By 1941, Boris Karloff was nearing the end of his mad doctor phase. He would certainly continue to play that role throughout his entire career, but a different acting challenge was looming right around the corner…a stage play in New York. The seeds for one of the most memorable roles he would ever play started in 1940. Karloff was to play the criminal Jonathan Brewster in the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. 1940 had seen the release of eight films. There was a spy thriller (British Intelligence), the final two Mr. Wong films, four mad doctor flicks and the comedic You’ll Find Out. As the year was closing, he had one more mad doctor role before it was time to head to New York.
In The Devil Commands, Karloff plays Dr. Julian Blair, a scientist who has created a device that studies human brain waves. After his wife is killed in a car accident, Dr. Blair believes the device can be used to contact the dead. His colleagues are worried that he is dealing knowledge man was not meant to know. After meeting a phony medium, Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere, an actual descendent of the legendary Paul Revere), he soon retreats to an isolated coastal home where he can continue his experiments. However, the local townspeople become suspicious of him and as bodies begin to disappear from the local cemetery, all leads point to the reclusive and distraught Dr. Blair.
This is very much a different type of mad doctor role for Karloff. While he is clearly obsessed with his research, Dr. Blair is incredibly conflicted at the trail of death surrounding it. He has to use bodies to create a séance-like circle to open the doorway to the beyond. He does accomplish that and appears to be close to success as we hear his dead wife’s voice from beyond the grave. But is it truly hers or something more sinister. Karloff plays Dr. Blair as a man desperate to be reunited with his dead wife, drained of all will and energy and full of remorse on the evil deeds he is doing. Meanwhile, Mrs. Walters possesses some type of evil control over him that is never truly explained. After he exposes her as a fraud, she quickly moves into the role of assistant/controller, another unique aspect to this mad doctor role.
The film is told as a flashback through the narration of Dr. Blair’s daughter Anne (Amanda Duff). Her voice has an eerie tone to it that almost comes across as too melodramatic at times. But combined with images of the creepy coastal house, it adds to the foreboding tone of the film.
Karloff would rush the completion of the picture during the first week of December 1940 so he could head to New York and begin work on Arsenic and Old Lace. The Devil Commands would be released on February 3, 1941, by which time Karloff was already becoming a hit on the stage. Combined with a strong supporting cast and a good script, as well as Karloff demanding presence, The Devil Commands is one his best mad doctor roles. At a little over an hour, it’s a fantastic way to spend a rainy afternoon. Check out the clip on YouTube and then be sure to add the DVD to your collection. However, it does appear to be out-of-print, so it may require some research on your part.