Monday 11 May 2009

Dead Men Walk (1943)

Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: George Zucco and Mary Carlisle

Given that it's 11.30pm and a work night, I went looking for a short film. With nothing on the DVR that would work, I went looking through my box sets and found this little 64 minute filler from PRC in the Horror Classics 50 film box that I'm already three fifths of the way through. Not only is it a George Zucco film, with him playing a double role as the good Dr Lloyd Clayton and his evil twin Elwyn, but it's a Dwight Frye too and those are always to be treasured.

Given that this is 1943, any evil lead naturally needed a hunchbacked assistant with a pronounced accent and a name beginning with Z and Frye was always top of that casting list, much to his annoyance given that he was a prolific and successful comedian on Broadway. Here he's Zolarr and he throws his all into the role, as it seems he always did. Unfortunately this came late in his 15 year career: a mere four more films, three of them without a credit, and he'd be dead of a heart attack at 44, robbing us of so many potentially great roles.

A title like Dead Men Walk might suggest a zombie film, which frequently turned up on the bottom half of double bills from the mid thirties onwards, but a zombie film is about the only thing this isn't. It's hard to tell precisely what the focus is supposed to be because writer Fred Myton threw everything but the kitchen sink into the story, from the introduction on through the film. Single lines include half a dozen supernatural genres and they're stuck in the middle of other lines that do the same.

The closest I can work out is that Elwyn Clayton travels to India and comes back a Satan worshipper who collects works of horrible blasphemy and practices sorcery with Zolarr's assistance, only to be killed by his brother, a decent and God fearing man, in a clifftop struggle that we unfortunately don't get the privilege to see, the film beginning with Elwyn's funeral. But Zolarr hasn't given up on his master yet and through the power of Sheitan, Lord of the Abyss, he soon rises from the grave as a vampire to feed on the blood of the young ladies who live in his brother's house, including his niece Gayle.

Now Gayle isn't an easy victim for long, because a whole slew of characters want to keep her safe, however much they disagree on the right approach. Her fiance, a doctor respected by his future father-in-law, is utterly convinced that there's a rational explanation for the teethmarks in her throat and her sudden anaemia. A wild eyed local woman believes in every supernatural thing under the sun (or the moon) and gifts her with a cross to keep her safe. The former is played by Nedrick Young, who I've never heard of but who is as emphatic as Bogart here in his film debut; the latter by Fern Emmett who had 180 films behind her already but can't find the right feeling for the over the top lines.

In between the two of them is her father, Dr Clayton himself, who wants to disbelieve in the supernatural but gradually comes to the conclusion that it's the only explanation that fits. After all he's been seeing and talking with his dead brother, whose body has disappeared from the family crypt and who seems intent on explaining the whole thing to him in detail. Given that the effects are handled very nicely indeed for 1943 and the lines the cast are given are less like dialogue and more like overt tag lines for a narrator to throw out over a lurid trailer, he'd be a fool not to believe what he's being told.

And while Zucco and Frye are great to watch and Nedrick Young is emphatic enough not to be missed, it's these lines that make this such a gem. The whole script is peppered with outrageous examples, making this the most definitive over-the-top dialogue I think I've ever been privileged to hear. Every minute or two there's another humdinger, so many that I started rewinding so I could write them down. Only in a horror movie could lines like the following get thrown out there, and even most horror movies wouldn't dare!

'Vampires! Creatures of the devil who are neither alive nor dead. During the day they sleep in their graves in death-like sleep but at night they have the power to roam the earth.'

'Her life is threatened by some abnormal creature that has no right to exist!'

'He's either losing his mind or he's attempting to divert suspicion from himself with some fantastic story of supernatural vengeance from beyond the grave.'

'So this is where you lie hidden during the day, the colour in your face proving that you are a vampire, not one of the honest dead who rests in peace.'

'No, I told you before I feel that I must be the one to destroy him. We were brothers and there was a bond of hatred between us that lasted a lifetime. If I fail, then you must be the one to take up the fight, for Gayle's sake and the sake of mankind!'

And these are only examples from later on. I hadn't written any of the the early ones down. Now I wish I had and I may just have to go back and transcribe the script. As a B movie vampire yarn it's actually a pretty decent effort, as clich├ęd as any you could mention but surprisingly well done, especially given the company responsible, Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), well known as a cheap and cheerful Poverty Row studio who churned out films in a week. Considering that sort of budget and shooting schedule, this is a major triumph. And oh, that dialogue!

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