Free Friday Film: Dead Men Walk (1943)

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“You creatures of the light, how can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell in the limitless ocean of the night? Are the dark and shrouded legions of evil not but figments of the imagination because you and your puny conceit say that they cannot exist?”

Prologue, Dead Men Walk

The name George Zucco stokes the deepest reserves of my film geek love. This classically trained Englishman, with his cultured, grave baritone speaking voice and his startling black eyes, indecently bulging forward at will, is a veritable institution in horror.

Despite a distinguished stage career and several notable supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, Zucco found much of his work among B-movie chillers from Universal and cheap Poverty Row shockers. No matter how tawdry the material or how small the part, his effulgent glee in playing mad scientists, wicked priests, and all-round nasty rotters makes his performances richly pleasurable.

Unlike many of Zucco’s films, Dead Men Walk gave him substantial material that he could really sink his teeth into: a double role as an upstanding community doctor and his degenerate, occult-obsessed twin brother. The story starts with the funeral of Elwyn Clayton, as his brother Lloyd stands over the coffin. (Note to self: never name my child Elwyn.) Gee, Lloyd doesn’t look too broken up. Suddenly, the town crazy lady bursts into the chapel and announces that the dead man doesn’t deserve a Christian burial; he was an unnatural sinner. You know, I get the feeling that something’s not right here…

Sure enough, later that night, vampire Elwyn has risen from his tomb, abetted by his servant, Zolarr, played by Dwight Frye. Because of course he’s played by Dwight Frye. Who else would you call when you need a toady to the undead?

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After feasting on a young maiden, Elwyn drops by his brother’s office the evening after. It turns out—rather surprisingly—that the good doctor Lloyd actually killed his blasphemous brother. Or tried to, not knowing that his twin had attained immortal life as a vampire. Gloating over his power, Elwyn throws down the gauntlet, vowing a horrible retribution:

“You’ll know that I am no intangible figment of your imagination when you feel the weight of my hatred. Your life will be a torment. I’ll strip you of everything you hold dear before I drag you down to a sordid death. You’ll pray you’re dead long before you die.”

Yeah, and you thought your sibling was a troublemaker! In all sincerity, Zucco’s bald-ish, chortling vampire scares me almost as much as prime Lugosi. As Frank Dello Stritto wrote, “If Lugosi’s vampire is something of a lounge lizard, Zucco’s is a dirty old man.” Indeed, he’s the unassuming retiree down the street who secretly wants to suck your blood. His aged, commonplace appearance renders his ugly, mirthless chuckle and his desire to corrupt and destroy young women all the more appalling. He glows with malice.

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Rather like E.F. Benson’s chillingly ordinary vampire in “Mrs. Amworth,” Elwyn is a stealth threat. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit shocked if the writer of Dead Men Walk was thinking of this particular image from “Mrs. Amworth” when dreaming up some scares: “I saw, with the indescribable horror of incipient nightmare, Mrs. Amworth’s face suspended close to the pane in the darkness outside, nodding and smiling at me…. [W]hichever window I opened Mrs. Amworth’s face would float in, like those noiseless black gnats that bit before one was aware.” Like the titular vampire in Benson’s tale, Elwyn is at his most creepy when hovering outside a victim’s window, bathed in moonlight.

So, who’s going to fight this menace? Surely we have some lovable Van Helsing figure, someone we can identify with and cheer on, right? Not exactly.

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(Who knew Woodrow Wilson had an evil vampire twin? Which reminds me, does anyone want to greenlight my script for Woodrow Wilson: Vampire Hunter?)

While we expect the bad twin to be effectively spooky and awful, the “normal” twin in Dead Men Walk has a surprisingly grim side too. He murdered his brother, no matter how pure his motives might have been. The side of good isn’t so spotless as we might hope, raising questions about the corruption inherent even in fighting evil. The element of fratricide lends gravitas and ambiguity to this dark, dualistic tale of sibling rivalry, a muddied, supernatural Cain and Abel.

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Is Dead Men Walk a great film? Well, no, it was made at PRC, and it’s not Detour. Directed by Sam Neufield, who’s probably best known for the dorky-as-hell I Accuse My Parents, this movie wasn’t worthy of its acting talent. The pacing definitely lags, and I’m phrasing that kindly.

