Saturday, January 6, 1973: The Lodger (1944) / The Devil Commands  (1941)

Synopsis: On a foggy night in London, police are on the lookout for the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who has already claimed three victims in the seedy neighborhood of Whitechapel. Despite the heightened police presence, the killer strikes again. One woman claims to have seen a man fleeing the scene of the crime, but she did not see his face.

Later that evening, the newspaper special editions hit the streets, and people eagerly come out from their homes to buy the latest news.  One of these people is Robert Bonting, a down-on-his-luck investor whose wife Ellen has decided to let out a suite of rooms in the house until their fortunes recover. A man arrives in response to her advertisement: a tall, hulking doctor who calls himself  Mr. Slade, who rents the room on the spot after only the most cursory look at it.  He tells the Bontings that he tends to keep odd hours, and he insists on using the back door to the house to enter and exit.  He also avidly relates to Ellen some Bible verses related to the dangers of wanton women, and he tells her that the worst types are women of the theater.  His own brother, he relates, was ruined by such a woman. Ellen tells him that her own daughter is performing in a music hall show, and that when he meets her, she will surely change his mind about the bad sort of women who perform in the theater.

This woman is the Bonting’s niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), who does make an impression on the ungainly Mr. Slade.  Clearly he is torn between his attraction for Kitty and his disapproval of the shameless board-treading strumpets of the London theater. Meanwhile, Ellen is growing suspicious of Slade; he appears to trained as a surgeon, as the Ripper is believed to be; he keeps strange hours; he harbors a deep resentment toward women.  A police detective finds himself attracted to Kitty, and he begins to wonder if Ellen might be on to something….

Comments: The Lodger is a rare horror outing for Fox, featuring foggy London streets, a woman in danger, and a family wondering if they’ve allowed a maniac into their home.

But when you take The Lodger apart, you see it is really structured less like a horror movie than a suspense picture — which is ironic, because this movie doesn’t generate much suspense either. We don’t need to wonder if Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper — his maniacal face is right there on the one-sheet, and if we missed that, it’s so obvious that Slade is a kook that we can’t help but wonder why everyone in the Bonting household has missed it. Nevertheless, at several points in the movie (for example, when Bonting defends Slade’s decision to burn his Gladstone bag) we are clearly meant to doubt if Slade is indeed the Ripper; nevertheless, there are no other suspects presented to us.

While the production values are high and the cast is able, the movie wastes an unbelievable number of opportunities and instead chooses to lumber around aimlessly. Slade is too much of a nut for us to take seriously, jabbering on about the wantonness of women and how their evil needs to be “cut out” of them. The backstory of how he became a serial killer (his dimwit brother lost his marbles over some strumpet or other, and now he’s bumping off similar women for revenge) is simply idiotic, coming from the Bruce Wayne school of amateur psychology. That is only to be expected, I suppose, as the field of psychology was still pretty new and even serial killers were assumed to have some rational motive, no matter how misguided.

The performers are probably the only reason The Lodger is remembered at all. Laird Cregar is perfectly cast as Slade, though his acting is a bit overcooked and he would have benefited from a stronger director who could hold him in check. Merle Oberon is quite a winning presence, as is George Sanders, but Cedrick Hardwicke really steals the show as the delightfully scatterbrained Mr. Bonting.

 

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 an 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: Sometimes I’m asked what movies have really stood out as surprising discoveries while compiling the Horror Incorporated Project. The first film I usually mention is The Devil Commands, directed by Edward Dmytryk. It’s a horror movie that is both deliciously off-kilter and oddly plausible. The insanity of Dr. Blair’s enterprise becomes clearer and clearer as the movie goes on — topped by the zany sight of all the corpses arranged, seance-like, around a table with the diving-helmet contraptions on their heads, their hands joined — and yet we get to this point so gradually that each progressive step down this path doesn’t seem that crazy. Contact with Helen always seems just out of reach, and we can’t blame Blair for reaching out in his grief and his emptiness. And it’s credible, too, that Blanche Walters knows exactly what buttons to push to keep Blair going. After all, as a fake psychic she has duped many a mark over the years, exploiting their desires, including those of the unfortunate Karl. Blair is just one more, though he isn’t aware of it.

So there’s a real beauty in the way that Blair’s actions, which seem rational because we’ve been on this journey with him for the whole movie, suddenly seem jarring when a new person witnesses them for the first time. Good horror films exploit this idea well — the idea that what seems rational in the mind of an obsessive person can suddenly seem completely unhinged when seen by someone who is walking in from the “real” world.

Interestingly, while at least accepting the possibility of supernatural causes makes it easier to accept The Devil Commands, you can actually get by without it; it’s possible that all of Helen’s contact from the afterlife is just a product of Blair’s grief and fevered imagination,  even Helen’s final scream of “Julian!” from the beyond — a scream that suggests the afterlife might not be as homey a place as we might like to imagine.

As you might expect, Boris Karloff carries this movie effortlessly; he always does, but unlike most of the mad scientist pictures he did for Columbia the script really works in his favor this time.

I have praised Ann Revere’s performance in the past; she is the Lady Macbeth of this little drama, dragging Blair reluctantly to places he doesn’t want to go, and she is marvelous. The rest of the cast is no more than serviceable, but they do everything the script demands, and that’s not insignificant. The Devil Commands is one of the overlooked gems of the 1940s.

 

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One comment

  1. Two 40s features that also made the rounds on Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater, my thoughts in accord on both. HANGOVER SQUARE also appeared on CT, yet I wasn’t impressed with that either, George Sanders simply bored as the hero. I rather enjoyed all the Columbia entries done by Karloff, despite the often repetitive nature of his experiments, but THE DEVIL COMMANDS is so different from the others, an early effort from director Edward Dmytryk, that it can’t help but stand out. My father also enjoyed Anne Revere in THE THIN MAN GOES HOME and FALLEN ANGEL.

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