The fraternity of mad scientists is a tight-knit one. I ought to know, I’ve been a part of it for a while now. Admittedly, I might not be the highest ranking member, but I know a thing or two about my profession. There are certain great names from the past that I draw a lot of inspiration from…Moreau, Frankenstein, Jekyll. And then there are names not so well known, but that are just as important.
One such name is Dr. Julian Blair and I aim to look at the story of this tragically misguided scientist today. Dr. Blair was portrayed by the great Boris Karloff in a film known as The Devil Commands…one which is not widely known by many, but it should be.
The Devil Commands was one of a series of “mad doctor” movies Karloff made for Columbia during the time he was estranged from Universal Studios due to a contract dispute. In many ways, it’s the most atmospheric and unique of the “mad doctor” movies…it is certainly the most tragic. It has a melancholy, mysterious quality that is emotionally moving even today. It is also an extremely morbid film, obsessed with death and what lies beyond death.
Nobody could create more sympathy for monsters and deranged men of science than Boris Karloff. Of course, his version of the Frankenstein Monster was legendary for being a monster you felt sorry for. This extended to the series of mad doctors he played in his Columbia films. In The Man They Could Not Hang, Karloff’s Dr. Savaard is prevented from reviving a man from death and then hung for his murder. When brought back to life using his own technique, he seeks vengeance on his persecutors. The audience cheers for Dr. Savaard more than the law! The situation is even more acute in Before I Hang, where the kindly Dr. Garth is transformed into a killer by an injection of criminal blood. You could write a book about Boris’s uncanny ability to bring sympathy to “outsider” characters.
But the case of Dr. Julian Blair in The Devil Commands is special. In this film, Dr. Blair is driven to commit grotesque acts for the purest of motives…the love of his wife. While the other “mad doctor” movies had a strong thriller/crime component, The Devil Commands is more of an incredibly tragic drama that happens to deal with forbidden science and life beyond the grave. The movie has elements of horror and science fiction, but is primarily a tragedy.
Do you now dare to join Dr. Blair as he attempts to see what’s on the other side of the curtain of death?
From the very beginning, a funereal atmosphere prevails. We open with a view of a forbidding mansion drenched in rain. We hear the voice of Anne Blair, our narrator and the daughter of Dr. Julian Blair. She sets the scene with this beautiful opening monologue…
“My name is Anne Blair. My father was Dr. Julian Blair. This was my father’s house. In Barsham Harbor, on nights like this, when lightning rips the night apart, why do people close the shutters that face towards my father’s house? And lock their doors and whisper? Why are they afraid? No one goes near my father’s house. No one dares. I don’t know where my father is. I only know that for one brief terrible moment, he tore open the door to whatever lies beyond the grave.”
Now THAT is how you start a Gothic horror film!
We go back seven years in time, to the university where Julian Blair is a respected scientist. After the opening narration, we are ready to see a hollow-eyed madman. Instead, Dr. Blair is a man at the peak of his life—a happy and vigorous man who has made a great scientific discovery and who enjoys the unspoiled love of a wonderful woman, his wife, Helen.
We see him demonstrating that discovery to five prominent scientists. He has hooked up his colleague Dr. Richard Sayles (also the fiancé of daughter Anne) to a very peculiar looking contraption that looks like a deep-sea diving suit with a lot of electric gizmos attached to it. This is a good place to mention that The Devil Commands is a feast for those who love the old style mad scientist laboratories from the pre-digital age. No, it doesn’t rival the labs from the Frankenstein films, but it’s still pretty impressive.
Blair believes that human beings have brain patterns that are as distinct as fingerprints and which can be recorded and stored. Dr. Sayles’ brainwaves are converted into a wave pattern that is transferred to a huge sheet of graph paper. Some of the other scientists are skeptical, but all believe Blair’s research is worthy of future support.
