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The Devil Commands (1941)

William F. Sloane's second and last novel, The Edge of Running Water, is a neglected classic that could arguably be classed as a Wellsian scientific romance. It has none of the feel of pulp magazine sci-fi/horror, instead offering a fairly sedate narrative with well-rounded characters and a striking central premise. Like Sloane's first book, To Walk the Night, it's a slow-burner with a lot of style, and key scenes stick in the memory.

I was surprised to find that there was a Hollywood adaptation of the book, starring no less an icon than Britain's very own Boris Karloff (real name William Henry Pratt). I expected the film to be cheap, and it is, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that script writers Robert D. Andrews and Milton Gunzberg kept Sloane's character and ideas almost intact. They simply threw in a more Gothic element - grave robbing - that doesn't make a whole lot of sense but certainly adds to the overall weirdness.

So, if you don't know the book, what's the film about? Karloff plays Julian Blair, a brilliant scientist whose experiments on brain waves (he has a big mechanical pen-thing that draws them on a wall chart) lead him down an unexpected path. Blair's beloved with Helen is his willing subject, and when she dies in a terrible accident Blair discovers that, when he activates his brainwave gizmo, her mind still seems to be active - somewhere. This freaks him out, and he abandons mainstream research and goes to a remote house near a small New England community, Barsham Harbor. He also recruits an ambitious medium, Mrs Waters (Anne Revere, being convincingly amoral), who - despite much fakery - seems to have a genuine wild talent.

All this upsets Blair's daughter Anne (Amanda Duff) and her beau, scientist Richard Sayles (Richard Fiske). Even more upset are the townsfolk, who wonder why so many bodies have vanished from the graveyard since Blair arrived. When a living woman who chars for Blair vanishes a lynch mob is formed, despite the best efforts of the sheriff (nicely underplayed by Kenneth MacDonald).

The central gimmick of the story is a 'scientific' recreation of a seance. In the book this is achieved by conductive mesh formed into human figures around a table. In the movie, it's a bunch of corpses wired up to a big sparky generator. We discover that Blair's experiments have succeeded in opening a kind of swirly portal to the afterlife. As is customary in this sort of film, the results of this hubris are only fun for the audience.

Karloff does a typically fine job of portraying a decent, intelligent, tormented man who loses his moral perspective in a quest to achieve the seemingly impossible. Despite the low budget (the house on the cliffs where the mad science happens is clearly a sub-Gerry Anderson model) the film gets the job done in just over an hour. So, this is worth seeking out if like Sloane's work, and/or the less travelled byways of the horror movie tradition.


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Westville 13 said…
After reading this post I bought W F Sloane's two novels which are available in a single volume reprint (with an introduction by Stephen King no less!). They are splendid stories and worthy of much wider readership - I enjoyed them very much indeed. Thank you for this write up which introduced me to them.