Thursday, September 30, 2010

Zucco in Dead Men Walk!

By Doug Gibson
Dead Men Walk, 1943, B&W, 64 minutes. Producers Releasing Corp. Directed by Sam Newfield. Starring George Zucco as Dr. Lloyd Clayton and Elwyn Clayton, Mary Carlisle as Gayle Clayton, Nedrick Young as Dr. David Bentley, Dwight Frye as Zolarr, Fern Emmett as Kate and Hal Price as the sheriff. Schlock-meter rating: Six stars out of 10.

This 1940s PRC cheapie about a vampire who rises from the grave and attempts to destroy his niece to spite his brother is a lot of fun. It stars horror great Zucco in dual roles; as ocultist brother Elwyn who is murdered by his good brother, a doctor named Lloyd, also played by Zucco.

Alas, the evil Elwyn's death fails. Elwyn has learned how to resurrect himself as a vampire. With the help of demented servant Zolarr (Frye in a great, meaty role), he begins to murder. A woman driven crazy by grief (Emmett) suspects him, but no one takes her seriously. Once she starts to gain credibility, she is killed off by Zolarr. Elywn's chief target, however, is revenge against his brother. He appears to the startled doctor, and promises to suck the lifeblood from his beautiful niece Gayle (Carlisle). She's engaged to another doctor (Young) who, as Gayle starts to wither away, begins to suspect Lloyd of trying to kill her.

There are rumors all over town that Lloyd killed Elwyn and the townspeople, spurred by the murders, start to talk vigilantism. The sheriff blusters a lot, but accomplishes little. Eventually, there is a showdown between the undead Elwyn and brother Lloyd.The low budget, of course seriously hampers the film. The FXs are virtually non-existent. Zucco's Elwyn seems to fade away rather than pass through walls. The lighting is very poor. The script weak. Many of the characters are stereotypes. There's the rich doctor, the rich young couple, the crazy old lady, the blustery sheriff, the very superstitious townspeople.

The acting, except for Zucco and Frye, is quite poor. The direction, by cheapie legend, Newfield, is pedestrian. However, the plot is quite unique for a vampire film of that era. Film writer Frank Dello Stritto, writing in Cult Movies 27, describes Dead Men Walk as the best plotted vampire film of that era. However, Dello Stritto agrees the finished product is mediocre.

Nevertheless, Zucco is magnificent. The doctors are not cast as twins. It's amazing how different Zucco appears as the respected Dr. Lloyd Clayton and the balding, gaunt brother Elwyn. His timing and delivery is first rate. Frye's Zucco is menacing, and watching it is bittersweet, since the talented horror star died of a heart attack a few months after completing the film. Students of the early horror films, particulary Poverty Row Bs, should own Dead Men Walk. It's easily available on VHS or DVD.

"Dead Men Walk" is on UEN's Sci Fri Friday on March 20 at 9 p.m. on Channel 9 in Utah. Here is an essay from UEN on the film. It's a wonderful example of a low-budget 40s C horror film with stars (Zucco and Frye) that elevate the film beyond its low-budget production values.


Here is the UEN information:

When your twin brother is way into the dark arts, do you really want him dead?
The 1943 gem, "Dead Men Walk", features not one, but two (!) performances by George Zucco. As Dr. Lloyd Clayton, he's a kindly uncle and caring village doctor. As Lloyd's evil twin, Elwyn, he's a Satan-worshipping, vampiric goon bent on revenge against the gentle brother who shoved him off a cliff in an attempt to stop him.

It's worth noting that Elwyn learned the skills he needed to become a vampire on a trip to India. Western interpretations of vampire lore generally rely on ideas developed by authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, who found inspiration in the historical figure Vlad (The Impaler) Draculea. But vampires lived in legend long before Bram first put pen to paper and even before Vlad first put stake through victim.

Many discussions of Indian vampires begin with Kali, a complex Hindu goddess typically associated with death and destruction. When confronted with a demon that replicated from his own spilled blood, she solved the problem by drinking him dry. But this isn't exactly what most of us think of when we think "vampire." Not to fear: Indian lore offers a rich variety of true demonic-style vampire types that range from Brahmaparusha and Pacu Pati to Rakshasha and Baital, each of which have different origins and powers.

Anyone interested in ancient vampire lore would do well to check out the Indian story Baital Pachisi, a.k.a. Vetala Panchvimshati. First written in Sanskrit, this well-known classic is an early example of a frame story, one that places multiple tales within an overall narrative. In the frame for Baital Pachisi, the hero Vikrim pledges to present a sorcerer with a Baital – a vampire spirit who inhabits a human corpse at a cemetery. The Baital agrees to let Vikrim carry him to the sorcerer on the condition that the man doesn't speak until the journey is done, but as Vikrim lugs the weighty Baital down the road, the vampire tells him a story that provokes a response. Baital flies back to the cemetery and Vikram gets to try 24 more times, hearing a fresh tale every time. According to scholars, the original tale had a profound influence on European literature and contributed to Western frame stories such as Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. An English translation of 11 of the tales first appeared in 1870 under the title Vikram and the Vampire, by Sir Richard Francis and Isabel Burton. Numerous editions are available today, including e-books and paperbacks issued as recently as 2008.

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