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Rowland V. Lee
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Dr. Julian Blair is engaged in unconventional research on human brain waves when his wife is tragically killed in a freak auto accident. The grief-stricken scientist becomes obsessed with redirecting his work into making contact with the dead and is not deterred by dire warnings from his daughter, his research assistant, or his colleagues that he is delving into forbidden areas of knowledge. He moves his laboratory to an isolated New England mansion where he continues to try to reach out to his dead wife. He is aided by his mentally-challenged servant Karl and abetted by the obsessive Mrs. Walters, a phony medium, who seems to exert a sinister influence over him. When their overly curious housekeeper discovers the truth about their experiments, her death brings the local sheriff in to investigate. Written by
Gabe Taverney (email@example.com)
Corny and cliche'd as The Devil Commands may look to the superficial gaze, it's a powerful expression of the inextinguishable and far from trivial human wish to believe that death is not the end and that the dead we loved are not forever lost to us. Karloff starred in a whole sub-genre of films on this theme from the middle 1930s to the early 1940s (cf The Invisible Ray, Before I Hang, The Man They Could Not Hang, etc), invariably as a misunderstood scientific genius, embittered by tragedy or injustice, whose desire to conquer death clashes fatally with the prerogatives of the Almighty.
Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, it would be a coarsely reductionist mind that could consider the subject ridiculous. What gives these films (and this one in particular) their eerily modernist slant on the matter lies in the way they reflect the public's awe of science in the first half of the twentieth century, when astonishing developments such as radio and television (and that weird form of immortality, the motion picture), made it seem believable that technology might solve the supernatural as well as the physical mysteries. It is worth remembering in this context that the contemporary electrical wizards Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, classical Mad Scientists both, attempted to build machines with which to talk to the dead.
In this morbidly obsessive cinematic byway The Devil Commands stands out as one of the most insidiously poignant and nearly blasphemous films of its kind, sailing very close to the emotional and spiritual wind in its depiction of Karloff's bizarre attempts to communicate with his dead wife. As a mad-scientist entertainment it contains some of the most magnificently deranged laboratory scenes ever filmed, surpassed in this context only by James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein. I still succumb to its mournful fascination. And if your first viewing doesn't scare you half to death, you can't be more than half alive.
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