When a movie script calls for a set of twins but only one lead actor is available, what does the director do? Ask the lead actor or actress to play both parts, that’s what. Brian De Palma had Margot Kidder do it in Sisters, just like David Cronenberg asked Jeremy Irons to double dip in Dead Ringers. In 1943, B-movie legend Sam Newfield (The Terror of Tiny Town) got horror character actor George Zucco (The Black Raven, Scared to Death) to give the playing of twins a try, resulting in the creepy vampire/witchcraft film Dead Men Walk.
After a dramatic but pointless introduction featuring a spooky man superimposed over a fire talking about vampires, werewolves, witches and warlocks, Dead Men Walk starts with the funeral of Dr. Elwyn Clayton. The scene is peaceful until the ceremony is interrupted by a woman named Kate (Fern Emmett from Bridge Wives), who bursts in claiming that Elwyn was such an evil man that his body’s mere presence in the chapel is sacrilege. She’s thrown out, but Elwyn’s twin brother, Lloyd (Zucco), confirms her claims, admitting that Elwyn was a practitioner of sorcery and demonology. After the funeral, while Lloyd is destroying all of Elwyin’s satanic documents, he is confronted by Elwyn’s ever-faithful servant Zolarr (Horror icon Dwight Frye from Dracula, Frankenstein and dozens of other films), who accuses him of killing Elwyn. After swearing vengeance on Lloyd, Zolarr steals his master’s coffin from the family’s crypt and hides it in a different cemetery. Once there, Zolarr opens the coffin and watches Elwyn (also Zucco) come alive and explain how he needs blood from the hearts of the living to stay alive. In order to get even with Lloyd, Elwyn goes after the one thing he loves most, his niece Gayle (Mary Carlisle from The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi). The townsfolk start seeing Elwyn prowling around at night and, assuming he’s Lloyd, figure that he is taking up his brother’s evil ways. As Gayle gets sick with a mysterious illness that also leaves marks on her neck, Lloyd tries to figure out how to stop his undead brother while proving to everyone else that he is not him.
Dead Men Walk was written by Fred Myton (Border Phantom, Nabonga), who, like Sam Newfield, was primarily known for making quickie westerns. The film isn’t too much of a departure for either of them, as both generally made darker westerns, and it is set in a western-type town. There aren’t any jump and shock scares in Dead Men Walk, just an understated creepiness that permeates and punctuates the entire picture. The film itself is dark and moody, and the eerie cemetery and old house sets combined with the shadows and darkness give it an overall feeling of uneasiness. Add the freaky characters of Elwyn and Zolarr and there’s a film that shouldn’t be watched late at night.
George Zucco has a field day, and his dual role is simultaneously impressive and disappointing – impressive because he’s a good actor and does a good job, but disappointing because the characters of Elwyn and Lloyd come off as too much alike. Lloyd is kind hearted and Elwyn is evil, but the viewer can’t tell the two of them apart from mannerisms and expressions alone. When they’re not talking, it’s only Lloyd’s tell-tale eyeglasses that show the difference between the good twins and the evil twin. Subtle differences in the way the two characters are played would make the performance, and the film as a whole, more effective.
The real star of Dead Men Walk is Dwight Frye. A perennial assistant, he has always been the go-to guy for horror servants. Every good cinematic antagonist of the age needed a partner and Frye’s presence as Zolarr solidified Elwyn’s status as a horror villain. In Dead Man Walk, Frye does what he does best; he makes the bad guy look good. Playing his part to perfection, but never upstaging the “real” villain, Frye is an experienced sidekick. There really wouldn’t have been another actor who could have played Zolarr. Dwight Frye IS Zolarr.
The visual effects in Dead Men Walk are all primitive, done in camera and with cheap editing tricks. Still, for 1940’s cinema, making a vampire disappear into thin air was a pretty impressive feat. The Elwyn and Lloyd scenes, utilizing more simple editing tricks and body doubles, are reminiscent of sitcoms where one actor plays two parts (Christopher Knight’s tour-de-force on “The Brady Bunch” comes to mind), but is still effective with a little suspension of disbelief. Dead Men Walk never won any special effects awards, but it does serve as a reminder of when filmmaking was a much more simple and practical undertaking.
In the end, Dead Men Walk is a short, spooky atmospheric film that delivers more chills than thrills, but it is enjoyable nonetheless. George Zucco may not have been as convincing as Jeremy Irons was at playing twins, but at least he collected two paychecks.