I wrote about this goofy little Columbia programmer here; this is Night of Terror’s third go-round on Horror Incorporated. It comes off a bit like a stage play, with the main setting the drawing room of the Rinehart mansion. There are lots of doors in the old house, allowing characters to race in and out from all directions.
There’s a plot, of course, but I’d suggest you don’t think too much about it. You’re better off letting the movie wash over you.
The murders that occur are the sort that happen in Agatha Christie novels — they are pieces of an interesting puzzle, and there’s not that much at stake, even when the ostensible protagonists are threatened.
As thinly-drawn as many of the characters are, we at least get to see some good actors at work; particularly the under-utilized Bela Lugosi and Sally Blane, who was born Elizabeth Young and was the sister of Loretta Young. Blane really sparkles here, and serves as an aristocratic counterbalance to Wallace Ford’s down-market reporter.
Interestingly, Sally Blane’s son Robert Foster was a late-night creature feature host in the 1970s. He appeared on KTLA in Los Angeles, doing a pretty funny hosting schtick as “Grimsby”:
“Night of Terror” used to be incredibly hard to find; but the Internet is gradually making these sorts of movies easier and easier to access. You can now find the whole thing here.
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, a local woman named 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: Wallace MacDonald was one of those Hollywood jacks-of-all-trades who emerged from the silent era, remaking his career less from a desire to expand his horizons than from sheer necessity. He’d been a silent film actor since 1914, appearing in some notable pictures, including The Primrose Path (1925), opposite Clara Bow; as the title character in the serial Whispering Smith Rides (1927) and as the ill-fated Peter Godolphin in The Sea Hawk (1924).
The silent era ended too abruptly for many actors, who couldn’t adapt to the times and were swept out of the business. But MacDonald turned to writing with some success (his credits included the Gene Autry vehicle The Phantom Empire, 1935), and had even better luck as a producer at Columbia, starting with Parole Racket in 1937, and carrying on through a slew of unspectacular but solid programmers, including The Face Behind the Mask (1941), which has popped up a few times on Horror Incorporated, as well as a cycle of Boris Karloff mad scientist pictures, all of which we’ve seen late at night on channel 5: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939); The Man With Nine Lives (1940); Before I Hang (1940) ; and tonight’s feature, The Devil Commands.
Of the four, this one is by far the best, for a number of reasons. In a nutshell, this was the only film of the series to be directed by Edward Dmytryk, who manages to imbue the low-budget affair with a keen atmosphere of dread. The scene in which the soft-spoken Karloff faces off with the soft-spoken sheriff played by Kenneth MacDonald ( a stage name, by the way – he is no relation to Wallace MacDonald) is memorable because it’s played so differently than similar scenes in similar pictures.
The premise of The Devil Commands is no less absurd than those of the other
Karloff films at Columbia, but somehow Dmytryk manages, through small tricks of verisimilitude, to pull it off. He seems to understand that horror films must remain plausible, even when the premise is unlikely – in fact, it plausibility becomes more important with an unlikely premise, not less important.
And unlike the other Karloff mad scientist pictures at Columbia, this one doesn’t actually feature a mad scientist at all. The grief-stricken Dr. Blair is motivated not by revenge nor bloodlust nor vanity. He wants, quite simply, to be reunited with someone he has lost, and it is this desire that connects him with the gullible Karl and the cynical Mrs. Walters. In a sense all three are in the same business, though they are all approaching the afterlife from different angles. Karl is a wide-eyed believer; Mrs. Walters a crooked seer; and Blair a scientist who believes that his rational approach will make the afterlife logical and accessible to him. He does learn his lesson, but as is often the case in these sort of movies, he learns it too late.