Saturday, April 28, 1973: Dead Men Walk (1943) / The Black Raven (1943)

deadmenwalk1Synopsis: Dr. Lloyd Clayton (George Zucco) is a kindly small-town physician who is attending the funeral of his twin brother Elwyn (also Zucco). The first clue we get that the late Elwyn was less than popular is the attendance — there are no more than a half-dozen people in the service. The second clue is the sudden arrival of local eccentric Kate (Fern Emmett) who bursts into the church to shout at the minister for holding a Christian funeral for as sinister and godless man as Elwyn Clayton.

The minister ushers her out, then apologizes to Dr. Clayton. Kate’s granddaughter, we’re told, was brutally murdered, and she still blames Elwyn.

After the funeral Dr. Clayton tells his niece Gayle (Mary Carlisle) and her boyfriend David (Nedrick Young) that Elwyn had always been an evil man, but that he returned from a recent trip to India with a great many strange occult beliefs and “it was almost as though he were possessed by a demon”. He takes his leave of the two, saying he must take care of some things at Elwyn’s house.

At the house he begins gathering up and burning Elwyn’s notes and books about black magic and vampirism. But he is interrupted by Elwyn’s assistant Zolarr (Dwight Frye), who tells him that Elwyn had traveled the world to gather the information contained in that material. “Then the world will be a cleaner place,” says Dr. Clayton evenly.  It becomes clear that Dr. Clayton killed Elwyn in self-defense, even though Elwyn’s fall from a cliff was ruled an accident. Zolarr threatens him, promising that “You will pray for death long before you die.”

That night, Zolarr drags Elwyn’s coffin from the crypt into the cemetery. He opens the lid and Elwyn climbs out. He is now a vampire; he can sustain his life unnaturally by drinking the blood of the living. He warns Zolaar that from dawn to dusk he will be helpless — nothing more than a corpse. But from dusk to dawn nothing can harm him.

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That night Elwyn claims his first victim, creeping into the bedroom of a young woman as she sleeps. Dr. Clayton is baffled by her death, as she had seemed perfectly healthy, but her body has been almost completely drained of blood. He does note two small puncture wounds on her throat.

The following evening Dr. Clayton is poring through medical textbooks, trying to find some explanation for what has happened to her. He is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Elwyn, who tells him that he won’t find the reason for the young woman’s death in a medical textbook. It is instead in one of the volumes of the occult that he foolishly burned. His hatred for Dr. Clayton is only greater now, he says, and he will have his revenge.

“I’ll strip you of everything you hold dear before dragging you down to a sordid death,” Elwyn promises with a fierce grin, before backing away through a solid door and vanishing.

The following night Elwyn chooses Gayle as his next victim. Each night he drains a bit more blood from her. It’s clear to Dr. Clayton what is happening to her, but how can he stop a vampire that can’t be found in the daytime, and can’t be harmed after dark?

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Comments: Tonight we have a George Zucco double feature, and a pretty good one at that. In fact the first movie, Dead Men Walk, is the best horror movie PRC ever made — even better than the fondly remembered Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat.

While The Devil Bat is certainly entertaining, it stalls whenever Lugosi is offscreen and the dull, Lee Tracy-ish leading man wanders around in front of the camera. There’s a definite camp value to the central premise (giant carnivorous bats trained to attack Lugosi’s enemies) and that no doubt has bolstered its reputation over the years.

But the lesser-known Dead Men Walk plays it absolutely straight, and despite problems endemic to PRC films (cheap-looking sets, risible dialogue, flat and uninspired direction) it is nevertheless a lively and inventive vampire movie.

The audience gets too far ahead of Dr. Clayton early in the movie, and we have to wait around for him to realize what anyone who’s ever seen Dracula already knows — Elwyn is a vampire (Elwyn helpfully tells us this information himself as well). But the film is innovative in using some old folk legends of vampires to make their undead monster stand out.

As interpreted in this movie, from sunrise to sunset a vampire is literally a corpse, indistinguishable from any other and just as helpless. But at sunset he arises and becomes completely invulnerable. No wooden stake, silver cross or vial of holy water is going to bother him. He can walk through walls and make undead slaves of the living, as he plans to do with Gayle.

This is the only time I’m aware of that Zucco plays a vampire, and he brings his sinister zeal to the task to great effect. It’s a typical bad-guy performance from him, but his real acting opportunity is playing a good guy: as the kindly Dr. Clayton, George Zucco is playing against type, and he’s really quite impressive at it. His characters usually appear kindly only in order to get what they want, but Lloyd Clayton is sincerely gentle and decent, the closest Zucco’s ever gotten to playing a saint. It’s a shame he didn’t get a chance to play more characters like this; he would have made a splendid Dr. Van Helsing.

It’s also a delight to see Dwight Frye again, after uncredited appearances in a number of late-period Universal monster flicks. He plays a hunchback in this one, constantly shouting “Master! Master!” to his boss, in a callback to both Dracula and Frankenstein.

