Misapplied Titles

The Devil Commands: adapted by Robert Andrews and Milton Gunzburg from the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane; directed by Edward Dmytryk; starring Boris Karloff (Dr. Blair), Cy Schindell (Karl), Amanda Duff (Anne), Anne Revere (Mrs. Walters) and Richard Fiske (Richard) (1941): Moody, atmospheric horror film with Karloff as a Mad Scientist, or more accurately a sane scientist driven mad by his wife’s death and the subsequent revelations about the afterlife as revealed by his investigations into brain function.

Frame narration from Karloff’s daughter doesn’t really help with suspense, but the movie as a whole is enjoyable. Karloff is more mournful and far less threatening than usual as the increasingly loopy scientist who believes that he can build a machine to communicate with the dead in general and his wife in particular. And what a machine! The final form of his ‘Dead Set’ really makes the whole movie worthwhile. It’s Vacuum-Tube Gothic.

Other elements are perhaps a bit more rote, from the grieving daughter and her boring love interest to the wily sheriff. Karloff’s hulking henchman Karl possesses a bit more pathos than most such characters, as we see the accident that ‘creates’ him. An unscrupulous ‘fake’ medium who turns out to have real psychic powers (shades of Ghost!) rounds out the major players.

Director Edward Dmytryk is better at mood and atmospherics than he is pacing — the whole thing drags a bit, which shouldn’t really happen with a 65-minute movie. Nonetheless, a grim and surprisingly downbeat movie for its time. Recommended.


The Tomb (2nd revised edition) by F. Paul Wilson (2004/ previously published in different form in 1984 and 1998): Originally the first appearance of Wilson’s Repairman Jack character, The Tomb would later be substantially revised, along with a number of other Wilson novels, as the writer fleshed out his Adversary Cycle and the Repairman Jack series that wove in and out of that Cycle.

But originally, this was a 1984 one-off. There wouldn’t be another Jack novel for about a decade. In the revised version, its timeline moved up to the 21st century, The Tomb has been retconned into the 21st century.

Jack is a sort of altrusitic, libertarian superman. Or supercompetentman. He’s off the grid. He fixes problems for people, sometimes violently, sometimes not. ‘The Tomb‘ wasn’t Wilson’s preferred title — it was meant by the publisher to echo the title of Wilson’s previous hit, The Keep, even though there’s no actual tomb in the novel. Instead, there are mysterious disappearances in New York, flashbacks to mid-19th-century India, and terrible things hidden inside a mysterious freighter. There are monsters. Smelly, seemingly invincible monsters.

The good parts of The Tomb are very good: Jack’s investigation is suspenseful, and both the historical sections and the horror sections of the novel are skilfully written. About three-quarters of the novel is thus an occasionally thoughtful page-turner. Unfortunately, about one-quarter of the novel focuses upon the love of Jack’s life, Gia, and her idiot daughter Vicky. But by God, even though Wilson doesn’t write children well doesn’t mean he’s not going to keep trying! And ditto for Gia, whose personality consists of about equal parts worrying about Vicky and mulling over Jack. That’s all you’re going to get, so don’t wait around for wit. Well, she really enjoys cleaning things. I kid you not.

Vicky may be central to the plot, but you can still skim much of the material focused upon her and her mother. They’re a tremendously dull pair (and will continue to be dull yet hazardous for every Repairman Jack novel) when they’re not getting into trouble. And when Vicky gets into trouble late in this novel, it’s through doing something stupid that spins off from Jack doing something stupid by not fully explaining something because if he’d fully explained something, we wouldn’t have a hostage for the second climax of the novel. Oh, well. A lot of the Gia/Vicky sections don’t feature Jack, meaning that skimming is pretty easy. Real, real easy. Recommended.

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