Saturday, August 7, 1971: The Man With Nine Lives (1940) / When The Devil Commands (1941)

Synopsis: Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is conducting ground-breaking research in cryogenics. In a public demonstration, he lowers the body temperature of a patient until she is in a coma-like state. Five days later he brings her out of it, and after the procedure her chronic pain has diminished considerably.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mason tells his fiancee, nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his results are encouraging, but not what he had hoped. He reveals that most of his experiments are derived from the work of a mysterious Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), whose book on the subject of cryogenics hinted that he was in possession of a mysterious process that allowed the body to be completely frozen. Laboratory animals exposed to this process would completely recover from the freezing. Moreover, cancer cells in test animals disappeared after prolonged treatment, because the body’s immune system was still working while the cancer cells were suspended. Mason is fascinated by these revelations, and would love to get more of the details of the procedures from Kravaal; but the scientist vanished ten years earlier.

The hospital administration disapproves of all the meddlesome publicity Mason is generating and they force him to take a leave of absence. Seeing an opportunity to track Kravaal down, Mason and Blair drive up north to Kravaal’s last known address. This turns out to be a spooky old house on a small island. The place had been abandoned since the disappearance of Kravaal, the county sheriff, county prosecutor, town doctor and two other townspeople.

Exploring the house, Dr. Mason and Judith discover a passage from the basement that leads to an abandoned laboratory, and beyond that, an icy underground cavern. In this cavern Dr. Kravaal is discovered. Using the specialized techniques he’s developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them with blankets and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Dr. Mason eventually revives Kravaal. He’s astonished to find that he has been in suspended animation for ten years. Then he reveals that in a second chamber, behind the first, there are four bodies.

In a flashback sequence, Kravaal explains that the elderly Jasper Adams had come to him in hopes that frozen therapy might cure his cancer. Adams’ nephew became suspicious, and the county prosecutor brought Kravaal in. In the prosecutor’s office the town doctor avers that he had previously examined Adams, and it was clear the man’s cancer was terminal. Kravaal scoffs at the doctor’s hidebound pronouncements, but under duress he agrees to take the men to see Jasper Adams during his treatment.

Kravaal takes them, along with the county sheriff, to the island and the underground cavern. Seeing Adams’ frozen body, the doctor declares him dead, and the sheriff places him under arrest. Kravaal uses a beaker of chemicals to render his captors unconscious, but in the process places everyone — including himself — in a state of suspended animation.

After relating this amazing story, Mason and Judith help Kravaal revive the others, all of whom are astonished that ten years have passed and that they have all probably been declared dead.
When Jasper Adams’ loud-mouthed nephew destroys the formula used to put them in suspended animation, Kravaal kills him. He then tells the others that he must now reconstruct the formula, and he must use them all as his guinea pigs….

Comments: Sometimes movies are defined by their openings, and it’s almost impossible to keep from barking your shins against the opening of this one.  As The Man With Nine Lives starts we are treated to a screen crawl that is supposed to familiarize us with an exciting new medical procedure called “frozen therapy”:

Added to the many miracles performed by modern science that have accounted for the saving of thousands and thousands of human beings, comes its newest and most modern discovery — frozen therapy.

Estimates of how long frozen therapy can produce a state of suspended animation range from days to years. But on the fact that diseases can be arrested — that life can be prolonged, by freezing human beings in ice, the medical world agrees.
In research hospitals today, men and women are alive and breathing — their bodies encased in ice.

Of course, no reputable member of “the medical world” in 1940 would have been able to “agree” with any of this. 

Even in 1940 it was well understood that you cannot place someone in suspended animation simply by lowering their body temperature, no matter how carefully you do it. This is because living cells, when frozen, form ice crystals which cause enormous damage to the organism. 

Most likely the screenwriter misunderstood some of the theoretical uses of what is today known as “cryotherapy”.  It doesn’t involve piling ice cubes on top of a patient, or placing them in suspended animation; rather it uses liquid nitrogen to selectively kill cells (for example, cancer cells within the prostate gland, a common enough procedure today).

Interestingly, in the decades since this film was made, scientists have learned a great deal about preserving cells and tissue in low-temperature environments. Cells that are suffused with cryoprotectants (a sort of antifreeze for the blood) can be saved for a very long time indeed; in fact contemporary legal battles over frozen embryos couldn’t have happened when “The Man With Nine Lives” was made.  The internal organs of animals can now be preserved indefinitely, and it’s possible that in the future human organs will be able to be cryopreserved until needed. 

Of course organ transplants weren’t even possible when this film was made.  Even the idea of saving a person’s life with parts taken from another person was long seen as a radical and distasteful idea; in fact, even as late as the mid-1960s science fiction films such as The Wild Wild Planet took the view that organ transplants were so morally problematic the practice could only lead to bad outcomes.

When the Devil Commands

Synopsis: It is a dark and stormy night at Midland University, and Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is demonstrating a breakthrough discovery to his colleagues. He has found that human brains emit electromagnetic wave-patterns, each as unique to an individual as fingerprints. Blair has found a way to measure and record these waves. Furthermore, he has learned the wave-pattern of women is much stronger than that of men. To demonstrate this last point he wires his wife Helen up to his electroencephalogram, which features a big diving-helmet type contraption that goes over the head.

