Sunday, April 30, 2006

Dead Men Walk - review

Director: Sam Newfield

Release Date: 1943

Contains spoilers

“Dead Men Walk” begins with a book – “The History of Vampires” – being thrown in a fire. We then go to the funeral of Elwyn Clayton (George Zucco), his twin brother Lloyd (also played by George Zucco) steps up to the coffin when the funeral is disturbed by Kate (Fern Emmett) known to be the mad old woman of the village. She says that the holy house if being defiled by having one as evil as Elwyn in it and is removed by the Sheriff (Hal Price).

Later, outside Elwyn’s house, Lloyd tells his niece, Gail (Mary Carlisle), and her suitor David (Nedrick Young) that Elwyn had never been the same after he went to India, that on the trip he had become obsessed with the occult. Lloyd enters the house alone and begins burning Elwyn’s books and papers, saying they are blasphemous. He is accosted by Zolarr (Dwight Frye) who accuses him of murdering his brother.

This wasn’t Frye’s first foray into the vampire genre, he was also Renfield in the 1931 version of Dracula and was the hapless Herman Gleib, the innocent accused of vampirism and murdered in the Vampire Bat. Here, again, he plays the vampire’s mad assistant.

Elwyn, of course, rises as a vampire and it is here that the film comes into its own. In the main the film has a very simple story and is a rehash of many other vampire stories, most notably there are definite elements of Dracula. The more original areas are the fact that the vampire is the twin of the Van Helsing type character and the source of the vampirism. When Elwyn confronts Lloyd he states that he will make Gail a vampire, but also that he had been hypnotising Gail (when he was alive) to make her a disciple of the black arts. Indeed it was for this reason that Lloyd killed Elwyn. He also states that his vampirism was a gift from the Dark Lord of the Abyss, Shaitan. This is an interesting move, Shaitan being the Islamic version of Satan. In fact, many years after this film, Brian Lumley named the source of vampirism in his Necroscope novels Shaitan and the name was also given to a Vampire in the Vampire the Masquerade game.

At first Lloyd does not believe his own eyes, thinking he might be insane. The only one who truly believes that Elwyn has returned is Kate and she is dismissed as mad. However, as Elwyn continues his nightly visitations of Gale and she becomes weaker, Lloyd begins to believe – despite the fact that vampirism does not fit in with the scientific knowledge he, as a doctor, holds dear.

He tries to convince David, but David will have none of it and believes Lloyd is trying to kill his own niece. Eventually Kate gives Gail a crucifix and it successfully wards Elwyn away. Elwyn sends Zolarr to remove the crucifix but he is caught by David and Lloyd. They are visited by Elwyn and finally David does believe. To continue exacting his revenge on Lloyd, Elwyn uses the townsfolk’s fear that Lloyd is a murder – due to David’s earlier accusations – and kills someone in front of witnesses. They of course believe it was Lloyd and a mob descends upon his house. However he is no longer there, he has realised that Elwyn must be in his old house and a final confrontation begins in which a fire is accidentally started. In the end, Lloyd sacrifices himself to keep Elwyn in the burning building until he is destroyed.

The film neatly goes full circle and ends, as it began, with a funeral – this time for Lloyd.

As I said earlier the film borrows many of its ideas and motifs from other movies, but it is a satisfying 63 minutes, if you have little else to do. George Zucco manages to make both brothers distinguishable through his acting and, though not in the film that much, Frye is excellent as always. There is little in the way of sfx and the one that is used the most, the ghostly vanishing of Elwyn does look incredibly dated, it probably wasn’t that brilliant when the film was shot. The power of the film, however, is in what is said, rather than what is seen. I’ll give this film an above average 6 out of 10.

The film is public domain and can be downloaded from arcoiris, however the file is very small and the film stutters a little and pixelates in places. The visual quality during the final flight in the blazing house is awful as a result. The imdb page is here.

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