Monday, October 12, 2009

What the Dead Know

Imagine you’re unjustly locked up for second-degree murder. You were just protecting your wife. You don’t know your own strength. It was a freak thing. You’re a musician, an aesthete, soft-spoken, demure by nature, a gentle soul with a shuffling walk and the slight lunge of those ready to topple into the grave. You get out of the pen, you’re womanless, hard-up, turned away from some big shot you were promised would give you a little work. You walk the streets in a beat-up hat and too-short baggy trousers when you meet this guy, friendly as can be. He recognizes you from the papers, remembers your case, knows you got a raw deal. He buys you a coffee, says he’s a PI, offers some work, kid stuff, just watch a house for a while, track the gentleman’s movements. The catch is the gentleman in question is the very judge that sent you up. Seems a little queer, but you can’t be picky. You’re too trusting, or fatalistic, to know when you’re being set up.

That’s the lowdown for John Ellman, the hero of
The Walking Dead (1936), and if I’m trying to put you in his raggedy shoes it’s only because he’s embodied by Boris Karloff with such texture and compassion that you can’t help but sympathize—even if you never get the full story about that earlier killing. Ellman takes the fall for a mafia hit and gets the chair—a novelty of the period and much in the press. But somewhere a pair of young lovers who witnessed the crime lose sleep over the fact that they never came to Ellman’s defense. They finally confess, but it’s too late. The news gets to the prison just as Ellman gets the juice. But wait, the lovers are scientists, working for a visionary experimenting with reviving the dead. So Ellman corpse is sent directly to the lab, hooked up to electrodes, and Karloff’s given a major dose of déjà vu, five years after Frankenstein (31). He’s alive, again, remote, as though swallowed by completely by the melancholy that hounded him in his previous life. He doesn’t talk much, so the question lingers: what does he remember of death?

Directed by Michael Curtiz, still far from
Casablanca (42) but in excellent form in a flurry of prestige Bs, The Walking Dead is a haunting picture. It’s riddled with artifice and coincidence as our Lazarus begins to quietly enact his wrath, yet it’s endowed with spectral beauty and a deep emotional current thanks mainly to Karloff, as well as an inspired feeling for musical accompaniment—Ellman’s final request is to have a cello player score his death march—and a spare lighting and production design that looks back to German Expressionism and forward to noir. The story also looks forward to The Dead Zone (83), David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about the loneliness that grips those back from the void and carrying secret knowledge.

The Walking Dead is by far the best thing in Warner’s Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics box, though Zombies on Broadway (45) is also very worthwhile. A horror-comedy that’s mostly comedy, it finds Wally Brown and Alan Carney’s New York talent agents coerced by a showbiz mobster into going down to a Caribbean isle to fetch a genuine zombie. Lured by a leggy American showgirl, they eventually find Bela Lugosi secretly cooking up a zombie formula. He fools them into digging their own graves and spending the night in his castle and, you know, hilarity ensues. It’s actually a fairly entertaining bit of hysterical hokum if you can stomach the crude racial gags, but more importantly for classic horror fans it represents a very weird effort to capitalize on a previous hit. Just like Lugosi’s zombies, my eyes popped out of my head when I recognized not only Sir Lancelot, once again playing a calypso singer serenading newcomers with sweetly forbidding ballads, but also Darby Jones, once again playing a shirtless giant zombie. Both were pivotal to the unforgettable spell of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (42), the second film to emerge from producer Val Lewton’s legendary low-budget horror unit at RKO. Their reprisals here are far less distinguished, though at least Jones gets his comeuppance this time around.

Frankenstein 1970 (58) features Karloff as the original mad scientist’s great-great grumpy grandson. In need of funds to buy an atomic reactor so he can make more monsters, he allows a Hollywood film crew to use his castle. The industry satire is all stale cliché, the story is limpid and limited, the monster’s head in wrapped up in so many bandages he looks like Gumby post-surgery. It’s genuinely curious that director Howard Koch chooses to cover most of the scenes in long, unbroken takes and wide shots, though they only make things drag even more. Though it’s got Lugosi, Karloff and Peter Lorre on board, You’ll Find Out (40) seems mainly a showcase for radio personality Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge. It’s not much of a horror movie, though it did seem really horrible. I had to shut off the TV and run screaming.

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