Sony // 1941 // 65 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // September 3rd, 2003
When the devil commands...
Horror legend Boris Karloff (director James Whale's classic Frankenstein) stars as Dr. Julian Blair, a respected scientist on the verge of a major breakthrough in brain activity. When his wife dies in a tragic car accident, the good doctor is sent looking over the cliff of sanity, then decides to take a leap. Utilizing a deceptive clairvoyant, Dr. Blair attempts to communicate with his dead wife through the use of a machine that reads brain waves (how this really works is never fully explained, so just go with it). When his fellow scientists and worried daughter dismiss his findings as ridiculous, Blair thrusts himself into self-exile for two years. Holed up in a mansion with his psychic assistant and a lumbering Igor-like brute named Karl (Ralph Penney), Blair continues his malicious experiments to talk to his dead wife by using the bodies of the recently deceased. The townsfolk and the local sheriff become suspicious of Blair's behavior, which leads to a series of events that leave innocent bystanders dead. Can this mad doctor be stopped? Or will he forever be the pawn in the Devil's grisly game from hell?
When the best thing I can tell you about this movie is that it lasts just over an hour, you know you're in trouble. The Devil Commands is bottom-of-the-barrel horror fodder, a sad statement considering it stars the late, great Boris Karloff. This 1940s cheapie at first attempts to dabble in science and theology, then quickly spirals into a bland effort that never rises above mediocrity. The idea of people being able to communicate with the dead through brain patterns may have proved interesting and thought provoking in another era (or screenplay). In The Devil Commands, the idea is squandered with hokey dialogue and scenes featuring people wrapped in headgear eerily reminiscent of the Rocketeer's helmet. As usual, even amongst shoddy sets Karloff is a fascinating actor to watch. All sunken eyes and menacing yet emotional stare, Karloff proves that he would have been a star no matter what time period he'd worked in. As for the rest of the cast, the women do a fine job of being scared (i.e., screaming loudly with their hands covering their foreheads) and the men emote with the universal stiffness of an oak plank. On many levels, The Devil Commands could have ended up as campy fun. Sadly, the acting is never hammy enough to be enjoyable and the sets are well constructed just enough to be convincing. And so we're left with Karloff's performance, which ultimately brings an air of class to the bland proceedings. The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny, The End of the Affair) who seems only to be going through the motions -- it's flatly directed without any visual pizzazz. The odd thing is that The Devil Commands doesn't really fit into any one genre -- though it has elements of being a horror, thriller, and sci-fi flick, it rarely hits any of its intended targets. If you're looking for some classic Karloff cinema I suggest renting some of his '60s classics like The Terror or old Universal horror standbys like The Mummy. As for The Devil Commands, it comes close to being sinfully boring.
The Devil Commands is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 full frame. Fans of these classic horror flicks will most likely be disappointed in this transfer -- there is an excess of grain, dirt, fluttering light patterns, and other imperfections in the image. In other words, this print sucks, big time. I realize that The Devil Commands isn't one of Columbia's greatest catalog titles, but couldn't they have cleaned it up better than this? With scratches and flaws marking up the picture, I'm sad to report that this picture is sub-par. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono in English. This sound mix is about as good as the transfer -- there are a lot of instances where the dialogue, music, and effects sound as if they were recorded in a wind tunnel. While I was usually able to tell what was being said, this mono mix is sorely lacking in any dynamic range or fidelity. Distortion and hiss are present at times, making this mono mix a sometimes frustrating listen. Also included on this disc are English and French subtitles.
With the minimal effort Columbia's put into the video and audio transfers, it should come as no surprise that they've done almost nothing in the way of extra features. Aside of a few theatrical trailers for various Columbia horror movies, this disc is void of supplements.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 65 Minutes
Release Year: 1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailers