Electric Lazarus

In Michael Curtiz's The Walking Dead (1936) Boris Karloff is a meek and gentle pianist who's spent ten years in gaol on a false charge. Upon his release crooked attorney Ricardo Cortez and his gang see the perfect patsy in him and promptly frame him - for the murder of the judge who all those years ago sentenced him. A young scientist and his bride can vouch for Karloff's innocence, for they saw the real murderers. The gang, however, scared them off and at the trial they remain silent. His defence is handled by none other than Cortez, who sees to it that he won't be acquitted.

Karloff is sent to gaol, once more for something he didn't do. This time the sentence is a bit stiffer - it's the chair for him. The day of the execution grows nearer. The scientist and his bride begin to have second doubts - can they really let an innocent man suffer? They cannot, so on the very day of the execution they go to the scientist's boss, Edmund Gwenn, and spill the beans. Gwenn contacts Karloff's lawyer who promises to get in touch with the prosecutor. But, alas and alack, Karloff's lawyer is of course the man behind the murder, and he sees to it that the governor will not be contacted in time. And when the reprieve finally arrives it is too late. The switch is pulled at the very same moment the prison authorities get word of the reprieve. Oh bitter irony!

But wait! cries Gwenn the very eminent scientist. All is not lost! he shouts, all is by no means lost! For he, like a modern Frankenstein, has been experimenting with flesh and electric currents and other quite modern and radical and impressive science thingummies. He claims to be able to reanimate Karloff. He can do it, by Jove he can! Cortez isn't best pleased.

It isn't easy - how could it be? - but in the end Gwenn and his crack team of top boffins, sporting very hi-tech gear for 1936, manage to resurrect Karloff. But, not surprisingly, he's not the same man he used to be.

Karloff has changed, oh yes, he's changed. Now he's subdued, lethargic, as if in a mild state of somnanbulism. He has trouble remembering who he is and what has happened. He limps heavily, his other hand seems useless and he's gone partially grey. On his expressive face there is this constant look of great and unrelenting sorrow. Gwenn, not perhaps in the best of scientific manners, is very keen to find out what Karloff has seen and experienced on the other side. What great secrets he could reveal - if only he remembered!

When Karloff meets Cortez he at once knows. He knows that Cortez is behind everything, he knows that Cortez is his enemy. But how can he know that? He didn't know it before - how can he know it now? Gwenn and the prosecutor throw a party and invite the entire Cortez gang. From Karloff's reactions they at once see who the guilty ones are.

One by one Karloff seeks out the guilty parties and confronts them. Why did they do it? he asks softly, merely seeking knowledge, merely seeking understanding, merely trying to find out what happened to him and why it happened. Why did they kill him? Why? The confrontations all end in the villains dying - of natural causes or in freak accidents. Karloff never lays a hand on them. Yet there is something vaguely supernatural in the accidents.

When there are only two villains left, Cortez and his boorish henchman Barton MacLane, they decide to take matters into their own hands and finish Karloff off. Karloff has sneaked out of Gwenn's house. He now spends his time at the cemetery, among the silent headstones and the tranquil dead, because that's the only place where he can find peace. The villains track him down and pump him full of lead, but while making their getaway in the heavy rain they lose the control of their car and crash straight into an electric pole and are immediately electrocuted. Oh sweet irony.

This time Karloff is in for it. Even Gwenn can't save him now, not a second time. While Karloff lies there dying, Gwenn urges him to tell everything he remembers. It's urgent. Science must know everything. And Karloff remembers. It's all very hazy but he remembers. "After the shock," he utters feebly, "I seemed to feel . . . peace . . . and . . ." - then he heaves his last sigh and is gone, this time for good. Cue violins.

A ripping movie and an extremely fascinating melange of gangster story, classic science fiction and genteel gothic horror. Curtiz's direction is especially delicious with extremely effective use of light and shadow. But what makes the movie live and breathe is obviously Karloff's beautiful acting which is so tender and gentle and sensitive that it's almost beyond belief - proving him to be a very fine actor and a true artist. The Walking Dead is also fascinating as a companion piece to Whale's Frankenstein, as Karloff is reanimated and viciously abused in both films. And while The Walking Dead is a later film it still doesn't exploit Frankenstein but rather complements it very nicely indeed.

Here's, by the way, another film that mixes gothic horror and science fiction in a most pleasing manner: Frank R. Strayer's The Vampire Bat (1933). In a small rustic village somewhere in darkest Germany people start turning up dead. They're drained of blood and have two smallish punctures in their neck. What else could it be than vampires? Well, it turns out to be this deranged scientist who needs fresh human blood for his experiments (they fairly often do, it seems), so what ho: the gothic horror movie suddenly becomes straightforward science fiction. Nice one.

But really The Walking Dead is what the doctor orders. Quite possibly Karloff's finest hour. What a performance.

No comments: