Friday, 22 July 2016


“You can’t kill me again…”

Boris Karloff’s second horror film released early in 1936 was a chance to work over at Warner Brothers for the highly-regarded Michael Curtiz who’d already established his credentials in horror with Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum the year after. As we’ve seen in earlier reviews of these two, Curtiz was a talent who could craft a film well and at speed, talents which would ensure him a long career in the industry. The Walking Dead basically plays as a gangster murder-thriller rather than a horror film, which suits not only Curtiz’s previous work in handling fast wise-guy dialogue on the run, but also was mounted by the perfect studio as Warner’s house style was already associated with the gritty gangster movies of Bogart and Cagney. Indeed, Karloff’s central role could just as easily have been played by Bogart and have the film labelled as a very dark crime picture.

Despite the esteemed director and studio, Karloff had some misgivings going into the project, most importantly a concern that his character spent most of his screen time lumbering in intentionally corpse-like, almost monosyllabic form which he felt was too close to the career-making monster role of Frankenstein that he was careful to leave behind now. Curtiz added more writers to a shooting script credited to multiple names including the original story co-creator Ewart Adamson. The finished film still bears resemblances to his former part though. Incidentally, Karloff had already worked with Curtiz shortly before being catapulted to fame in The Mad Genius (1931).

How this comes about follows a whirlwind opening where Curtiz deftly establishes a fast-paced world of mobsters and fast-talking reporters at a court house where we learn that the defence attorney Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) does nothing for negative legal stereotyping by proving to be more corrupt than his clients as ring-leader of the city’s mob. He takes advantage of a visit by Karloff’s meek, down-at-heel ex con John Ellman to frame him for the murder of the Judge. Circumstantial evidence seems to nail the unlucky Ellman as the driver of a car the gangsters dump the body into. He’s only just got out from serving ten years unfairly for second-degree murder as it is, and with the Judge victim being the same one who sent him down, it looks like a revolving door of more prison food for the poor bastard.

Ellman may be a lugubrious sap yet he has a refined soul and musical talent as a pianist. He asks the Warden for the last request of hearing his favourite piece played by a violinist as he is walked to the chair. It’s a shame he didn’t ask for a symphony as the witness couple who can confirm his innocence are just too late to save him from riding the lightning – courtesy of Nolan stalling for time instead of communicating up the chain of authority.

At this point, science trumps the legal double-dealing with the winning hand of Dr Beaumont, who revives the freshly-dead Ellman. Beaumont is played with a credible medical passion by Edmund Gwenn who in an impressive career would later win an Academy Award as Kris Kringle in the charming Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Here he delivers the equally miraculous present of revivification to the dead Ellman. This plot line seems to have been the result of a dual inspiration; firstly, the recent jaw-dropping real life surgery of Dr Robert E Cornish shown in Life Returns (see my review dated 5/7) in which a dog is brought back to life after being gassed to death. The Walking Dead was filmed not long after so may be more than a coincidence. Secondly, the fictional operation involved the staging of another true-life medical marvel,  a duplicate ‘perfusion pump’, nicknamed the Lindbergh heart after its co-creator Charles Lindbergh, which sustains the organ during surgery

Either way, the worldwide acclaim this sensational operation bestows on Beaumont is not shared by Ellman who is reborn into confused solemnity and grunted monosyllabic utterances. He is a haunted shell of what he was before, conveyed most convincingly by Karloff, the perfect actor to inhabit such a combination of cadaverous dread and earned sympathy. This comes across with great effect in a powerful scene where Beaumont stages a piano recital to encourage Ellman’s dormant memories to resurface. He begins to play, and Karloff’s piercing soulful gaze hardens into deep homicidal fire as he surveys each of the mobsters invited by Beaumont’s friend District Attorney Werner out of suspicion. We don’t know how Ellman senses these men are implicated in his murder and this intriguing metaphysical thread will be teased at later. Unbeknownst to the good guys, this is a flame that, once lit within Ellman’s snoozing synapses, cannot now be extinguished until each one of his killers has been…

The effect of Ellman's performance supplies enough Hamlet-style vindication for Werner’s earlier hunch that Nolan secretly heads a clandestine mob racket instead of upholding the law: “And I believe you threw a monkey wrench into their machinery when you brought him back to life”. He needn’t worry though about how to exact justice within a proven corrupt system. Ellman embarks on a rampage of vigilante sentencing of his own starting with the aptly-named hitman Trigger who is surprised whilst he was preparing to go after him. Trigger shoots himself by accident whilst backing away, closely followed in death by Blackstone who is hit by a train (a nifty effect of simple back projection that is just brief enough to work).

As the funeral wreaths of Ellman’s handiwork stack up, Nolan responds with the inadvertently comedic observation: “I’m beginning to think those three deaths weren’t a mere coincidence”. No kidding – his steel-trap legal mind is clearly showing signs of rust at not noticing what connects the victims. 

In its climax, the film takes an unexpected twist into the religiously poetic. After Ellman is fatally shot attempting to end Nolan, Beaumont seizes insensitively on his dying form, urging him to share the secrets of what he has learned of life beyond death. Karloff again pulls at our heartstrings with a sudden deathbed warning not to meddle in scientific blasphemy: “Leave the dead to our maker. The Lord our God is a jealous God”. This impassioned theistic debate poignantly echoes the moral trespassing by Henry Frankenstein, linking us with more subtlety to Karloff’s most famous screen incarnation. Ellman expires, giving away nothing conclusive to Dr Beaumont and rightfully so.  We are left with an enigmatic lingering shot of a church-yard Madonna – and the probable satisfaction for the censors of the Hays Office that ultimately crime, as well as scientifically enhanced revenge from beyond the grave, don’t pay.

Fortunately, The Walking Dead itself profited at the box office, thus keeping Karloff’s profile energised and usefully establishing his value to other studios aside from the horror home of Universal.

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