Monday, June 16, 2008

Dead Men Walk (1943): or, Beside Myself with Satan

The 1943 occult/oddity Dead Men Walk opens with someone disgustedly tossing a book about vampire lore into a fireplace. By the end of the movie, he's going to wish he had that one back.

After the literary conflagration we cut to the sparsely-attended funeral of Dr. Elwyn Clayton. The chief mourner is Elwyn's twin brother, Dr. Lloyd Clayton (b-movie almost-legend George Zucco), who has dragged his pretty young niece Gayle and her nice-but-bland boyfriend David along for the festivities. While the living Dr. Clayton sadly views his brother's corpse, a woman disrupts the funeral by claiming that the corpse's presence desecrates the holiness of the funeral chapel, since Elwyn was an evil man in league with the Devil. She's quickly ushered out, and the local sheriff explains the old woman hasn't been the same "since the mysterious murder of her little granddaughter." The kindly Lloyd forgives her, and not long afterwards admits that his brother was indeed a student of sorcery, and that Lloyd himself had been forced to kill his brother in self-defense in an exciting scene that took place before we bought our tickets. Death, sorcery, book burnings and child murder--only a few minutes in and already the flick is hitting on some pretty heavy horror cylinders! And it doesn't let up from there.

Dr. Lloyd goes to his brother's house after the funeral to put some of Elwyn's papers in order--and by "put them in order" I mean "toss them into the fireplace." Gathering armloads of Elwyn's blasphemous books, pernicious papers and maleficent memos, Lloyd is well on his way to a rip-roaring Southern Baptist barbecue when he's interrupted by Elwyn's devoted manservant Zolarr (Universal horror GOD-man Dwight Frye, in usual hunchbacked-assistant mode!) There's some great dialog here as Zolarr frets, "Master searched the world to find those books!" and Lloyd retorts, "The world will be a cleaner place without them." Zolarr promises that Lloyd will live to regret his censorship drive, delivering the awesome creep-away line, "You will pray for death LONG before you die!" as only the unparalleled Mr. Frye can.


Dwight also knows his job like no one else, and soon has liberated Elwyn's coffin from the Clayton family crypt, relocating it to an abandoned cemetery further out in the woods. In a wonderful scene Zolarr opens Elwyn's coffin, whispers "Massster!" in his best Renfield voice, and watches as Evil Elwyn rises Nosferatu-like from the casket! Elwyn (also George Zucco, naturally) has sold his soul to the Devil in order to gain immortality as a vampire! He quickly grabs a midnight snack and divulges to Zolarr his plan to make his goody-two-shoes brother suffer for killing him, by taking away all he loves before finally ending his life. Sounds like a plan to me!

Meanwhile, David has proposed to Gayle, and Uncle Lloyd is tickled pink. It's never clear whose daughter Gayle is, though we can assume a dear-departed Clayton sibling; Lloyd is her guardian in any event, and loves her like a...daughter? His penchant for kissing her frequently on the lips and her mooning, worshipful looks at her uncle are probably meant to be innocent, but in the context of all the other themes here, one can't help but wonder.

Later Gayle and David are out in the garden making with the goo-goo eyes when the undead Elwyn appears to his brother to let him know the torments he has in store. Logical Lloyd thinks he must be going crazy, but takes out a gun and shoots the apparition just to be safe, with predictably ineffective results. Elwyn promises to kill Gayle slowly to increase Lloyd's suffering before making her his vampire bride. Then he disappears with an evil laugh as David and Gayle rush in from the garden to see what all the shooting's about. Gayle is amazingly easily reassured by Lloyd's claim that he thought he saw a burglar ("But it was just...a Shadow," he intones ominously), and skips off to bed after another Lloydian lip-lock. David, however, is starting to eye the doc suspiciously.


Right on schedule Gayle starts to develop anemia, and Lloyd tells David he fears his brother has come back from the dead for awful vengeance. David doesn't buy it, but agrees to go check out the family crypt to ease the disturbed old man's mind. When they find the crypt empty, Lloyd is convinced. David, not so much.

After a transfusion rejuvenates Gayle but the next morning finds her weak and anemic as ever, David goes to the sheriff with his suspicions: since vampires don't exist, the only explanation is that Lloyd has gone crazy and is killing his own niece through some nefarious surgical means! The sheriff scoffs at the idea, and says David will have to bring him proof if he wants him to act. David replies archly, "When [Gayle is] dead, you can charge him with murder. That will be a great comfort to me."

Later David confronts the good doctor with his suspicions, threatening to take Gayle away. When the understanding Lloyd invites David to stay and watch over Gayle in her room, the young buck's suspicions are allayed, and when he awakes to find Zolarr in the bedroom attempting to remove a protective crucifix from Gayle's neck, he realizes he was mistaken about the good doctor. Shortly thereafter Elwyn appears to taunt them both, putting away the last of David's doubts. Together they start searching for Elwyn's secret tomb, hoping to burn his body to ashes and thus rid the world of his evil.

