A rediscovered chill from the bookshelf
THE DEVIL COMMANDS, the fourth of the "Mad Doctor" series of second features made by Columbia Pictures in 1939-1941 and headlined by Boris Karloff, is not only unique in its standing apart from the previous films in the string, but also for being the only one based on a literary source whose unusual storyline was a decided break from its predecesors' formulaic approach. While the series as a whole was well done and delivered for its intended market, THE DEVIL COMMANDS merits more attention for what it accomplished on limited means.
The novel on which it was derived is THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER by William M. Sloane III, published in 1939 and lately the subject of a long-delayed reevaluation for its suspenseful and involving sense of foreboding disaster. It is, as William K. Everson opined, "a minor masterpiece of subtle terror"* that became available again, along with Sloane's previous tale of fantastic events, TO WALK THE NIGHT (1937), in a New York Review of Books Classics edition entitled THE RIM OF MORNING: TWO TALES OF COSMIC HORROR in October 2015.
While some contemporary readers find THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER lacking, others (including this author) believe it's deserving of classic status for creating a chilly and brooding atmosphere against which an obsessed researcher seeks to pierce the veil of the supernatural, leaving the reader quaking at the possibilities of what may or may not have been discovered.
The tale opens with Richard Sayles, a psychology professor and close friend of brilliant electrophysicist Julian Blair, called to Blair's bleak experimental outpost on the Maine coastline. He arrives to find Blair assisted by the mysterious Mrs. Walters, and discovers that Blair, devastated by the sudden death of his young wife, has been spending his time crafting a means of communicating with the dead.
The death of Blair's kindly housekeeper, the chilling sound of some incredible device kept behind locked doors and the growing conflict between Blair and Mrs. Walters -- revealed to be a medium sensing the commercial properties of such an invention -- bring Sayles and Blair's niece Anne into danger, both from the device and the hostile local population whose ignorance of Blair's experiments fuels their fears.
Sloane keeps an admirable sense of dread going throughout the story, a feeling abetted by the growing isolation Sayles experiences not only with the other characters but the harsh countryside inb which Blair has chosen to secrete himself from the world. A pastoral New England setting becomes as dank and threatening as anything H.P. Lovecraft could have created, and the peril posed by Blair's cretinous neighbors becomes very real in Sloane's observant prose.
But the real focus of terror -- Blair's fantastic apparatus for bridging the tangible world with that of the unknown -- tantalizes and chills. Sayles views the device in action in the novel's final quarter, but prior to that he receives all kind of audible clues to its existence: a subliminal hum at first, a crash of thunder later. A more hair-raising description of the sound comes from Mrs. Marcy, the ill-fated housekeeper, who likens the noise to a shortwave radio transmission with "a kind of faraway note to it."
Admirers of THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER include no less than Stephen King, known for using his native Maine as a location for his now-classic horror stories. Observing of the conclusion, King said: "No one can read THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER without a frisson of fear when that awful blankness appears in Blair's workshop -- a blankness that threatens not just to suck in papers and furniture but perhaps the whole world."
From the novel, following the climactic blast: "The door of Julian's room was gone from its hinges. I stumbled into the place, my eyes smarting. The place was so altered, even in the gray light of the three windows from which the shutters appeared to have been blown bodily inward, that I hardly knew it. Plaster, lathing, boards, bits of glass, fragments of ebonite, and pieces of wires were everywhere. The ceiling, I saw, had been forced inward and was wrecked over the whole of its middle. The floor bulged upward, except at the center, and there it gaped open in an irregular hole that must have been several feet across."**
Like TO WALK THE NIGHT, Sloane presents a situation in which the central characters must accept the incredible consequences of what's transpired in the story, and are left to wonder about the aftermath. In THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER, King said, "Sloane's subject is nothing less than what may exist after death ... never without a sense of awe at the tremendous implications of the subject."***
Although often lumped into the category of 1930s weird fiction, the skill of Sloane's prose set both of his fantastic novels in a different class than yarns then appearing in the pulp magazines of the day, King noted, in addition to the ambition behind both stories that hinted at a real feeling for the unusual. This direction was one Sloane (1906-1974) abandoned after THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER was published. Instead, he worked with some distinction in the publishing business, heading up his own firm, William Sloane Associates, from 1946 until 1952 before taking an executive position with Rutgers University Press. As it was, THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER has garnered more followers over the years than TO WALK THE NIGHT, his inaugural novel, although that work dealing with alien possession still exerts its own fascination with the reader.
Columbia subsequently optioned THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER for the screenplay by Robert D. Andrews and Milton Gunzburg that became THE DEVIL COMMANDS, originally titled THE DEVIL SAID NO. In the film, directed by newcomer Edward Dmytryk, the story is told in a somber flashback by Anne (Amanda Duff), now the daughter of Blair (Karloff), with Sayles (Richard Fiske) functioning as his lab assistant. Following an opening closeup of the devastated old house in which the climax occurs, half of THE DEVIL COMMANDD focuses on Blair's backstory. A university professor, Blair researches the possibility of communing with the beyond and recording the impressions that have been gained. The death of his devoted wife (Shirley Warde) in a traffic accident -- and her apparent attempts to reach out to him from beyond the grave -- drive him deeper into efforts to prove his theories with aid of the avaricious Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere), who can withstand the shock from Blair's apparatus.
