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Horror pictures had a hard time of it after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. The gangster genre squeaked by with a shift of emphasis from racketeers to G-Men, but Hollywood's new Sunday School mindset rejected many horror themes outright. Great pictures like Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (which on its own embraced sadism, suicide and necrophilia) simply disappeared from screens. Post- Code horrors ran for cover behind Edgar Allan Poe (The Raven) or comedy (The Bride of Frankenstein). A few uncommercial exceptions aside, the Horror Film's full recovery came only 25 years later, when fans embraced Hammer Films' Technicolor exercises in Guignol. Warners' four-title Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics DVD set shows the genre in a definite slump. The final title in the set is a 1958 cheapie exploiting the still-potent name and fame of the King of Horror, Boris Karloff.
The Walking Dead from 1936 is a pivotal film for Karloff. Although very short (65 minutes) it's a quality Warner Bros. effort directed by the respected Michael Curtiz. The plot is essentially a gangster vengeance movie. Framed by vicious hoods Ricardo Cortez and Barton MacLane, unlucky ex-con John Ellman (Karloff) is executed for a murder he didn't commit. But his body is revived by scientist Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), who wants Ellman to tell him of secrets beyond the grave.
As can be guessed, the film's genre identity is somewhat confused. Director Curtiz handles the gangster aspect in familiar Warners' style, with Joe Sawyer playing a Murder, Inc.- style hit man named Trigger. Curtiz and Karloff put equal effort into the spooky content, splashing Germanic shadows across walls and arranging for the undead Ellman to unaccountably materialize in locked rooms, like a ghost. Ellman eventually migrates to a rain-soaked cemetery, as if drawn to death; amid all the fast "Warner Urban" wisecracks and action, Karloff must carry the horror angle on his own.
Oddly enough, The Walking Dead is identical in structure and similar in execution to John Boorman's spacey crime revenge saga Point Blank. Like that film's Lee Marvin, Karloff's Ellman is presumed dead yet returns to menace his enemies, all of whom perish without his direct assistance. In Ellman's case they fall on their own guns or out of windows, under trains, etc.
Karloff lumbers about like Frankenstein's monster, an effect heightened by removing a dental bridge and sucking in his right cheek to augment the cadaverous look. Like a ghost, Ellman asks each villain, "Why did you have me killed?" The inconsistent The Walking Dead never decides if Ellman is a literal zombie or a "Telltale Heart" guilt hallucination. The faux-religious ending chastens Edmund Gwenn with a "man was not meant to know" message, over an image of a stone angel in the cemetery.
Karloff is of course superb while the other leads deliver characteristically snappy Curtiz performances. Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull are a truly insipid pair of youthful lab assistants never taken to task for refusing to testify for Ellman at his murder trial. The Walking Dead looks much more modern than the same year's The Invisible Ray but it marks the end of the first phase of Karloff's Hollywood career. From here on he'd land less prestigious roles, albeit always with star billing. Karloff would repeat the theme of vengeance from beyond the grave ad infinitum in a series of cheap Columbia pictures.
Author Greg Mank goes deep into The Walking Dead's production history for his commentary, detailing a long list of no-no content nixed by the Production Code office before filming began. 1930s Hollywood horror was dismantled by censor demands both here and in England, where a number of the earlier movies had been banned outright.
Universal's 1939 Tower of London and Son of Frankenstein cued a significant comeback for the horror film, but Karloff soon found himself typed as a mad doctor or glowering criminal. Before withdrawing to a much more rewarding Broadway career he appeared in a rush of minor scare pictures, eight in 1940 alone. RKO's You'll Find Out is actually a musical comedy, a vehicle for Kay Kyser's novelty "Kollege of Musical Knowledge" swing orchestra. Kyser's band of extroverts are more amenable to film work than most musicians, although comedian Ish Kabibble is perhaps Not Ready for The Big Screen -- he's like a fourth, even more unpleasant Stooge.
The movie is a standard kill-the-heir non-mystery, with Kyser's band performing at the high-toned Bellacrest mansion. Agent Chuck Deems (Dennis O'Keefe) is in love with Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish), the innocent target of a crooked judge, a charlatan psychic and an assassin posing as a professor: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre. Each of these actors is asked only to present their established screen personas. In a plotline dotted with novelty songs and séance hocus-pocus, the waste of great talent is almost painful. Karloff and Lugosi play the script straight and manage to survive with their dignity intact. Impish scene-stealer and ad-libber Peter Lorre has a field day using his eyes and toothy smile to add layers of gleeful malice to his performance.
With the bridge out and the phones dead the three villains try out poisoned darts, bolts of electricity and a falling spike as murder weapons. Kyser uncovers the evil scheme when he discovers Lugosi's lair in a subterranean room. The so-called horror angle wraps up much like a Droopy cartoon, with Ish Kabibble's pooch chasing the villains while carrying a stick of dynamite in his mouth. As a comedy You'll Find Out is likely to leave modern audiences completely unmoved. But I won't point fingers, as I still remember thinking that Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in was the funniest thing invented by modern man.
Peter Frampton fans might be amused by the debut of a "talk box" invention called the Sonovox, which uses the voice as a filter for amplified musical instruments. Kay Kyser promotes the device as if the movie were an infomercial. 1 Much more central to film historians is the set dressing used in Lugosi's secret chamber. The art directors raided the RKO prop department and unearthed a trio of Triceratops stop-motion animation models built for Willis O'Brien's aborted dinosaur epic Creation. Even more interesting are two spider models attached to a secret doorway -- they are definitely the giant spiders in the famous censored "spider pit" scene cut from the original King Kong. The head of Creation's Arsinotherium is visible to the left of the large spider, as well.