The movie benefits from Nedrick Young as David and Mary Carlisle as Gayle — both above-average players for a PRC offering. Young had a number of acting credits but was better known as a writer, penning the screenplays for Inherit the Wind (1960) and The Defiant Ones (1958) under the name Nathan E. Douglas after being placed on the Hollywood blacklist.

Mary Carlisle’s career was coming to an end when she appeared in Dead Men Walk; she’d been quite active in film through the 1930s playing sweet, innocent college girls and so forth. She’s perfectly fine here, though the script gives her short shrift, as she all but disappears from the movie after she falls prey to Elwyn.

Fern Emmett had a long career playing small-town busybodies and she gets to do a little more than usual as Kate, the only person in town willing to call Elwyn out as an evil sorcerer.

 

The Black Raven

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Synopsis: Amos Bradford (George Zucco) is the proprietor of an inn in upstate New York, close to the Canadian border.  The inn is called the Black Raven and, we learn, “The Black Raven” is Bradford’s underworld handle as well; every criminal seems to know who he is. Bradford is a sort of fixer, who can help wanted men disappear into Canada; but unlike most of his mobbed-up clients, he appears to be an independent player, without loyalty to any particular syndicate.

One dark and stormy night, Bradford receives an unexpected visitor: a man named Whitey, who comes in the door with a gun and a beef against Bradford.  It seems the Black Raven had double-crossed Whitey and sent him to prison; but before Whitey can take his revenge he is overpowered by Bradford’s handyman Andy (Glenn Strange). They tie Whitey up in the back room, planning to return him to the authorities and the ten-year-sentence he still has to serve, when another man arrives.  The man asks for help getting across the border and shows Bradford the front page of a New York paper: the man is a fugitive named Mike Bardoni. Bradford asks why a big mob figure like Bardoni would be trying to flee the country, and Bardoni replies that he has fallen out of favor with mob boss Tim Winfield and is now on the run. Bradford convinces him to book a room at the inn, as there can be no crossing the border tonight as long as the storm is raging and the bridges are all underwater.



Soon another visitor arrives: nervous milquetoast Horace Weatherby, like Bardoni, has learned that all the bridge crossings into Canada are washed out in the storm, and he must stay at the Black Raven for the night.  Weatherby carries a satchel that he is unwilling to part with; suspicious, Bardoni “accidentally” knocks it to the floor, where it briefly opens to reveal $50,000 in cash. 

The next visitors are a couple. Lee Winfield is the daughter of mobster Tim Winfield; she and her boyfriend Allen Bentley want to slip across the border to Canada to elope, but like the others they are unable to cross because of the storm and must stay at the Black Raven.  Soon more visitors arrive: Tim Winfield and his goons, who are looking to break up the planned nuptials of Lee and Allen….

Comments: Released a mere six weeks after Dead Men Walk, this likable thriller also stars George Zucco and was directed by prolific PRC director Sam Newfield. While Dead Men Walk is absolutely steeped in vampire lore,  The Black Raven instead tries to emulate the hard-bitten crime dramas of Warner Brothers.  In fact, The Black Raven might be considered a low-rent interpolation of Casablanca.

Instead of  a saloon in occupied Morocco, we have an inn near the Canadian border.  Instead of letters of transit that allow travel to the United States via Lisbon, we have the promise of safe passage into Ontario. Instead of Nazi apparatchiks, we have New York mobsters. Instead of Humphrey Bogart as the jaded Rick Blaine, we have George Zucco as the jaded Amos Bradford, a free agent who lives by his own code. And it seems that, like Rick’s Cafe Americain, everybody comes to the Black Raven — at least, everybody connected to Tim Whitfield.

George Zucco really excels as a leading man here (poverty row being the only place that offered character actors like Zucco the chance at leading roles) his smooth delivery is reminiscent of George Sanders’ debonair character The Falcon (which might have also influenced this picture); Zucco’s cultured but slightly sinister demeanor is perfectly suited for his role here.

But aside from Zucco the acting is uniformly bland; the most interesting actor on the roster is Charles Middleton, who plays the Sheriff; he was Ming the Merciless in the final Flash Gordon serial,  Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. You probably won’t remember actress Wanda McKay, even though she starred in last week’s PRC offering The Monster Maker.

Glenn Strange does just fine as Bradford’s handyman / bodyguard Andy, and while it’s clear from this performance that he just isn’t an actor, he does well enough for a PRC production, and he probably appreciated not being buried under pounds of makeup for a change. And presumably, he wasn’t asked to do much in the way of stunt work.

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One comment

  1. Dwight Frye completed this film prior to a major supporting role in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, then only had one or two more before his untimely death at age 44. Nice to see Glenn Strange again, from last week’s THE MONSTER MAKER, not so nice to endure Wanda McKay. THE BLACK RAVEN is the picture I think of whenever I see Byron Foulger, I recall him playing the hunchback assistant on a MONKEES episode “I Was a Teenage Monster,” John Hoyt the mad scientist Dr. Mendoza, Richard Kiel the Frankenstein-like creation.

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