As the scientists watch, they see the needle on the device recording a steady pattern of peaks and valleys, interspersed with small jigs and jags in the needle. These small variations, Blair says, are individual thoughts, and in time he will be able to decode them.

Blair’s colleagues shower him with congratulations on his discovery. Helen reminds him that they must pick up the cake for their daughter’s homecoming, and Blair, ever the doting husband, hurries to close out his demonstration — forgetting to shut off the inputs for the machine.

Blair and his wife drive to the bakery to pick up the cake, and we get a strong impression that the two are happy and very much in love. Unfortunately, in the movies this can only mean one thing, and sure enough, Helen is killed minutes later in a car crash.

Despondent, Blair gets through the funeral, then returns to the lab, hoping to find solace in his work.
To his astonishment, he finds that Helen’s unique brain-wave pattern records for a few moments on the machine, which had been left on.

Blair tells his colleagues of this incident, and that he might have stumbled on a means of communicating with the dead. But the colleagues are not only skeptical, but embarrassed that he would entertain such a notion. Blair is angry at their willful stupidity. The building’s maintenance man, Karl, overhears their exchange, and he later tells Dr. Blair that he knows a psychic who can communicate with the dead — she is, in fact, helping Karl communicate with his dead mother.
Blair is doubtful, but he accompanies Karl to a seance.

The psychic, Blanche Walters (Anne Revere), once again helps Karl receive a message from his dead mother, but after the seance Blair exposes her as a fraud. Nevertheless she agrees to assist him his experiments when he offers to compensate her.

Blair’s idea is to use Mrs. Walters’ naturally stronger wave-pattern to establish a link with Helen. When this fails, he decides to add Karl to the circuit, like the amplifying grid in a vacuum tube.
Alas, poor Karl! An electric charge fries his brain, making him like a shuffling zombie.
Knowing that medical treatment for Karl would lead to questions, and the end to the experiments, Mrs. Walters convinces Blair that they need to immediately decamp to a new location. Soon enough, they have set up shop in a spooky house outside the small town of Barsham Harbor.

But even here they are not allowed to work unmolested. In the two years since Dr. Blair, Walters and Karl arrived, a number of bodies have disappeared from morgues and crypts, and the townspeople are beginning to suspect. The soft-spoken local sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) tries to question Blair about his experiments, but gets nowhere. He convinces Blair’s housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams) to find out what’s in Blair’s secret laboratory. But when she unlocks the door and looks inside, she gets a terrible shock — a half-dozen corpses sitting around a table, each with diving helmet-type contraptions over their heads….

Comments: In sharp contrast to the clunky exposition that opens The Man With Nine Lives,  The Devil Commands begins with a portentous shot of a house on the rugged New England coast and an earnest, almost plaintive voiceover from Julian Blair’s daughter Anne:

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 sky apart, why do people close the shutters that face toward 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 lives beyond the grave…

Anne’s narration pops up from time to time during the film, even though Anne herself has little bearing on the plot.  She is perpetually an outsider, at every turn kept away from the action by Dr. Blair (at one point he physically blocks her from entering his lab; later he sends her to a faraway city, mailing a check to her each month but refusing to communicate with her in any way). It’s unusual for a film to have a narrator so far removed from the action, and unusual too for a film to have a narrator as thoroughly unreliable as Anne. She claims not to know why the people of Barsham Harbor lock their doors and whisper about her father — but that is clearly not true. She insists on pleading Dr. Blair’s case to us, trying to convince us of his goodness even when we can see the evidence to the contrary:

People in Barsham Harbor didn’t understand my father. They began to talk about him. Slowly they began to fear him…and then to hate him. No one would even speak to him, though he had never hurt any of them — remember that.  My father never hurt a living person in Barsham Harbor. Never.

Her choice of words is telling: “My father never hurt a living person in Barsham Harbor” is a carefully-constructed sentence if there ever was one. We know Blair had hurt Karl, a “living person” —  but because Karl isn’t from Barsham Harbor Anne exempts him.   And Barsham Harbor’s non-living persons are carefully exempted from Anne’s statement as well.  And there is no acknowledgement, either, to the harm done to the relatives of the dead whose corpses were dug up and used for unauthorized and unethical scientific experiments.

And what about Mrs. Marcy? Surely Dr. Blair is at least partially responsible for her death; and yet he tries to cover it up, just as he had done with Carl’s accident, compounding his crime by throwing her body off a cliff.

Nevertheless Anne’s narration is intriguing because it forces us to question not only her motives in defending her father but her access to events to begin with.  It adds another layer to what is by far the best of Columbia’s cycle of mad-scientist pictures.

One comment

  1. Two Karloff titles from SON OF SHOCK, and I never cared much for either one. Roger Pryor was so smarmy in THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG that I just couldn't accept him as a humanitarian doctor (Boris makes his entrance 16 minutes in), and for all the praise of THE DEVIL COMMANDS and director Edward Dmytryk, it still left me cold (I actually like Anne Revere but not in this film).


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