Long before the comics, television shows, games, merchandise of The Walking Dead series, existed another film of the same name, and likely either forgotten or thoroughly unknown except by Boris Karloff’s aficionados and fans in general it dates all the way back to the early days of horror in the mid-1930s. He, like Lon Chaney Senior and Junior were horror superstars that had the ability to enthrall the viewers with his ability to arouse sympathy for his character portrayals of monsters and other assorted fiends; hence his work in this film perhaps conveyed his most cherished and soul filled moments on the screen, that students of acting still intently watch to learn those silent subtle techniques. By late 1935, every studio wanted Karloff because of his successes in 10-horror films among them, Frankenstein ; The Mummy ; The Old Dark House  and Bride of Frankenstein , including Warner Bros., which had consistently been rolling out very cheaply made gangster and crime flicks, while their counterpart Universal heavily invested in horror movies, and received extremely valuable box office receipts. Boris did 32-films by 1936 which some were themed crime dramas, but he truly marks the American horror genre, with gothic tales, science fiction and comedy mixed in his resume. Therefore, Warner hired him for a picture that would appeal to their locked-in core audience and yet attract the younger cinema lovers, a crossover of generations to see the latest creation. Warner placed Michael Curtiz, a proven director in charge of the production, he knew how to convey a story with creative visual shots, thereby heightening the atmosphere of an entire movie, with just a few frames. His talents accelerated in 1935 with his five-Oscar nominations for Captain Blood, but he also had successful dabble in the horror genre, with such films of Mystery of the Wax Museum , Doctor X  and The Mad Genius , which coincidentally starred Karloff in an uncredited role, who 3-weeks later would emerge as the star of Frankenstein, when it was released. While the story for the film came from both Joseph Fields and Ewart Adamson, Ewart stayed on-board for the screenplay along with Peter Milne, Lillie Hayward, and Robert Andrews (who later worked on two more Boris horror films Before I Hang  and The Devil Commands ), though at the time of this production, none of the writers had any experience in creating a horror movie. That doesn’t mean the writers failed in the storytelling rather they carefully maneuvered around the censorship rules found under the then Hays Code, actually assisted in narrowing down the script concept with a spooky moral repercussion against the corruption of sinister individuals. In addition, the story couldn’t be too nitpicking on the viewers foundation thoughts or beliefs, hence the inclusion of romantic or comedic references in terror filled movies, this second part is often presented in horror movies of today.
It begins as a crime story with gangsters who’ve taken advantage of a business that they fronted to intermingle with high society, thereby in their power positions they can remove a person who crosses their criminal empire in a very causal manner. However, a new problem has arisen a judge who was being threatened but wouldn’t backdown is sentencing some powerful ringleaders. Meanwhile John Ellman (Boris Karloff) served his sentence in prison and was released, by this same judge, when the audience first sees him, he is humble and fragile in his demeanor. Sadly, the fates have conspired against him with being at the wrong place at the wrong time, that judge who previously sentenced him is now murdered but it’s not a coincidence. A dangerous defense attorney named Nolan (Ricardo Cortez (Thirteen Women )) who represents Ellman, although he seems to do the prosecutor job for him, and John finds himself sentenced to death in the electric chair. Don’t fret, this is merely the opening of the film, when two witnesses named Nancy and Jimmy (Marguerite Churchill (Dracula’s Daughter ) and Warren Hull) finally decide to go to the authorities, overcoming their fears from the gangs and their moral guilt; a wonderful suspense scene occurs.
