THE DEVIL COMMANDS. Columbia Pictures, 1941. Boris Karloff, Richard Fiske, Amanda Duff, Anne Revere, Ralph Penney, Kenneth MacDonald. Based on the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane. Director: Edward Dmytryk.

BORIS KARLOFF The Devil Commands

   Beginning with the movie Ghost, there has been a flood of films recently dealing with the possibility of communicating with the dead, but of course movies dealing with the dead and ways with getting in touch with them are not a recent phenomenon at all, and I’m sure it was already old stuff when The Devil Commands came out.

   Most of the recent movies on the subject seem to be out-and-out fantasies (Flatliners, which I haven’t seen, may be an exception), but in 1941, science was still new enough that almost anything was possible.

   The Devil Commands takes the prevailing point of view, however, that there are “things no human being should know,” or at least I assume it was a prevailing point of view in 1941, when this movie came out. Boris Karloff, haggard and bereft after the death of his wife, is an archetypal “mad scientist” in this movie — a villain, but an innocent victim as well.

   In terms of film style, it’s filmed in black and white, but I think there’s far more black on the screen than there is white.

   As in Ghost, there is a female spiritualist (played here by Anne Revere, as opposed to Whoopi Goldberg) who, although a fake, does have some innate power in the realm of spiritualism, a power that could be tapped, if only the “experiments” were allowed to continue.

   The local townsfolk are a superstitious lot, however — nothing like a few missing bodies to arouse their anger — and while every aspect of this movie is developed to perfection, there are no wild surprises, either. This is a pulp science fiction story of the 30s brought to life, an out-and-out phantom of the past, and I savored every minute of it.

— Reprinted from Zen at Work #3, November 1993, with some revisions.

BORIS KARLOFF The Devil Commands

Editorial Comments: Over the years Mystery*File went through many changes, including alternate titles, and Zen at Work was unfortunately one of them. Only 40 copies were made of issue number 3, which clocked in at thirty pages long, chock filled with reviews of books and movies I’d read and watched at the time.

   One of the sections in this issue I called Mystery*File 35, which I’d put together but never went out to subscribers. Another section was called Fatal Quiche. (Don’t ask.) In any case, I’ve just come across my copy of it, and over the next few weeks, if not months, I’ll be treating you with reprints from it. (I won’t go through the whole set of details again. From now on I’ll simply call it M*F 35.)

   As for The Devil Commands, I imagine I still have a copy — I probably taped it from American Movie Classics when the channel was still worth watching — but remember the movie, even with my review? Not at all.

   And as far as coincidences go, here’s a good one. Last Sunday, two days ago, David Vineyard emailed me a copy of his review of To Walk The Night — by none other than William Sloane, who wrote the novel The Devil Commands was adapted from. Look for it soon, here on the Mystery*File blog.