Dead Men Walk/Creatures of the Devil (1943) ***
That’s right. I just gave a Producers’ Releasing Corporation flick three stars. Never let it be said that El Santo doesn’t stick up for the underdog. Now, given that this is a PRC movie, there are indeed plenty of weaknesses to be found if that’s what you want to focus on. Most notably, it falls squarely into the old trap of trying to economize by emphasizing talk over action, and nobody in the cast except star George Zucco possesses much in the way of talent or charisma. But if you’re willing to set that stuff aside and give Dead Men Walk a chance (the 62-minute running time should make that easy enough), you’ll be treating yourself to one of the most imaginative and independent-spirited vampire movies of the 1940’s.
Like so many vampire films, this one starts off with a funeral. The deceased is Elwyn Clayton (Zucco, from Dr. Renault’s Secret and The Flying Serpent), brother of Dr. Lloyd Clayton (also Zucco) and father of a twenty-ish girl named Gayle (One Frightened Night’s Mary Carlisle). Elwyn, evidently, was not a very popular man around town. Right in the middle of the funeral service, Kate the village crazy (Fern Emmett, playing a much bigger role than she ever got in major-studio movies like Captive Wild Woman and The Mummy’s Tomb) bursts in to protest that the sanctity of the church is being polluted by the body of “that evil man,” and considering the placid way in which Lloyd and Gayle respond to the interruption, I rather suspect they secretly sympathize with Kate’s objections. That’s putting it rather mildly, as a matter of fact. Gayle doesn’t know this, but her father’s fatal fall from the cliff some days ago was less accidental than it might have seemed. Lloyd himself gave his brother the shove in an admittedly rather extreme effort to protect Gayle from the devil worship into which Elwyn had delved with increasing avidity ever since he returned from a long sojourn in India several years back— at the very least, Lloyd was sure Elwyn’s new religion was a danger to the girl’s soul, and it didn’t seem altogether implausible that, one of these days, Gayle was going to find herself strapped down on an obsidian altar while Daddy held a knife at her throat. After the funeral wraps up and Elwyn is safely ensconced in his crypt, Lloyd sends Gayle off with her boyfriend, Dr. David Bentley (Nedrick Young, from House of Wax), while he goes back to his late brother’s mansion to finish the job by burning his collection of occult books and papers. Elwyn’s hunchback lackey, Zolarr (Dwight Frye, nearing the end of a career that also included The Vampire Bat and The Crime of Dr. Crespi), tries to stop him, but to no avail.
Yeah, well if Lloyd thinks that means he’s through with his brother, he’s got another thing coming. That night, Zolarr breaks into the Clayton family mausoleum, and absconds with Elwyn’s coffin. Hiding in a dense stand of trees, he pries open the lid, and out climbs Elwyn, just as healthy and vigorous as if he hadn’t just fallen to his death from the top of a cliff. Evidently, Elwyn’s years of faithful service to Lucifer have been rewarded, and he has returned from the other side as a vampire. And now that he’s back, he’s got a suitably devilish plan up his sleeve for getting the last laugh on his dear brother— in fact, so brazenly certain is he of his success that Elwyn heads right over to Lloyd’s place to tell him exactly how he means to make his life hell for however long it pleases him not to simply end it outright. Elwyn will gradually drain the life from Gayle, ultimately making her a vampire like himself, and Lloyd will be forced to watch her slowly dying, knowing all along the true cause of the trouble but being unable to do anything about it because no one would possibly believe him if he tried to explain. After laying it all out for Lloyd, Elwyn sticks around long enough to take several pistol rounds in the gut, just to prove to his brother that he isn’t kidding about this vampire business.
