The Walking Dead: Curtiz directs Karloff for the first and only time

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Walking Dead directed by Michael CurtizThe Walking Dead directed by Michael Curtiz

Offhand, I cannot think of another actor who gave us a more impressive run of films in the horror genre than Boris Karloff did in the 1930s. Starting with the sensation that was 1931’s Frankenstein, Boris continued to appear, year after year, in films for Universal, Columbia and (English studio) Gaumont that are now deemed eternal classics in the genre. In 1935 alone, the so-called “King of Horror” appeared in The Black Room, The Raven, and Bride of Frankenstein, and his second horror film of 1936, following The Invisible Ray, found him at a new studio, Warner Brothers. That film was The Walking Dead, a remarkable film in many ways and yet another success for Karloff. The film’s plot is one that would be adapted and only slightly reworked for several future Karloff pictures, such as The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang, but one that here seems fresh and winning.

In the film, Uncle Boris plays the part of John Ellman, a mild-mannered pianist who, when we first encounter him, has just been released from jail after a 10-year stretch for accidental homicide. His newfound freedom is short-lived, however, since a gang of high-toned racketeers has just killed a local judge and fixed it so that Ellman appears to be the guilty party. With one of the racketeers, Nolan, acting as his defense counsel, Ellman’s fate is assured. He is convicted of the crime and summarily electrocuted shortly before he is cleared by new evidence. Fortunately for him, a local scientist, Dr. Evan Beaumont, has just come up with a method of resuscitating the dead, and so the wrongfully executed man is brought back to the world of the living. But much of Ellman’s memory has apparently been wiped away during his death state, he is now even more mild mannered and befuddled than before, and he sports a new and startling white streak in his bushy hair. Before long, though, the sound of a piano recalls Ellman to himself, and, by dint of some sort of supernatural agency, he somehow gains knowledge of the men who had framed him… along with an awareness of their exact locations, and an overriding desire to go after them…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Walking Dead, however, boasts a twist that some of those other reworked films do not. Here, the Karloff character is NOT a violent man, bent on bloody vengeance. Rather, he simply wants to interrogate his framers, and ascertain why they have contrived evidence against him. It is Ellman’s mere threatening presence that drives his victims to do themselves in… by falling out of a window, running into a locomotive, etc. Apparently, it was Karloff himself who insisted on this twist; the film’s original script depicted him as a violent, hairy, drug-addicted alcoholic! Although some viewers might have preferred seeing Boris in all-out killer mode, his gentle but threatening demeanor here (just look at how intensely he glares at his framers, during his piano recital!) is quite effective enough. Karloff even looks like the Frankenstein monster at times… minus the neck bolts, of course! It is a wonderfully understated performance by the great English actor.

Karloff is abetted by some other top-flight talent here, including Ricardo Cortez (the original Sam Spade, in 1931’s The Maltese Falcon) as Nolan, Edmund Gwenn (perhaps best known as Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street and Dr. Harold Medford in 1954’s Them!) as Beaumont, and tough-guy Warner Brothers character actors Barton MacLane and Joe Sawyer as two of Ellman’s “enemies.” The film has been helmed with style to spare by the great Hungarian director Michael Curtiz (this was his only teaming with Karloff), whose use of odd camera angles, unsettling close-ups and striking use of light and shadow help to elevate the film to the level of screen art. Curtiz had already impressed horror fans with 1932’s Doctor X and ’33’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (both with Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill), and would, of course, go on to direct such Hollywood classics as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk (all starring Errol Flynn), Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca and Mildred Pierce. What an incredible career! He brings The Walking Dead home in a succinct, no-nonsense manner.

The picture is remarkably concise, and at a mere 66 minutes in length, might fairly be accused of being TOO concise. (Indeed, five of the film’s deaths, not to mention Ellman’s ultimate fate, plus questions regarding the nature of the afterlife, are neatly shoehorned into the film’s final 20 minutes!) The art of creating a short feature film such as this seems to have been lost, and indeed, it is doubtful that today’s film-going public would be willing to pay $14 for a 66-minute entertainment, anyway. Still, when done as well as Curtiz’ work here, these brief pictures can be extremely satisfying affairs. Short and not so sweet, The Walking Dead finds its creators near the very top of their game. Like Ellman himself, it has experienced a well-deserved resurrection…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. I always liked the twist that Ellman isn’t a violent character — instead of returning from the dead to bust heads, he’s more of a tweak to the guilty consciences of the other men, who then do themselves in. Casting Karloff for the role was a stroke of genius!

    • sandy ferber /

      Jana, you are so right! And I am very impressed that you have seen this classic horror film!

      • Some of my friends in college were film majors, and we had a lot of viewing parties for classic horror movies. It was a lot of fun!

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