very end when her father decides it best to experiment on her, a sequence that must have pushed the limits of the Production Code very hard indeed.
The picture is perhaps best remembered for its wild visuals, the most important of which is the brain-wave mechanism, which resembles a diving-bell helmet more than anything else. There's even more electronic paraphernalia here than the legendary Strickfaden Frankenstein lab, keeping the rather goofy story in the realm of plausibility, even while it's being powered by the corpses of five men. The pacing is certainly brisk, and Dmytryk shows a firm hand in keeping things focused, even if it does result in a rather brief running time. And that's the main complaint about this disc: with a running time of a mere 64 minutes, another of the Columbia mad doctor films could have easily been included as a double feature, especially at the $24.95 MSRP on release date.
Although there's a certain amount of bowing to convention (a New England town turns into the typical Central European torch-bearing mob at a moment's notice), the visuals and the performances by Karloff and Revere really propel this along. The slightly ambiguous conclusion nonetheless helps provide a modicum of thoughtfulness well above the standard for B-movie horror of the period. Just disregard the nonsensical title.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: A very nice transfer is produced by Columbia, with very little frame damage beyond occasional speckling. Detail and texture are both excellent, and although there is substantial grain it is rendered better than usual for this studio. Shadow detail and black levels are very good, giving the picture a bit of a noir aspect in its frequent deep shadows. There's a tiny bit of ringing on hard black edges, but it's pretty minimal overall.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: While the dialogue is generally clear (Karloff's brain-damaged assistant Karl [Ralph Penney] is sometimes hard to understand), there is ample hiss throughout. On a few occasions the hiss drops level substantially, but soon returns to plague the audio. There are some good boomy thunder effects that are effective for the time period. Audio range is, as one expects from the period, rather limited in general, but the music has a decent quality and doesn't sound too distorted as is so often the case.
Audio Transfer Grade: C-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Darkness Falls, Identity, Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: The sole extras provided are anamorphic widescreen trailers for three unrelated Columbia horror movies out on DVD. No trailer for the main feature, though. Chaptering (the usual 28 stops for Columbia) is excellent given the brevity of the picture.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsOne of Karloff's best of the 1940s, with a nice new transfer, if the sound is a bit raggedy. Little in the way of extras and the absence of any accompanying feature make it hard to recommend at the high asking price.
Mark Zimmer 2003-09-09