Dwight Frye-days is a column where I will explore the films of Dwight Frye, arguably the first method actor and a personal favorite of mine. During October I will be exploring the horror films in Frye’s filmography. Today’s movie is the 1943 satanic vampire horror film Dead Men Walk starring George Zucco (many Universal Monster films such as The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and House of Frankenstein), Mary Carlisle (College Humor, One Frightened Night, Baby Face Morgan), Nedrick Young (Gun Crazy and Retreat, Hell!), and the star of this column Dwight Frye (most well known for Fritz in Frankenstein and Renfield in Dracula).
This week we go back to the vampire film with Dead Men Walk, though this film takes a completely different approach to the vampire story. Where The Vampire Bat was a film that spoke a lot about the vampire lore and mythology, Dead Men Walk takes a very human and personal approach and ends up being a completely different altogether. On top of that, it marks one of Dwight Frye last ever appearances on screen before his tragic passing.
The film starts off with a book titled “A History of Vampires” being thrown into the fire and a narration discussing the various creatures that some people think exists – such as vampires, witches, and werewolves – and thrusting us viewers into a world where monsters are very much something believe in. The film then shifts to a series of events that unfold over the first 20 minutes or so, slowly giving us information the film deems necessary. Dr. Lloyd Clayton (George Zucco) is attending his twin brothers funeral where a woman bursts in and starts screaming about the recently deceased Dr. Elwyn Clayton has been committing acts of blasphemy. Immediately after the funeral we meet Lloyd’s niece Gayle (Mary Carlisle) and her fiance David (Nedrick Youngh) and find out that everyone knows Elwyn wasn’t the nicest of people. Lloyd goes to explore his brothers house, finding all sorts of evil and blasphemous books and writings, burning them all in the fireplace, when we meet Zolarr (Dwight Frye), who was very close to Elwyn before his death and who exclaims that he thinks Lloyd is the one who caused Elwyn’s death. Not long after that we see Zolarr moving Elwyn’s casket from it’s burial ground and opening it up, exclaiming words often spoken by Dwight Frye, “Master!” as Elwyn rises from his coffin revealing himself to be a vampire!
Honestly, there are very few things about Dead Men Walk that are not fantastic. The pacing of this film is great, the story is told over time and we are only given information about the story when it is necessary, which is really neat. Arguably the best part of Dead Men Walk is that it’s more human and religious take on the vampire genre. Instead of focusing on the horror of the monster a vampire can be, the film explores the nature of a human and immortality. Elwyn gets his vampirism by praying to a satanic god, he is frightened by crosses, and he exhibits more human emotions. There is a lot of imagery around religion; crosses are prevalent throughout the film, especially when Gayle is given one after the local vampire lore expert (Fern Emmett) explains that is what can keep a vampire away. It’s also stated that Elwyn is given “divine powers” and we see him praying at a sort of shrine. It’s all very fascinating as most of the time we don’t see that aspect of the vampire story played up as much as it is here.
Another wonderful thing about this film is it is quite rooted in horror stories and horror mythology. In more than one instance there is talk about witches, vampires, werewolves, and even the great Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the latter of which gives an interesting subplot where the locals fear that Lloyd has become a victim to a drug similar to Dr. Jekyll, and while he seems normal during they day at night he roams around looking to harm others. Although this subplot adds a wonderful layer to the story, it is added in too late in the film to work properly and ultimately feels rushed and under-explored.
The acting from everyone is quite fantastic, especially from George Zucco, who is known for playing suave villains in horror films, and only portrays the always curious good character of Lloyd, as well as the evil vampire Elwyn perfectly. This film is a prime example of showing off someone’s acting chops, having to play near polar opposite characters for the same film. Another fun actor was Fern Emmett who plays Kate, a woman who overhears about Gayle’s sickness after Elwyn starts feeding off her during the night and comes to warn her that she may be being targeted by a vampire. What I found unique and interesting about her character is, more often than not, our “vampire expert” in horror films is a man – usually deemed crazy – whereas here she is a nice woman who the main characters actually listen to, while still having slight doubts. It’s a very nice change of pace and just adds to the film’s uniqueness.
Now in this film, when it comes to Dwight Frye, we have the least amount of screen time in the movies I’ve discussed so far. He is given yet another “servant to the master” role that he was typecast in, but this time he plays it much differently. Frye’s Zolarr is not as much an over the top crazy character like his Renfield or Fritz, but a much more calm and sad character. He brings so much depth to Zolarr and is perhaps really hitting his prime with this film as he doesn’t portray the character as too crazy and too out there, but he also doesn’t seem to be forcing to restrain himself like in The Crime of Doctor Crespi. Frye seems to balance right in the middle of crazy and serious and it does wonders for his character. Although, he plays his character with such a solemn sadness that I have to unfortunately wonder if the character had a sad story behind the scenes or within Frye’s mind, or if Frye just couldn’t conceal his slightly sad emotions as he also had a heart condition that would soon after lead to his passing. Either way, it is an incredibly amazing performance to go out on, if also quite a sad performance.
Overall Dead Men Walk is wonderful! The acting great all around, and by George Zucco and, obviously, Dwight Frye even superb. It has it’s moments where fleshing out the Jekyll/Hyde suspicion subplot may have helped and honestly adding another 5-10 minutes wouldn’t have made the film any worse as I could have watched at least 30 minutes more of this wonderful story. Its exploration of vampirism not only came from a more dramatic and human standpoint, but also from a more religious standpoint, which was fascinating. This may be one of Dwight Frye’s last films, but it is far from one of his least good films. This one is a film I highly recommend looking into.
Stay tuned for next Frye-day when I celebrate the last Frye-day before Halloween with the classic and beloved Universal Monster movie Frankenstein (1931)!