Dr. Blair’s wife Helen intrudes on the demonstration and it is immediately apparent that this is a couple that is made for each other. The chemistry between Karloff and actress Shirley Warde in this scene is palpable. After some humorous banter, Julian manages to put Helen in the “brain suit” and record her distinct mental patterns. He also mentions that female patterns seem to be much stronger than the male.
The demonstration breaks up for the moment. Helen reminds Julian that they have to pick up a cake for daughter Anne’s upcoming birthday. It will be a double celebration, since she’s getting married to Dr. Sayles as well. The happy family sets out to the cake shop on a rain-soaked and treacherous night. While Julian grabs the cake, Helen looks for a place to park. But there will be no celebration tonight. Dr. Blair hears a honk, a squeal of brakes and a wrenching crash. A car has slammed full force into Helen’s vehicle. In the pouring rain, with Julian holding the cake, Helen expires.
Anne tells us that she not only lost her mother that night, but her father, too. Consumed by grief, he becomes distant and throws himself into his research. One night in his laboratory, the brain wave machine seems to activate by itself. A pattern is drawn on the graph…one that matches Helen’s. Dr. Blair’s mind is seized by an idea….could his machine be a method of contacting the minds of the dead? This is the obsession that drives him further and further into madness.
One night, Blair’s simple-minded and faithful handyman Karl confides that he speaks to his dead mother regularly, at the séances presided over by Mrs. Blanche Walters. Blair scoffs at the idea of séances, but Karl asks what would it hurt to visit one and see what happens? Julian agrees and they pay Mrs. Walters a visit.
The pair attends a séance and indeed, the ghost of Karl’s mother seems to appear and offer him soothing words. But Dr. Blair is not impressed. After the other guests leave, he finds the hidden puppet on a wire that masquerades as Karl’s mother and also the speakers hidden in a chair where a “ghostly” voice speaks. “Yours is one of the smoother performances I’ve seen,” Blair tells Mrs. Walters, who coldly tells him to get out. But there is one thing that Blair can’t explain. During the séance, he felt a powerful electric jolt when he was holding hands with Mrs. Walters. He muses that perhaps the phony medium has more psychic power than she realizes and that she might be able to help him in his research to reach the other side. When he says she will be well paid to help him, a light goes on in her head and she agrees to assist him. So one more nail is pounded into the coffin…
I have to say, the performance by Anne Revere as Mrs. Walters is perhaps the most coldly reptilian and inhuman that I’ve seen from any actress. She is absolutely loathsome. Although Karloff always gets top billing in his horror movies, Mrs. Walters, as played by Anne Revere, is the real monster of The Devil Commands.
The odd trio throws themselves into weird experiments and shuts out the rest of the world. During one attempt to boost Mrs. Walters’s psychic power, Karl is hooked up to her. Blair feels that contact is almost made, but Karl reacts badly to the procedure. His brain is damaged and he can no longer speak. He becomes a dark and forbidding figure as opposed to his former good-humored self. Mrs. Walters advises Julian to leave the university and go somewhere remote where he can research with no interference. The next day, he resigns from the university he was once the star professor of, sells his home and sends his daughter Anne to New York. He buys a gloomy cliff-side mansion in Barsham Harbor…the same rain-swept house we saw at the beginning. A heart-broken Anne feels that her father is gone for good.
We jump ahead a couple of years. One dark night, Sherriff Ed Willis from Barsham Harbor pays a visit to Blair’s mansion…a place that all the locals have come to fear and avoid. After avoiding a confrontation with a menacing Karl, he tries to make his way past a grim Mrs. Walters to speak to Dr. Blair about something terrible that’s been happening in Barsham Harbor. The bodies of the recently deceased have been disappearing…the apparent victims of grave robbers. The grave robbing started about the time Dr. Blair arrived and the townsfolk are muttering nervously about it. Mrs. Walters and Dr. Blair resent the implication and advise Willis to mind his own business. Willis leaves but tells Blair that he is trying to protect him from mob violence.
The sheriff convinces the nervous local housekeeper Mrs. Marcie to try and find out exactly what kind of experiments are going on in Blair’s lab. Gathering her courage, the woman sneaks into the darkened laboratory and sees large figures covered with heavy tarps. In the movie’s creepiest scene, she lifts a tarp….only to stare into the dead face of a corpse suited up in one of Blair’s bizarre uniforms. With a shriek, she backs into the equipment and activates it with a bang. Suddenly, six dead figures, all encased in the “brain suits”, lean forward and a swirling vortex appears in their midst. The grotesque scene is too much for Mrs. Marcie and she slumps dead to the floor.
“Now we really ARE murderers!” mutters Blair when the body is found. As usual, ice cold Mrs. Walters takes control. She already has a plan. The cliffs near the house are steep and treacherous and Mrs. Marcie was known to walk along them on her way back to the village. On a wild rainy night, it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for her to slip and fall into the ocean. But Mrs. Marcie’s suspicious husband, who already dislikes Blair, isn’t buying it…and neither is Sheriff Willis. Willis puts a call in to Anne and her husband, Blair’s former assistant Dr. Sayles, and asks them to come to Barsham Harbor. He feels something terrible is about to happen.
And he’s right. The dead bodies in Blair’s lab are indeed the ones stolen from the local graveyard. He is using them as a kind of “amplifier” in his attempts to reach Helen beyond the grave. Under the influence of Mrs. Walters, Blair is no longer the beloved and respected scientist, but a hollow-eyed fanatic obsessed with contacting the dead. Anne’s arrival seems to push him further into total breakdown as he prepares to make final contact with the spirit world. Meanwhile, Seth Marcie has stirred up an angry mob that forces its way past Sheriff Willis and is determined to get rid of Blair once and for all.
The climax is something you will have to see for yourself. Does Dr. Blair really manage to reach beyond the grave and contact the dead? Will the mob destroy him and everybody with him, including his innocent daughter and son-in-law? What happens to Mrs. Walters and Karl? That would be telling!
The Devil Commands is a somber film. In mood, it greatly resembles another Karloff film, The Walking Dead, where Boris played a man wrongly executed for murder who is returned to life by science. No one could bring out the tragedy in a character more than Karloff. When the movie starts, we see the REAL Julian Blair…the happy family man and respected scientist. By the end, he seems capable of almost anything, as long as it will allow him to contact his dead wife. But he is never just a one-sided monster…his primary motivation is love. His mind has been unhinged by a tremendous grief, and who could say how any of us would react in the same situation?
One very peculiar thing worth mentioning is how The Devil Commands relates to Columbia Studio’s other big stars…the Three Stooges! The sharp-eyed Stooge fan will spot a lot of familiar faces in this movie. Playing Dr. Sayles is Richard Fiske, whose best-known role was playing the army drill sergeant the Stooges almost drive to insanity in Boobs in Arms. Fiske isn’t given a whole lot to do in The Devil Commands. A few years later, he would be killed in battle in World War II, a hero. Sheriff Ed Wills is portrayed by silky-voiced Kenneth McDonald, who played the villain in many Shemp-era Stooge shorts. Here he gets to be the hero for a change and his performance is so smooth you wonder why he wasn’t a bigger name in Hollywood. Finally, Dr. Blair’s assistant Karl is played by Ralph Penney, who under the name of Cy Schindell also popped up in some Stooge comedies. I was half expecting Emil Sitka or Vernon Dent to appear in The Devil Commands!
Until its recent release on DVD, The Devil Commands was little seen. I spent about 45 years looking for it until I stumbled across a copy at a local video store. Despite its brevity, it is a sad and morbid tale made of equal parts horror, science fiction and drama, one that will linger in your mind.
“They say my father’s spirit must still live in that house. I don’t know. When he seemed to be so close to what he sought, something reached for him – a warning that human beings must not try to reach beyond death! I don’t know. No one will ever know, and yet perhaps the time will come when the door to infinity will open… perhaps… perhaps…”