The Devil Commands is a 1941 B-picture starring Boris Karloff and a supporting cast of no-name players. Clocking in at a brisk 65 minutes, it tells the story of a grief-stricken scientist seeking to communicate with his dead wife, whose experiments take a gruesome turn ending in multiple deaths.
It's not a bad movie, if you can overlook the insipid and largely unnecessary narration supplied by the scientist's daughter (Amanda Duff) and the inevitable defects of a low-budget programmer. There's a pretty detailed rundown of the plot here.
The film played on Turner Classic Movies the other night, and I watched it with some interest. It has a few features that make it different from the ordinary horror flick of the period.
For one thing, somebody involved in the production had done at least a little bit of research into Spiritualism. After discovering evidence that his dead wife is communicating with him through a gizmo he invented, Karloff tells skeptical scientists that "the change we call death" does not mean our end, and that "the so-called dead" are still with us. This terminology comes straight from Spiritualist teachings and is still very much in use today.
Moreover, he goes on to explain that the brain is like a radio set—a transmitter and receiver—and that the signal of consciousness continues even after the body has died. This is a rough approximation of the transmission theory proposed by William James. (According to TCM's write-up, this dialogue was censored from the British release, presumably for fear of offending religious sensibilities.)
Shortly afterward, Karloff visits a fake materialization medium and easily debunks her. Stung, she tells him that he may yet change his mind about her work. Other men of science, she intones, have come to believe in mediums. She cites Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle may or may not qualify as a man of science; he was a medical doctor, but best known as a fiction writer. But the reference to Lodge, a knighted physicist and convinced Spiritualist, is interesting, as he was not as well known to the general public. Whoever came up with that line knew something, at least, of the history of psychical research.
I don't know if these various references originated with one of the two screenwriters, or with the novelist on whose book the movie is apparently based. (I say "apparently" because the book is uncredited in the film, but listed as a source in online databases). They do show that a degree of care went into the making of a movie that is, for the most part, a pretty routine time-filler.
One other feature of The Devil Commands that's of interest is how easily the film segues from Karloff's early, entirely respectable experiments into his later, unabashedly ghoulish efforts. By the end he is digging up corpses and hooking them up to his machine, while covering up murders and going quite mad. He's assisted in these undertakings (so to speak) by the fraudulent medium, who, crazed with power, exults that a man who could really talk to the dead would "own the world."
Then there's the title. The devil does not actually make an appearance in the movie, but we are no doubt meant to assume that Karloff, in seeking to bridge the great divide between life and death, is unwittingly doing the devil's work. The scientists he consults early in the story say much the same thing, insisting there are some truths man is not meant to know. The movie's grim outcome, which involves the deaths of everyone involved in the experiments, seems to bear out this warning.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why Spiritualism, after a strong revival during World War One, largely died out in the ensuing decades. The Devil Commands is hardly a great movie, but it shows a certain familiarity with Spiritualism and tries to place afterlife investigations on a scientific footing. Yet in short order these experiments have become a replay of Dr. Frankenstein's abominations, right down to the shuffling, mentally defective lab assistant and the predictable crowd of townspeople storming the castle (or in this case, a cottage in Maine). Even in a fantasy-horror movie, mediumship is assumed to be both fake and dangerous; Karloff doesn't break a sweat in revealing the tricks used by the nefarious mentalist, who soon becomes his evil Svengali and leads him to his doom. Science rejects Karloff's work even before it takes a crazy turn, and we are clearly meant to side with the well-meaning scientists and to tut-tut Karloff's profane determination to raise the dead.
In short: Spiritualism is fakery mixed with seductive cunning and dangerous manipulation; science sets the proper limits to human exploration, and the occult lies outside those limits; contacting the dead is either an act of self-delusion or of devilry, and nobody with his head on straight would even think about it.
I'm not trying to criticize the movie by pointing out the attitudes it promotes. I'm just saying that these attitudes were very much in the air in 1941, just as they are (to a lesser extent) still in the air today. Against these headwinds, and given the movement's inevitable infiltration by con artists, Spiritualism simply stood no chance.