Thrillers from the Vault – 8 Classic Films – Part Two

by Charlie Largent Mar 04, 2023

Thrillers from the Vault – 8 Classic Films
Mill Creek Entertainment
1941, 1942, 1943, 1951 / B&W / 1.33: 1 / Blu ray
Starring Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi
Written by Robert Andrews, Edwin Blum, Randall Faye, Arch Oboler
Directed by Edward Dmytryk, Lew Landers, Arch Oboler

This is part two of a review for Mill Creek Entertainment’s Thrillers from the Vault, 8 Classics Films. Part one can be found here.

The Devil Commands is a hell of a title, and it’s a pretty good movie too. Released in 1941, Edward Dmytryk’s spookfest stars Boris Karloff as Julian Blair, a scientist whose experiments are a family affair—his wife Helen is one of his subjects.

Blair achieves his goal—a machine that records thought processes—but on a night he should be celebrating, his wife is killed in a car crash. Something breaks inside Blair and when he discovers that Helen may continue to live on through his invention, he leaves logic by the wayside and turns to a medium named Mrs. Walters.

The sepulchral Anne Revere plays that would-be psychic, a cold-blooded con artist capable of worse things than hustling rubes—she’s a phony, of course, but Blair finds her genuine extra-sensory gifts useful. Blair takes her on as an assistant, but Walters becomes more than a co-worker, using her grifter’s instincts, she takes control of Blair’s work and his life.

That work takes a ghoulish turn when Blair and Walters begin to use corpses to communicate with the otherworld (a round table of helpless cadavers recalls Karloff’s other grave-robbing turn in The Incredible Dr. Markesan, a Thriller episode from 1962). Though it’s the most bare-boned of Karloff’s Columbia films, Dymtryk’s movie is sustained by its morbid power and a Hellzapoppin’ finale that puts an electrifying exclamation point on Blair’s infernal experiments. Karloff is affecting as the broken-hearted professor but it’s Anne Revere who rules the film. When we say the devil commands, we’re really talking about the iron will of Mrs. Walters.

In contrast, Lew Landers’s The Boogie Man Will Get You is a light-hearted cash-grab, a mild-mannered black comedy produced to capitalize on Boris Karloff’s celebrated performance as the murderous Jonathan Brewster in 1941’s Arsenic and Old Lace (the actor played the part for a year and a half before embarking on a 66-week national tour).

The “boogie man” in Landers’s film refers to at least two harmless hobgoblins—Karloff, who plays Nathaniel Billings, a dazed and confused scientist working to create a race of “super humans”—and Peter Lorre, who plays Dr. Arthur Lorentz, a slippery carpetbagger parachuted in from Al Capp’s Dogpatch. Lorentz is a small town politico who takes on the oddest of jobs including mayor, sheriff, and town coroner—he’s happy to turn a blind eye to the professor’s hinky experiments when he finds he might turn a profit himself.

The cast is littered with up and comers who enjoyed respectable if somewhat mottled careers—Jean Marie “Jeff” Donnell plays a real estate enthusiast who becomes Karloff’s landlord and Larry Parks—whose stock soared before being shot down by Joe McCarthy—plays her Dagwood-like fiancé. As a powder puff salesman, perennially punch-drunk “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenblum is second only to Lorre in laughs per second.

Say goodbye to Boris and hello to Bela—the suave Hungarian stars in the penultimate film in Mill Creek’s set, The Return of the Vampire. Lew Landers returns to direct this 1943 release, a conventional vampire story but with enough oddball flourishes it almost (almost) passes for being interesting.

Lugosi plays someone named “Armand Tesla” but we know who he really is—however, this being Columbia and not Universal, ix-nay on the Dracu-lay. Once a distinguished historian with an interest in vampire mythology, Tesla got too close to his subject; 200 years later he’s haunting a London sanitarium for fresh blood. He finds it in the daughter of Lady Jane Ainsley, the hospital director played by Frieda Inescort. That resourceful actress destroys Tesla but twenty years later he’s back, thanks to an errant bomb blast that frees him from his grave. Now London is dealing with two nightmares, The Blitz and The Bloodsucker.

Horror movies of the early forties gave odd comfort to folks trying to forget a greater horror, so it’s fascinating to see a fantasy—no matter how grim—tackle the subject head on. The cast, including Inescort, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, and Matt Willis as a talkative werewolf, pepper their conversations with references to the war, and air raid sirens are a common occurrence on the sound track. Still, even with such weighty matters the movie itself is weightless, a forgettable time-killer even with the mighty Hungarian haunting every scene.

Air raid sirens are part of Five, too. The story of a nuclear holocaust and the few that survived it, the film premiered in 1951 at the onset of the Cold War. Part exploitation, part home movie, part art project, the movie was written and directed by Arch Oboler, a man clearly not shy about terrorizing his audience.

It was The Age of Anxiety—but while working to blow us up, scientists also found ways to calm us down; sales of across-the-counter sedatives were about to explode. Leave it to Oboler to serve up even more nightmare fuel for nervous ticket buyers—images of razed cities, blistered flesh and burned skeletons. For those who stayed till the end of the film, Five offered a measure of sunshine, Oboler’s apocalyptic soap opera is not so much about the end of the human race but its rebirth.

The movie features a predictably small cast fronted by William Phipps, Susan Douglas, James Anderson (the vile Bob Ewell of To Kill a Mockingbird), and Charles Lampkin—they’re “just folks” but they represent a diverse microcosm of America in the nuclear era. Oboler tells their stories in sparse dialog and terse, black and white imagery. The drama plays out in a lonely structure perched on a craggy mountaintop—Oboler’s homestead, Eaglefeather, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1940, and finally completed in 1955 (sadly the edifice was destroyed by fire in 2018).

Using his own home underlined the passion in Oboler’s passion project, and though the movie’s homemade quality has the earmarks of an off broadway play that closes before it opens, Oboler’s direction is anything but heavy handed, compared to most exploitation filmmakers, he has the light touch of a jewel thief—even when the screen is filled with looming close-ups of the actors they never seem less than authentic. François Truffaut was a fan of the movie, praising its “modesty” while calling it “A film of great honesty, of evenhanded sincerity and genuine naïveté…”

I would go one step further and cite the work of another filmmaker/critic, James Agee, whose Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is evoked in Oboler’s plainspoken poetry and the cinematography of Sid Lubow and Louis Stoumen; their starkly beautiful portraits of the survivors recall the unpolished grandeur of Walker Evans’s photographs for Agee’s Depression era masterpiece.

A far more detailed look at Five and its production can be found here in Glenn Erickson’s review of Viavison’s 2021 Blu ray—the disc includes Glenn’s feature-length commentary alongside Oboler expert Matt Rovner.

Like the first four films in this set, these movies look uniformly fine though The Devil Commands is interrupted with a few subpar sequences. Five looks gorgeous, even showing off the occasional dirt on Oboler’s lens. Extras include Tom Weaver’s commentary track on The Devil Commands and those rascals from The Monster Party Podcast on The Boogie Man will Get You.

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