Friday, May 5, 1972:The Devil Commands (1940) / The Black Raven (1943)



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.

The Black Raven

Synopsis: Amos Bradford (George Zucco) is the proprietor of an inn in upstate New York, close to the Canadian border.  The inn is called the Black Raven and, we learn, “The Black Raven” is Bradford’s underworld handle as well; every criminal seems to know who he is. Bradford is a sort of fixer, who can help wanted men disappear into Canada; but unlike most of his mobbed-up clients, he appears to be an independent player, without loyalty to any particular syndicate.

One dark and stormy night, Bradford receives an unexpected visitor: a man named Whitey, who comes in the door with a gun and a beef against Bradford.  It seems the Black Raven had double-crossed Whitey and sent him to prison; but before Whitey can take his revenge he is overpowered by Bradford’s handyman Andy (Glenn Strange). They tie Whitey up in the back room, planning to return him to the authorities and the ten-year-sentence he still has to serve, when another man arrives.  The man asks for help getting across the border and shows Bradford the front page of a New York paper: the man is a fugitive named Mike Bardoni. Bradford asks why a big mob figure like Bardoni would be trying to flee the country, and Bardoni replies that he has fallen out of favor with mob boss Tim Winfield and is now on the run. Bradford convinces him to book a room at the inn, as there can be no crossing the border tonight as long as the storm is raging and the bridges are all underwater.

Soon another visitor arrives: nervous milquetoast Horace Weatherby, like Bardoni, has learned that all the bridge crossings into Canada are washed out in the storm, and he must stay at the Black Raven for the night.  Weatherby carries a satchel that he is unwilling to part with; suspicious, Bardoni “accidentally” knocks it to the floor, where it briefly opens to reveal $50,000 in cash. 

The next visitors are a couple. Lee Winfield is the daughter of mobster Tim Winfield; she and her boyfriend Allen Bentley want to slip across the border to Canada to elope, but like the others they are unable to cross because of the storm and must stay at the Black Raven.  Soon more visitors arrive: Tim Winfield and his goons, who are looking to break up the planned nuptials of Lee and Allen….

Comments: This likable thriller shares a lot of DNA with last weeks’ The Mad Monster. Both are PRC productions, both are are directed by Sam Newfield, and both star George Zucco and Glenn Strange.  But in fact the films are quite different in tone. The Mad Monster attempted to ape the classic horror films of Universal.  The Black Raven, by contrast, tries to emulate the hard-bitten crime dramas of Warner Brothers.  In fact, The Black Raven might be considered a low-rent interpolation of Casablanca.

Instead of  a saloon in occupied Morocco, we have an inn near the Canadian border.  Instead of letters of transit that allow travel to the United States via Lisbon, we have the promise of safe passage into Ontario. Instead of Nazi apparatchiks, we have New York mobsters. Instead of Humphrey Bogart as the jaded Rick Blaine, we have George Zucco as the jaded Amos Bradford, a free agent who lives by his own code. And it seems that, like Rick’s Cafe Americain, everybody comes to the Black Raven — at least, everybody connected to Tim Whitfield.

Now, I will concede that I could be dead wrong about this.  I don’t know if anyone’s ever noticed a resemblance between the two films.  But it did occur to me while I was watching this one, and I think it’s certainly possible that the screenwriters lifted elements, either intentionally or subconsciously, from Warner’s hit film of the previous year.

George Zucco really excels as a leading man here; his smooth delivery is reminiscent of George Sanders’ debonair character The Falcon (which might have also influenced this picture); Zucco’s cultured but slightly sinister demeanor is perfectly suited for his role here.

But aside from Zucco the acting is uniformly bland; the most interesting actor on the roster is Charles Middleton, who plays the Sheriff; he was Ming the Merciless in the final Flash Gordon serial,  Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Glenn Strange does just fine as Bradford’s handyman / bodyguard Andy, and while it’s clear from this performance that he just isn’t an actor, he does well enough for a PRC production, and he probably appreciated not being buried under pounds of makeup for a change. And presumably, he wasn’t asked to do much in the way of stunt work.

One comment

  1. THE DEVIL COMMANDS never really caught my fancy, while I've always had a great fondness for THE BLACK RAVEN. It was nice to see George Zucco in a starring role, and not as a villain, with Glenn Strange as intended comic relief (unintentionally comic in THE MAD MONSTER).


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