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Mary Carlisle turns in a likable performance, adding suspense to the story as we see her life essence waning under the vampire’s influence. Alas, her love interest could barely choke out his lines. And Dwight Frye does not get enough to do at all. The visuals are appropriately shadowy—often to the point of blacking out parts of faces to suggest the depravity of the villains. Not everyone agrees with me, unfortunately, and some of the reviews elsewhere are just plain cruel. This movie was probably shot in less time than it takes to coax some of today’s movie stars out of their trailers, so let’s cut it some slack, okay?

If you love horror and derive comfort from snuggling up with a slightly creaky but very creepy 1940s horror flick, you can watch this one for free. And if you don’t love that, I will totally haunt you after I’m gone.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

The Gothic Note: Graham Greene on The Black Room (1935)

Graham Greene—yes, one of the greatest and most enjoyable writers of the 20th century—spent a good bit of the 1930s writing about movies. 

And he was the kind of critic who makes me feel unworthy to be a self-appointed critic. His keen powers of observation and unflaggingly sharp ability to zero in on flaws, foibles, and mannerisms could reduce even the most egotistical of entertainment personalities into shuddering piles of fearfulness and remorse. Greene possessed an innate Geiger counter for pretense and commercial tripe. Nothing hindered him from laying into his cinematic victims with a withering British politeness and eloquence.

Which is all the more reason why, when Greene reviews a film favorably, we all ought to pull it off the shelves and give it a fresh look. And, wonder of wonders, when reflecting on the 1935 Karloff vehicle, The Black Room, our emerging novelist remarked in The Spectator:

“I liked this wildly artificial film, in which Karloff acts both a wicked central European count and his virtuous, cultured twin of the Byronic period.”

Phew! We can all heave a sigh of relief. Foremost among Greene’s reasons for liking the film, he points out that The Black Room affords Karloff a role not as an inarticulate monster, but as both a monstrous, yet pithy human being and a good guy. We get a richer sense of his range.

“Mr Boris Karloff has been allowed to act at last… [A]ny actor could have produced the short barks and guttural rumbles, the stiff, stuffed, sawdust gestures, which was all his parts required of him. A Karloff scenario must have made curious reading. Were those grunts phonetically expressed?”

As much as that last rhetorical question provokes the 1930s equivalent of an LOL, I’m going to have to take issue with you, Graham Greene. (Please don’t haunt me! Wait… actually, please do.) Karloff can communicate an extraordinary amount through grunts and jerky motions.

Karloff: double trouble…

Nevertheless, I agree that ‘tis a treat indeed to watch Karloff swing into full-on Richard III mode with his wily, sardonic delivery of Baron Gregor’s lines. I also appreciate the louche physicality which Karloff explores in the part of a libertine, always lounging in a chair kicked back against a wall, his leg swung over the arm of the chair.

Karloff’s Gregor: inventor of “chillin’ like a villain”

As for William Roy Neill’s handling of the script, Greene accorded the interpretation rather high praise… at the expense of another great horror director:

“The direction is good: it has caught, as Mr James Whale never did with Frankenstein, the genuine Gothic note. Mrs. Radcliffe would not have been ashamed of this absurd and exciting film, of the bones in the oubliette…

“…the scene at the altar when the dog leaps and the paralysed arm comes to life in self-defense,

“…of the Count’s wild drive back to the castle, the lashing whip, the rearing horses, the rocketing coach, the strange volley of rocks with its leading cross and neglected Christ, the graveyard with owls and ivy. There is much more historical sense in this film than in any of… the ‘scholarly’ works of Mr Korda. A whole literary period comes to life…”

I am now going to critique this critique. Those of you with faint hearts may leave.

Dead men don’t blog back, so I want to clarify that I am in no way deriding Graham Greene. Let’s face it, though, his review does place a major limitation on horror, a limitation which runs the risk of oversimplifying the genre. He’s implying that horror should necessarily be Gothic in tone. At least, it seems that he’s taking a shot at Whale for abandoning the Gothic aesthetic. By contrast, Greene praises Neill and his “good” direction for remaining faithful to the literary tradition of Radcliffe and Lewis. His whole standard of evaluation hinges on a film’s relationship to a specific heritage of terror. I don’t think it should be that simple.

