Saturday, April 12, 1975: Dead Men Walk (1944)

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Note: For the first time on Horror Incorporated, we have the same lead-off movie listed two weeks in a row. According to the schedule, we saw The Missing Guest on April 5, but it’s listed as the midnight movie again tonight. What’s the deal?

I don’t believe the same movie was actually shown twice. A more likely explanation is that The Missing Guest didn’t get shown on April 5 for whatever reason (the print wasn’t available to be shipped, or turned up missing) and another movie was substituted. Without records from the station, we’ll likely never know. So we will forego the description of The Missing Guest (you can read it on the April 5 rundown) and we will go directly to tonight’s second feature, Dead Men Walk.

Synopsis: 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’s second feature, 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.

3 comments

  1. This brings up another memory of Horror Incorporated. The movies listed in TV Guide were not always the movies shown. I assume there were mix ups, errors, or sometimes failures to deliver the film scheduled on time. Having worked in television stations, I know sometimes the prints we would receive were bad or falling apart, so they would have to swap out something else. Happens a lot, even at the big networks.

    Steve

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  2. TV Guide was famously unreliable, but of course they had to prep their issues relatively far in advance. The same problem came up with the weekly TV listings in the Sunday paper. The daily newspaper listings were more reliable but (as you pointed out) there were lots of last-minute reasons why a scheduled show needed to be swapped out.

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