Seeking privacy, as he did in the novel, Blair sets up shop in a ramshackle old house on the New England coast, his obsession making him older, seedier and more desperate. When Anne comes to visit to find out what has happened, she finds her father is now working with corpses unearthed from the local cemetery, encased in fantastic metal suits to boost the link to the other side. The death of the housekeeper (Dorothy Adams) from fright after she's locked herself in Blair's work room arouses the townsfolk who have been suspicious of Blair's presence. Ignoring warnings from the more level-headed sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald), they storm the house just as Blair and Mrs. Walters, believing they have achieved their goal, apparently perish as Blair's incredible device blows up and sets the house ablaze. Anne and Sayles escape to wonder at the fate Blair and the medium have met.
While Everson has done a more exacting and favorable analysis of THE DEVIL COMMANDS, it can be said that Columbia's usual stingy budget outlay for the film worked to its advantage, although Everson is correct in noting that it made the film occasionally look as forlorn as Blair does in its latter half. That visual design and Dmytryk's approach, however, was quite different from that of Nick Grinde, who directed the first three entries in the Mad Doctor string, THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES and BEFORE I HANG in 1939-1940. In fact, the first film was a model of B moviemaking, crisp, fast-moving and well-crafted, making terrific use of standing studio properties.
When Karloff went to producer Wallace MacDonald to argue that more money would improve the Mad Doctors, he instead received a lesson in the economy of second features. "He was in an expansive mood," the actor recalled. "He pulled open the desk drawer and pulled out a great chart. 'Here,' he said, 'here's your record. We know exactly how much these pictures are going to make. They cost so much. They earn so much. Even if we spent more on them, they wouldn't make a cent more. So why change them?'"
THE DEVIL COMMANDS was one of Karloff's last features before he embarked on his own grand and largely successful experiment in carrying a Broadway show in the dark comedy ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, which premiered to wide acclaim three weeks prior to release of THE DEVIL COMMANDS on Feb. 3, 1941. Although Karloff's professionalism always instructed him to give his best effort no matter how dismal the project, one wonders if his apparent miring in B product and disillusionment with Hollywood (and the attitudes of producers like MacDonald) affected his performance in THE DEVIL COMMANDS. He tends to mope around, particularly in the latter half of the film, or may have been digging deeper into characterization by expressing the toll Blair's obsession has exacted. It is a restrained portrayal and hints more at Blair's psychological distress than his standard and enervated approach in the previous Mad Doctors. Nevertheless, Motion Picture Herald was prompted to commend the film to audiences for possessing "the necessary continuity to make it an interesting melodrama of horror and suspense."@@
The elements of THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER are in THE DEVIL COMMANDS, especially the ghoulish touch of introducing Blair's use of the deceased in his experiments. "My impression was of seated figures, human and yet horribly not human," Sayles (renamed Sykes in the movie) observes on encountering his friend's apparatus and its attached creations.@@@ However, having seen the film, as unique as it is, does create a desire to peruse the novel on which it's based. This site supports the notion that for the curious, seeking out and reading THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER is a worthwhile investment of time.
It is interesting to note that historians like Everson consider THE DEVIL COMMANDS to be the final Mad Doctor flick, mostly because Karloff's follow-up production, THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, issued by Columbia on Oct. 22, 1942, is a comedy and to some observers, not a very good one, a shameless attempt to cash in on the Karloff connection to ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, and a little of GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE to boot. (Actually, this site found it rather enjoyable). Denis Gifford notes that Karloff had signed a five-picture deal with the studio and the actor dutifully took a short leave from ARSENIC to do BOOGIE MAN and fulfill his obligation. He then returned to the play for the remainder of its lengthy New York run and on tour, and remained off Hollywood sound stages until 1944.
BOOGIE MAN may have been intended as the usual kind of Mad Doctor movie at first, but to Columbia it made sense to lampoon the formula and introduce some humorous situations arising from the then-current world conflict. Director Lew Landers, who as Louis Friedlander had worked with Karloff on Universal's THE RAVEN (1935), guided the giddy extravaganza with a knowing eye as Karloff's more agreeably nutty professor-type meshed perfectly with Peter Lorre's droll conception of a rural doctor/sheriff/con man. In any event, it's not very horrific at all even in its more serious moments, but like it or not folks, it's still part of the Mad Doctor series.
* William K. Everson, CLASSICS OF THE HORROR FILM, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1974, p. 148.
** THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER, in THE RIM OF MORNING, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1964, p. 289.
*** Stephen King, "The Edge of Horror," NYRB Daily, Sept. 18, 2015, retrieved Oct. 25, 2016.
@ Quoted in Denis Gifford, KARLOFF: THE MAN, THE MONSTER, THE MOVIES, New York: Curtis Books, 1973, p. 57.
@@ Quoted in Richard Bojarski and Kenneth Beale, THE FILMS OF BORIS KARLOFF, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1974, p. 174.
@@@ THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER, p. 250.