Indeed, I advise you not to read Greene’s review of Bride of Frankenstein if you happen to be squeamish or if you, like me, simply love that movie—the write-up is about as dismissive as Greene gets. He didn’t appreciate any of the camp elements, Whale’s “devil’s advocate” brand of empathy, or the piquant, looming bizarreness which Whale infused into talkie horror. Instead, the budding novelist kept hammering on the fact that the Bride just wasn’t scary in the Gothic sense, when, frankly, I doubt that it was meant to be.

I differ from Greene, because I can’t believe the aesthetics of horror are that clear-cut. Gothic—good. Departure from Gothic—bad. Now, I would argue that good horror may borrow elements from the Gothic, but it doesn’t need to.

And, yet. Always this “and yet…” haunts me, like the specter of a murdered brother!

I have to admit that Greene does make a strong case for the validity of the Gothic mentality as the core of pleasurable horror flicks. Just to be clear, for me, Gothic atmosphere and style revolves around contrivances, like curses, unspeakable secrets, and twin brothers. The esthetic also requires a certain benighted, costume-y feel which Greene beautifully conjures in the quoted description above. Finally, I would argue that this type of horror is joined to a psychological primitivism, a lack of obvious self-consciousness.

If a man starts hitting on you in a graveyard, you may be in a Gothic novel.

Gothic horror relies upon the ghastly for its thrills: churchyards, stabbings, murderous brigands, hidden deformities, and gruesome ironies. One of my favorite such moments in The Black Room (spoiler alert!) has Baron Gregor assume the bearing and manners of the brother he’s just killed while examining himself in the reflective onyx walls of the titular secret chamber.

There’s also something about the Gothic that reminds me of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Much of the fun of this genre literature (and Jacobean revenge tragedies, for that matter) derives from some kind of prediction, equation, or vow that ends up getting fulfilled, rather creepily and often with a slight plot twist, in the end. As it does in The Black Room, the conclusion of which I won’t disclose, but which you’ll understand if you’ve seen it.

“I begin as I end.” The family coat-of-arms and curse.

Another strength of Gothic horror as a genre resides in what I would describe as a lack of psychologizing. In place of tiresomely nuanced self-doubt, we relish heavy generalizations like Lust, Sin, and Innocence that dwell in the realm of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Like Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Black Room eschews the cumbersome self-analysis that we do get in more “modern” horror flicks, including some good ones, like the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Cat People.

That’s not to say that The Black Room lacks elements that lend themselves to psychological analysis, or to interpretation in general. Take the film’s use of mirrors as a means of suggesting moral doubling and division. Then there’s the fact that Anton and Gregor came from the same womb and are destined to end up in the same oubliette. But still, you could plausibly watch this movie and get no sense of anything deeper than a fine little chiller.

It’s entertainment in a rather pure, uncomplicated form, which is something that Greene and I both like and applaud. As someone who’s spent a lot of time studying film, I am refreshed by a film that doesn’t really want you to study or over-intellectualize it. I suspect that Greene disliked Whale’s movies because he found them too up-front and pretentious in their attempts at exploring the ambitious themes of life, death, and man-as-God.

No doubt, The Black Room deserves a place in the pantheon of classic horror, with its smooth, sinister tracking shots and pitch-perfect screen adaptation of Gothic tropes. The film does revive a whole literary era of wedding feasts cut short and specters of guilt and evil returning—without the self-conscious fear of Freud poking at them with his cigar.

But, and here’s where I diverge, The Black Room, despite its stylish qualities, does not herald a new era for horror as a genre, like the 1931 Frankenstein did with its jump cuts, its jarring use of sound, and its masterfully askew cinematography—askew to the point of abstraction at times. It surprises me that Greene, as a man who devoted so much of his time to pondering the fate of man’s soul in the face of modernity, did not appreciate the cruel, nervous, decidedly un-Gothic edge that Whale’s work adds to horror as a genre.