As it happens, Elwyn’s revenge strategy is more effective than even he imagined. Sure, Crazy Kate steps in to educate the doctor about the possible means of combating vampires, and to offer her assistance in locating Elwyn’s daytime hiding place, but the advantage is still decidedly with the dead man. Not only does it drive Lloyd to his wits’ end to see Gayle weakening steadily with each passing day, his own inability to cure her of her mysterious affliction leads David to suspect that Clayton is actually poisoning his niece! What’s more, David goes to the sheriff (Hal Price, of The Devil Bat and The Mysterious Dr. Satan) with his suspicions right after church the following Sunday, and a number of villagers overhear the two men’s conversation. Within days, the whole town is simmering with rumors to the effect that Lloyd Clayton is a murderer, and a man named Wilkins (The Mad Monster’s Robert Strange) is agitating for vigilante justice. Then Zolarr kills Kate (after she had made good on her promise to find Elwyn’s coffin, but before she was able to tell Lloyd of her discovery), and the rumor mill attributes her death to Dr. Clayton, too. Finally, Elwyn gets wise to the way the townspeople have responded to his nightly depredations, and realizes that the present climate of fear offers him a perfect opportunity to finish his brother off once and for all. He kills a second villager, and lets himself be caught in the act by Wilkins. Because the two brothers are almost indistinguishable from a distance in the dark— and because Elwyn is supposed to be resting peacefully in his tomb, anyway— Wilkins thinks he saw Lloyd instead, and he gathers together an armed mob to lay siege to the doctor’s house. While Wilkins is doing that, however, David and Lloyd are having a showdown of their own, and the younger man is convinced at last that the cause of Gayle’s disease lies beyond the bounds of nature. David agrees to stay at the house and stand guard over Gayle, while Lloyd himself goes out coffin hunting— right after Zolarr relocates his master’s casket to the one place his enemy is all but certain to look.
I’ve gone into this before elsewhere, but it’s important enough to say it again: I’m a huge sucker for vampire movies that take a folkloric approach to the undead. The vampirism in Dead Men Walk is almost purely medieval in character, turning what could have been just another shitty Dracula clone into something altogether different. The oldest European legends have it that the vampire is not merely nocturnal and highly averse to sunlight. Rather, during the hours of daylight, it reverts to being an ordinary corpse. Furthermore, it is only during the day that a vampire may be harmed in any respect— when the sun is down, the undead are quite simply invulnerable to attack. This body of antique legendry is the source to which Dead Men Walk turns for its vampire lore, and as a consequence, its characters are forced to deal with their situation very differently from what we are accustomed to seeing. What makes this especially impressive is that writer Fred Myton and director Sam Neufield manage to make the final confrontation between the Clayton brothers exciting while still playing fair with this seemingly limiting setup. After all, it’s far from obvious how to engineer a respectable climax when your primary villain is an inanimate object during the day and completely indestructible by night.
Also in the movie’s favor is the way it actually uses the implications of Abraham Van Helsing’s famous observation that “the vampire’s greatest strength is that no one will believe in him.” The line has been nothing but an empty catch-phrase in every screen version of Dracula (and in the original novel, too, for that matter), but in Dead Men Walk, the idea behind it is the very soul of the plot. In fact, the vampire here exploits the disbelief of the townspeople as a weapon against his human foes, tricking Wilkins and his mob into attacking exactly the wrong people. I can’t recall seeing even a single other vampire film that used this gambit, and encountering that kind of originality in a movie released by so universally reviled a studio as PRC is a most welcome surprise.
Finally, it’s worth making special mention of George Zucco. The major studios generally gave him short shrift in their horror films, casting him in throwaway roles that even Bela Lugosi would have disdainfully refused, but at PRC, he might as well have been Boris Karloff. They couldn’t afford a real star, so they had to become adept at spotting hidden potential in underused actors, whom they could then tempt with high billing and meaty roles. And despite a certain overwrought theatricality to his dual performance, Dead Men Walk suggests that the little studio had the right idea where Zucco was concerned. He makes for an unusual hero as Lloyd Clayton— seemingly too old to have matinee appeal, tortured by indecision, and morally compromised by the only arguably justified murder of his evil brother— and he does quite a lot with the part. More impressive still is his rendition of Elwyn. Zucco knows this is no Count Dracula, and he never tries to get away with a simple Lugosi impression; instead, he steers closer to the mad scientist and insane genius characters he had played in such films as Dr. Renault’s Secret and The Mad Monster. He also gives Elwyn an edge of sadism that would otherwise be almost unknown among screen vampires until the 1970’s. Dracula might wistfully fantasize about what it would be like “to die— to be truly dead,” but Elwyn Clayton is having too much fun for regrets. It’s a part that demands a certain amount of overacting, and Zucco seems more than happy to deliver. His zeal would be enough to compensate for a much longer list of shortcomings, and a much shorter list of virtues, than Dead Men Walk possesses.