(This actually struck me as a very intriguing plot development that I'd not seen before--the "hero" character suspecting the Van Helsing character of being the culprit instead of the vampire! And now that I think of it, it makes total sense. After all, someone running around in a garlic necklace blathering about walking corpses...wouldn't you think he might be a homicidal maniac?)


However, the townspeople who overheard David's conversation with the sheriff were not witness to Elwyn's boasts, and soon a mob has formed calling for Lloyd's blood. (Elwyn uses this most diabolically, murdering another villager in plain sight of witnesses, knowing his resemblance to his brother and his own deceased status will put Lloyd in the noose. Clever!) Meanwhile the old biddy from the funeral has been doing some searching of her own, and spying Zolarr on a trail in the forest in broad daylight, traces his steps back to the abandoned cemetery and Elwyn's hidey-hole.

Standing over the helpless vampire asleep in his coffin, the old lady monologues about how he will soon be burned, once she tells Dr. Lloyd about this--which of course gives Zolarr time to come back from his piss-break and snap the old woman's neck! Rattled by the security breach, Zolarr moves the corpse to a safer location--Elwyn's mansion.

(Watching the old lady speechify made me reflect on how awesome it would have been had she simply pulled out a book of matches and ENDED it right there! FWOOF! Dwight could come back and find himself unemployed--"fired," if you will--and the young lovers and good uncle breathe a sigh of relief. Didn't happen, though.)

Something draws Lloyd back to the Elwyn Estate, and while David fends off the posse with some fisticuffs and trickery Lloyd finally discovers his brother's (currently empty) coffin. He is jumped by Zolarr and they have a pretty good battle that ends with the room ablaze and Dwight crushed under a pedestal while Elwyn and Lloyd duke it out for good and all! (Standing majestically amid the flames, Elwyn taunts, "You do not wait for come to meet it!" RAWK.) The now David-led mob witnesses the brothers tussling in the midst of the fiery cataclysm just before the roof collapses and the Claytons make ashes of themselves.

"Dude--she's our niece! Cool it, already!"

Dead Men Walk is a neat little vampire flick, especially given the year it was made. The writing is very cool with some great eeevil one-liners from Elwyn and Zolarr--at one point the Evil Clayton even makes an out-and-out prayer to Satan to bless their evil schemes! (Though he does say "Sheitan," I'm doubting there was any confusion.) Wild stuff for 1943! The weird plot developments, from the evil brother frame-up to the hero's suspicion of the good doctor--are also entertaining and fairly unique in my experience. And at 64 mins, it never gets boring.

I was only familiar with George Zucco through his roles in a couple of the Universal Mummy sequels, but here he does a great job in a dual role as the Battlin' Clayton Brothers. His Elwyn exudes pure menace and evil, and his Lloyd is exactly the flipside--all kindness, understanding, and nobility. (That is, if we forgive his seething lust for his niece...which, given Mary Carlisle's cuteness, I think we can.) The split-screen effects and use of doubles when the brothers are facing one another is very well-done here too, in a way today we would call seamless.

And of course any picture with Dwight Frye getting all up in your grille with the crazy face is worth the price of admission. He's playing the role he ALWAYS got to play here, but there's a reason he was the go-to evil henchman--because he's AWESOME at it. Nedrick Young as David and Carlilse as Gayle both do well too, and Young particularly deserves notice for not being the bland innefectual hero-by-default we often see in films of this vintage (David Manners, I'm lookin' at YOU!). And b-western veteran Hal Price does a good job as the sheriff too. A fine cast all around.

Simply the Best.

(Actually, I suspect most of the townspeople were actors usually cast in the poverty-row westerns by small studios like Producer's Releasing Corporation particular fellow who discovers the crazy biddy's corpse looks right off the streets of Gunsmoke.)

Though it's a bit stagy and creaky at times, I found myself quite enjoying Dead Men Walk for the good performances, the wild plot, and the quick pace. I've read some commenters say they were bored by this, which I can't understand. I guess I have a high tolerance for black & white Universal-ly goodness. Anyway, an easy 2 thumbs, and a good way to spend a slow afternoon.


Tenebrous Kate said...

*sigh* They just don't make manservants like Dwight Frye anymore, do they?

The Vicar of VHS said...

Of course they don't--in order to make one, they'd need a manservant like Dwight Frye to procure the (in)appropriate parts.

It's a Catch-22. :)

Tenebrous Kate said...

Hmmm... up till just now, I'd never thought about Dwight Frye's inappropriate parts. I'm uniquely disturbed by this new train of thought.

Mr. Karswell said...

This is a golden oldie... I actually watched it not to long ago for the first time too. Zucco is always great, and always the total weirdo of a picture, (I just saw him last week in Charlie Chan in Honolulu and of course he played the weirdo!) Apparently he spent his final years of his real life in a sanitarium too.

But I can understand people who say this film is boring, mostly because these same folk would prefer a tricycle riding clown puppet who wears lipstick and uzumaki's on his cheeks.

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