The “genuine Gothic note”: a menaced maiden.

Brave new word: man menaced… by his own creation.

The Black Room is a brilliant relic, though. I cherish it as such, and I strongly recommend that you watch it. So, apparently, did Graham Greene.

Morality Play: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

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It’s one of my absolute missions in life to get more people to watch silent films. Really, if, on my deathbed, I can say, “Well, I got more people to realize that The Phantom of the Opera is better without duets and Sarah Brightman,” I will consider it a small victory against the forces of darkness.

Which is why it’s kind of a disappointment to me to have to say that I do not consider Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a great silent film.

“I’m deeply hurt by your critique, Nitrate Diva. You wound me to my core.”

First off, Jekyll’s a bore. He doesn’t have to be, as Fredric March proved, but here, the part, as written, comes across as such a saint that we, as audience members, almost want him to slip into degradation.

We get it. He’s a nice guy. Could we please move onto the bordello now?

This is a problem since he takes frustratingly long to go over to the dark side. Then, once the transformation to Hyde finally occurs… the degenerate immediately takes the potion *again* and flips back to Jekyll. Um, yeah right. Once you’ve unleashed Hyde, he’s going to go paint the town red. I don’t buy for one moment that he’d say, “Gee, this is nice and all, but I better make sure that the process is reversible.”

However, like many, if not most, of the movies I write about, this 1920 Barrymore vehicle, directed by John S. Robinson, harbors shining moments that redeem it from the dustbin of history and make it worth watching. Stay with me, folks.

So, Barrymore does oblige and scares the Hell out of us with that famous no-cut transformation scene. His facial contortions evoke fear, not in spite of, but rather because of the fact that there’s no intervening makeup in that first shot. He’s still recognizable, but evil has some how entered him. We get the feeling that his body is nothing more than a suit of clothes—it all depends on how it’s worn, and by whom.

I would be very surprised if Kubrick’s vision of Jack Torrence hadn’t been shaped by this famous personality switch, in that it’s the person behind the face, not so much the face itself, that we see warp before our eyes.

Even so, one does get the feeling that it would all work more effectively on a stage. Barrymore spooks us onscreen, but he could hold us totally captive if we were right there, watching it imminently happening. The cinematic medium numbs the visceral reaction, for this viewer at least.

For me, Nita Naldi’s performance, not Barrymore’s, stands out as the enduring, outstanding one. Something about this Irish-American gal from Harlem (born Nonna Dooley) combusts onscreen, in contrast to the static beauty of The Great Profile.

Okay, so Naldi slightly overplays Gina, the exotic Italian dancer, but every time I watch Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I think about how much she could have run wild with the part. She really offers a subdued portrait of a woman on her way down—a dancer on the verge of prostitution who finally falls and doesn’t get back up.

She’s temptation incarnate, yes, but doesn’t take it too far. She comes across as a full person who wants to make a living and have a bit of fun, but still has a sense of decency that can be violated. In the scene when she’s first asked to vamp Jekyll, you can see several subtle emotional shades.

 Left with Barrymore’s older libertine friend, Gina broods. 

 At first, she’s skeptical about the “assignment,” then amused, then genuinely attracted (It’s Barrymore, for Heaven’s sake!), then hurt and ashamed when he spurns her. She also appears in perhaps the best scene in the movie: we find Gina after Hyde’s discarded her and is already buying his next victim…

We’ve only seen the back of Gina’s head at the other end of the dive, then she goes up to the bar, turns and glares at Hyde. In the close-up reveal, she looks like death.

I don’t know what we expect at this point. Probably not any kind of repentance from Hyde, but we don’t think it’s possible for him to get worse. And then he does.

He grabs the young whore and Gina and drags them both over to a mirror, as if to say, “Well, duh, Gina, she’s hotter. You can see for yourself!” This action chills us because we weren’t anticipating it. Normal guys dump girls when their, ahem, needs are met, but Hyde’s viciousness goes beyond selfishness. He shows that true evil isn’t indifference, but outright sadism.

