The Devil Commands

I had been wanting to see The Devil Commands for the longest time, but for whatever reason, I didn't sit down with it until last night. I'm not sure why I had such high expectations for this film. It's one of many z-pictures that Boris Karloff participated in throughout the 40's. You get the feeling that he appeared in these low-rent Universal knock-offs as an act of charity. He couldn't have done it for the films themselves. This one isn't bad. Actually, it's good. There you go; how about that for a review? Okay, I'll keep blathering.

The plot involves Dr. Blair (Karloff), a scientist who has constructed a mechanism that, when zipped up over a person's head, measures brain patterns and transcribes them as jagged lines on a canvas. It's basically a human seismograph. We are told that each individual has a unique pattern, like a snowflake or a fingerprint. Dr. Blair sees this as a breakthrough for forensic technology. His opinions change when his wife is killed in an auto accident. It occurs to him that the cutting-edge instrument could be used to communicate with the dead. Of course, he tries to convince his colleagues of his fantastic findings, but they don't believe a word of it.

Karloff gives a strong, three-dimensional performance as He Who is Commanded By the Devil. It's heartbreaking to watch his character sink into a bottomless depression. I grew attached to him and I was even able to empathize with his wife, an important player with limited screen time. Anne Revere is commanding (sorry, I had to) as a stoic, self-seeking "psychic" who fleeces vulnerable patrons with hidden speakers and rigged ghosts. I like how she bounced off of Karlofff's warm demeanor. Ultimately, the supporting cast is stuffed with throwaway roles. The film only runs for 65 minutes, so there isn't much time to spend on side characters.

The Devil Commands borrows cues from Frankenstein and The Mummy where atmosphere is concerned. Every exterior shot is cloaked in menace, and there is always a thunderstorm underfoot. As with other Karloff vehicles from this period, the whole thing feels incomplete. This is a low-budget production in the truest sense, and it's almost as if the final product is two-thirds of a better film. Where are the missing reels? I jest; The Devil Commands is worth watching on a blustery Saturday night. You'll have to raid a different decade to grab the best Karloff flicks, but his work from the 40's is certainly formidable.

While I'm on the subject, check out The Man Who Changed His Mind. Robert Z'Dar says, "Karloff kicks ass!"

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