Some wartime horror pictures were haunted house comedies following in the footsteps of popular Bob Hope and Abbott & Costello hits. 1945's Zombies on Broadway is a bizarre comedic wanna-be from Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello. The duo's dynamic is definitely personality-challenged; as a comedy team it simply doesn't distinguish itself.
But Zombies on Broadway may be the strangest quasi-sequel ever made. Brown and Carney are Jerry Miles and Mike Streger, maladroit publicity flacks who have promised to find a fake zombie for the new nightclub of gangster Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard). Ordered to come up with the real McCoy or die, the pair sails to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian, a noted zombie hangout. They're greeted at the dock by Calypso singer Sir Lancelot, who improvises an instant folk ballad commentary. It's immediately apparent that this is a comedy spin-off from Val Lewton's popular 'straight' horror film I Walked with a Zombie. Not only does Sir Lancelot recycle his same menacing song from the Lewton original, but the tall & cadaverous Darby Jones returns as the somnambulistic zombie Carre-four, here given a name change to Kolaga. Finally, music cues from various Val Lewton productions sneak into the soundtrack, including a very recognizable "stalking" cue from The Seventh Victim.
That's where the comparisons end, as Zombies on Broadway opts for slapstick hi-jinks. Singer Jean La Dance (Anne Jeffreys) helps Jerry and Mike escape from the clutches of Bela Lugosi's uninteresting Doctor Renault. Lugosi uses a serum to transform Mike into the walking dead. In this case, all that happens is that Mike receives a pair of (rather disturbing) zombie pop-eyes, of the same kind worn by Darby Jones. Jean and Jerry are overjoyed, and hustle Mike back to Broadway to perform! It's all over before we remember to laugh.
Veteran director Gordon Douglas doesn't waste time with fancy details. Dotty curator Ian Wolfe and Broadway columnist Louis Jean Heydt provide spirited support. Fledgling actor Robert Clarke plays a character called Wimp. You have to start somewhere.
For its final film the collection leaps ahead thirteen years to 1958, when cheap productions were cashing in on Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein, a smash hit that ignited an international horror boom. A quickie production from prolific producer Aubrey Schenck (T-Men) and director Howard W. Koch, the cut-rate Frankenstein 1970 delivers the minimum quota of shocks to qualify as a feature film. Seventy year-old Boris Karloff is given bold star billing, a spooky makeup job and a disagreeable character to play.
The screenplay by George Worthing Yates and Richard H. Landau (The Quatermass Xperiment) revamps the Frankenstein legend with an unpleasant update involving a movie crew shooting a Frankenstein story in the Baron's own castle. Brash director Douglas Row (Don "Red" Barry, former cowboy star) has rented the castle and irritates his host with insensitive remarks. The Baron (Karloff) is established as a victim of Nazi torture, to explain his mutilated eyelid. He now has an atomic reactor in his basement, and looks to the film's cast and crew for the raw materials for his new monster. The poky script has several lengthy one-shot scenes that prove Karloff adept at sustained dialogue. But suspense and surprises are sadly lacking. The Baron carries a heart in his hand and drops a jar containing human eyes to the floor, details surely inspired by the Hammer series.
Perhaps convinced that a good first impression is the key to finding a distributor, Schenck and Koch topload Frankenstein 1970 with the film's only stylish scene. A prologue follows a claw-fisted monster pursuing peasant girl Jana Lund into a foggy pond, and then wading in to strangle her. The murder turns out to be a movie-within-a-movie being filmed by director Roy's camera crew, and nothing of its kind is seen again. Audiences surely felt cheated for wanting to see that movie, not one about some boring film folk. TV personality Tom Duggan smiles incongruously while the other actors work overtime to extract some excitement from the script. The "twist" ending doesn't add much to Karloff's humorless character, an unusually grouchy mad doctor. Considering that Karloff does wonders with modest movies like The Haunted Strangler, he doesn't look happy making this one.
The Allied Artists release Frankenstein 1970 is filmed in CinemaScope and occasionally finds an impressive composition. But little details undercut its impact. Frankenstein's futuristic mad lab scenes use archaeic sound effects from old Universal pictures. When the bandaged monster rolls out of the reactor furnace on a rickety hospital gurney, it appears to be pulled by a string. Apparently somebody thought it was funny for the Baron to dispose of surplus body parts in a device that makes the noise of a flushing toilet. Kids in 1958 matinees must have jeered every time Karloff nears the disposal.
Interviewer Tom Weaver hosts a commentary for Frankenstein 1970, joined by Bob Burns and actress Charlotte Austin. Burns tells stories about meeting Boris Karloff in person, and Ms. Austin has fine memories from the set. She is grateful that she didn't have to go into the freezing water with Jana Lund and recounts a shot ruined when Mike Lane's bandaged monster couldn't carry her down a flight of stairs without dropping her. Weaver enumerates some censored content, such as a silhouette scene in which the monster was supposed to squash a victim's head.
A rather motley assortment of horror odds 'n' ends, Warners' Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics box will nevertheless be a must-see disc for genre fans. The transfers are all good, with The Walking Dead showing its age and Zombies looking marginally softer than the others. Frankenstein 1970 can boast a flawless enhanced widescreen transfer. You'll Find Out and Frankenstein 1970 come with original trailers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I worked for a film editor by the name of Peter Wright in the 1980s. His grandfather was the famous author Harold Bell Wright, and his father Norm Wright a prolific Disney animation director. They rented You'll Find Out in 16mm one day just to see the Sonovox scenes. If I remember correctly, Norman claimed to have been the inventor of the device, and to promote it was briefly in business with Kay Kyser.
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