 

If March’s Hyde (in the adaptation that came along just 11 years afterwards) gained anything from Barrymore’s (although ol’ Freddy was quite careful about taking it in a different direction), I would argue that the 1931 performance displays the same mocking politeness and deliberate desire to wound his victims in every way. For instance, after kicking Gina out, Hyde makes a little bow as gentleman would to a passing lady. March’s Hyde also parodies the airs and fine manners of his kind counterpart as a way of showing how hollow these gestures of politeness are—when wickedness lurks beneath.

The really sad part of the scene I’ve described above, however, arises from the fact that the new girl goes with Hyde in spite of enough red flags to read as an S.O.S. to any sensible woman.

I applaud that realism. I mean, what’s she going to say to the Madame? “But he seemed like a jerk!” I doubt that would fly. She’s made her bed and now she’s got to lie in it.

The film circles back multiple times to the idea of prostitution and of the woman in decline: consumed and then thrown away.

Right before Jekyll goes into the dance hall where he meets Gina, this shot of a random, grizzled streetwalker suddenly fills the screen. Robinson, the director, clearly wants us to cherish no illusions. No matter how prostitution starts, it ends up really ugly.

Now, this focus on vice was nothing new for cinema in 1920. In fact, the plot trope of young girls ruined by white slavery featured in several popular “problem pictures,” such as The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) and the much more ambitious feature, Traffic in Souls. Yet, these dramatizations morally hedged their bets.

On the one hand, they warned young girls not to put themselves in bad situations and exposed a social ill. On the other, they procured the kind of titillation that vicariously invading forbidden spaces like brothels or shady dancehalls automatically provides—without implying unnecessary sin on the part of the viewer.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays on the same double code. For instance, consider this shot, of elegant men crowding into a doorway to watch Gina shimmy in her scant shawl.

Not only do we get the sense of the male gaze, but also of a cold, dehumanized, upper class male gaze. We can’t see their faces. They stand as vaguely sinister icons of pleasure-seeking gentleman slummers. They visit the underworld, yet remain untouched by its cheapness.

They don’t pay the real price of what goes on here, although they fuel the wickedness with their appetites and their money. And yet, aren’t they just slightly more hands-on versions of the movie audience that’s come to savor the spectacle of degradation—once removed?

A preachy, muckraking quality dates Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and infuses it with somewhat distasteful hypocrisy. Nevertheless, what I appreciate about the film resides in how it engages a tactile revulsion in its viewers. The emphasis on Hyde’s hands stands out thanks to a close-up during the transformation…

Just looking at these hands, we can easily imagine what it feels like to be touched by them. They’re scabby, scratchy, leathery, and all-round gross. Second only to Barrymore’s obscene conical head, these hands translate the sexually predatory nature of Hyde. When he finally has his freshest filly alone, he pulls off her shawl and immediately palms her chest.

It’s disgusting—because that tactile sensation has been cleverly foregrounded. We can practically feel Hyde’s hands. The twitchy, avid motions of his fingers draw the eye to wherever his hand goes in a haptic manner—that is, his hand makes the eyes “touch” the screen and feel as though they’re being touched. Skeeved out yet?

There’s also another scene, which I would usually file under silly, if not for how much it resonates with me. Jekyll’s sworn off the potion, but the potion hasn’t sworn off him. It comes back to him in the form of a huge spider that crawls into his bed and re-injects him with its wicked venom. He spontaneously merges back into Hyde.

Hm. Addiction metaphor, anyone? Detox hallucinations? Perhaps because it’s Barrymore and we all know how alcohol destroyed him, but this superimposed spider conveys the creeping violation of compulsive behavior that always comes back, whether you want it to or not, whether you can resist another moment or whether it vanquishes you. I also suspect that this scene inspired Ray Milland’s bat hallucination DT’s sequence in Billy Wilder’s addiction picture, The Lost Weekend.

Again, the spider calls up a cinema-triggered indirect tactile sensation. I shudder, almost as though I can feel a spider scuttling along my skin.

In the end, I do recommend this silent—not because it’s a brilliant horror film, but rather because it does interject some gritty realism and consciousness of self-abuse into horror. Many scholars have remarked that the genre works out hidden social and moral issues. Well, this one never gets too far away from them in the first place.