A doctor and scientist Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn (Them! )), has acquired John’s corpse, his experiments with keeping human organs alive outside the body. The doctor’s lab is eerily similar to that of Dr. Frankenstein, all in an effort to revive him with the usage of the Lindbergh heart device; successful in his treatment brings Ellman back to life, a few problems exist, he has no memories of his life, afterlife and his moves are very slow in fact very stiff, but one piece of good news is he’s cleared of all charges. In the second act, John still has difficulty speaking but it’s as if the hand of God touches many of his memories which begin sweeping back all in part to hearing Nolan’s voice, he strangely seems aware of those who wronged him, for a moment he’s shown in John’s eye, conveying to the audience one word “Vengeance”. This motive works effectively well to bring retribution tenfold to the villains such as Loder (Barton MacLane (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ) and Blackstone (Paul Harvey), among others in a stealthy silent mode which speaks volumes on its own. Occasionally Curtiz returns to the romantic subplot of Nancy and Jimmy that goes nowhere, therefore unsure why he ventures to this place instead focusing on the Ellman story arc, it’s after all the primarily reason everyone is watching the film. Our enduring hero, is constantly exploited by both the living and those of perhaps a supernatural world his body is not his own, rather as a means to extend the reach of the Reaper, he shall never regain any joy of playing music, now he’s merely a zombie-like vessel controlled by a strange entity whose mere awareness deadly fright.
The plot’s atmosphere is filled sorrow and dread, which affects the audience greatly, making the overall feeling of inescapable weighted doom, primarily thanks to cinematographer Hal Mohr (Phantom of the Opera ). Curtiz’ maximum control of the ultra-thin script did contain some plot-holes, and characters acting more as set pieces than actual contributions to film. Karloff also used is star power to have script changes made such as the removal of suggestions that his character was drug and alcohol addicted, as the viewers could deem that as immoral behavior, untrustworthy, and frankly should be condemned. One thing which likely dismays many modern audiences is that there aren’t on screen killings, this is because of the Hays Code, murdering was forbidden except in rare cases, hence Ellman stares with a haunting look, examining their sinful minds and cruel souls before they succumb to an accidental death. In the scene where Dr. Beaumont’s assistant Jimmy tells Nancy: ”Keep that Lindbergh heart pumping! Don’t let it stop!”, the scene cuts to a close-up of an odd device pumping fluid over an organ, the modern audiences consider it a made-up sci-fi device, however to sophisticated viewers and then audiences, they were aware who Lindbergh was. This simple plot device, was a combination of three men, all real individuals first Dr. Robert E. Cornish, a child prodigy who advanced the knowledge of resuscitation techniques, then Charles Lindbergh, the brilliant technical engineer, who had interest in heart problems because of a relative, and finally Dr. Alexis Carrel, about keeping organ alive outside the body in order to operate on them. Curtiz, and Warner Studios had to obtain permission to make an exact replica of the glass device machine, and thereby needed to name-drop Lindbergh for the scene. These doctors were considered mad and eccentric for their beliefs, and it was very delicate in how to place this matter of science into the movie, and avoiding conflicts with the Hays Code that considered it blasphemy against strict religious beliefs and morals.
This movie is a rarity amongst horror fans, so few modern audiences know of its existence, and many pans it, as not a straight-up horror flick, rather it incorporates themes of romance, crime, and of course science fiction meets reality; nevertheless, this treasure is a true slow-burn with imagery not nearly as iconic as other well-defined horror movies of the 1930s. While the secondary characters are often undefined and the story is a tad fragile in certain areas, it still has the horror icon Boris Karloff, with his eyes that pierce the soul and a look to haunt oneself well after the film ends, his character truly echoes to the prized portrayal of the Monster.
- THE BODY OF A GIANT! THE MIND OF A FIEND! RETURNED FROM THE DEAD TO WREAK VENGEANCE UPON HIS PERSECUTORS!! (original print ad – all caps)
- ETERNITY COULD NOT HOLD HIM!…A mystery drama that will raise goose pimples!
- BACK FROM THE DEAD! (original print ad – all caps)
- See science bring an electrocuted convict back to life…with supernatural powers to rub out one by one the killers who sent him to the chair! (re-release print ad)
- HOW CAN A MAN AVENGE HIS OWN MURDER? (original ad – all caps)
- You’ll Shudder With Horror (print ad – Lubbock Avalanche Journal – Texan Theatre – Lubbock, Texas – April 15, 1945)
IMDb Rating: 6.7/10
Baron’s Rating: 6.5/10
Full movie found here: