August 2003 is turning out to be the summer of Boris Karloff, as five of his films are being released by three different studios (surprisingly, none of them are from Universal). Columbia/TriStar has surprised everyone with this DVD release of THE DEVIL COMMANDS, the last of four serious horror films (not counting 1942's horror/comedy THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU) that Karloff made for Columbia between 1939 and 1941--the others being THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES and BEFORE I HANG. That trio was directed by Nick Grinde, but THE DEVIL COMMANDS was helmed by a young Edward Dmytryk, who would later go on to do THE CAINE MUTINY, THE CARPETBAGGERS and other big Hollywood films. Although not much of a horror specialist (he was employed by Universal for 1943's CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN), Dmytryk here directs a moody 65 minutes, and an agreeable entry in Boris' massive acting resume.
Here, Karloff plays Dr. Julian Blair a respected university scientist who discovers how to electrically record brainwaves on a machine that he invented. One rainy night, Blair's beloved wife dies in a car accident, and he becomes depressed and bewildered. Setting up a mad scientist lab in a remote old house, Blair is obsessed with recording his deceased wife's brain patterns, and gets a partner in a bitchy clairvoyant (Anne Revere). In order to carry out the experiments, Blair has to obtain bodies from the local cemetery, and later expires his trusty but doofy handyman in a failed experiment. When a maid is accidentally killed by out-of-control machinery, Blair and the clairvoyant toss the body from a cliff, making it look like an accident. Never fully succeeding up to this point, Blair plans to exploit the brainwaves of his daughter (Amanda Duff), and endangers her life by doing so.
With its mix of sci-fi and horror elements, THE DEVIL COMMANDS is a unique little film. Karloff is great as usual, showing us a kind man who gradually becomes a physical wreck, driven to madness by the time it's all over. Although the film lacks great character support, Revere is still quite intense, and at least we get to see the deadpan acting of Kenneth MacDonald (yup,from all those "Three Stooges" shorts) as a sheriff very suspicious of Blair. With a sitting circle of dead people in large metal helmets, and electrical special effects overhead, the sci-fi aspects are visually impressive, and Dmytryk uses shadowy lighting to hide the limited sets and build gloomy atmosphere.
Never before available on home video, Columbia/TriStar thankfully premieres the 60+ year-old title on DVD. The presentation gives us a well-detailed transfer with deep black levels and nice definition. The transfer does show blemishes in the forms of flickering and film dirt--this comes and goes infrequently and is never really distracting. The mono audio track has hints of background hiss, but dialog is always clear and strong.
There are no extras except for trailers for other recent Columbia/TriStar horror titles--DARKNESS FALLS, IDENTITY and TSUI HARK'S VAMPIRE HUNTERS--and it would have been nice to have the trailer for the film itself. I also wished that they used the original poster art for the cover (as they did for RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE) as the cover doesn't quite make it. At any rate, a welcomed DVD release, and I hope that the studio has their other Karloff titles in the working stages. (George R. Reis)
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