The first film in the pack, THE WALKING DEAD (1936) is a strange Warner Bros. amalgam of their bread-and-butter gangster movies crossed with medico horror and a liberal dose of religious fervor. For all that, the film manages to work very well. Future CASABLANCA director Michael Curtiz (who also helmed the early horror classics DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM) manages to do an awful lot with a fairly routine movie treatment. And King Karloff provides one of his greatest, most touching performances of his career. Karloff plays Elman, a convict just released from prison who becomes the patsy of a group of respectable gangster who frame him for the murder of a judge. A young couple (Walter Hull and Marguerite Churchill) can prove Elman didn't commit the murder but the gangsters put the scare on them so badly that they don't come forward as witnesses. Elman is found guilty and is sent to the electric chair. An 11th hour change of heart finds the couple attempting to stop the execution but it comes too late and Boris gets the juice. The lovebirds' scientist boss Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) decides to attempt to bring Elman back to life -- and succeeds! Elman, however, now has a shock of white hair, a twisted body frame and a sepulchral demeanor; he also takes on something of the air of an avenging angel. The revivified Elman confronts all those who framed him. However, he doesn't kill them but they manage to kill themselves due to the overwhelming guilt caused by Elman's steadfast gaze. One hood stumbles and accidentally shoots himself, one falls in front of an oncoming train and one has a heartattack and falls out a window. The last two gangsters riddle Elman with bullets as he solemnly wanders about is a rainy graveyard but then crash their car into electrical poles: electrocuting themselves in a nice turn of poetic justice. Dr. Beaumont pleads with the once again dying Elman to reveal what he experienced on "the other side" but the poor fellow dies before revealing anything other than the fact that "the Lord our God is a jealous God".
As noted, Karloff's performance as the put-upon Elman is a wonder of understated pathos combined with a steely resolution when confronting his tormentors. Once brought back from the dead, Karloff shuffles somnambulantly with half-shut eyelids and a contorted body. The only thing that brings a semblance of joy to Elman is his beloved music. Probably the most famous scene from the film is when Elman gives a piano recital to which the sly old Dr. Beaumont has invited all the gangsters who framed the poor sod. While playing, Karloff fixes his gaze on each of the crooks in turn and they visibly wilt and end up fleeing the room. Former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez (from the 1931 version of THE MALTESE FALCON) leads the collection of crooks with what Greg Mank terms a "shark-like grin" throughout most of the picture. Edmund Gwenn as the kind but driven scientist is very good while Marguerite Churchill really excels in her role; she brings a real tenderness and sense of caring to the part which isn't in the script and she is extremely likeable. THE WALKING DEAD is technically the best film in the DVD set.
The second film in the set is the much-lambasted FRANKENSTEIN 1970 from 1958. It must be said that, during the 50's, Boris was . . . shall we say less than judicious in the choice of his movie roles. FRANKENSTEIN 1970 was a typical Allied Artists production made in 8 days on a shoestring and deserves much (But Not ALL) of the abuse that has been hurled at it over the years. The plot (such as it is) concerns Dr. Victor von Frankenstein (Karloff of course) who has been maimed by the Nazis and, in order to raise money for his atomic monster-creating endeavors, allows a US TV production company to shoot a movie inside his ancestral castle. Throughout the rather silly proceedings, Karloff's half-completed and blind monster bumps off members of the production team to provide parts for the creature's upkeep and improvement. There's really not much else to it. The general consensus has usually been that Karloff walks through the part and overacts shamelessly; of course, the fact that both these activities are mutually exclusive never seems to occur to anybody. One cannot really walk through a part and, at the same time, chew up the scenery with gusto. I do not think Boris walks through the part but there is something to be said for the over-the-top angle. However, a movie like this needs all the help it can get and I think Karloff's possible overacting can only be a blessing as far as FRANKENSTEIN 1970 is concerned. And that's what makes this movie surprisingly watchable. It is not NEARLY as bad as it's been accused of being; in fact, it's MUCH more entertaining that those other Karloff 50's clunkers THE STRANGE DOOR and THE BLACK CASTLE. I'll take FRANKENSTEIN 1970 any day over those two! The rest of the entire cast is pretty bland and unremarkable so watching Karloff is all a viewer has to hold on to. However, the new DVD release offers a very fun commentary track for the film featuring FRANKENSTEIN 1970 co-star Charlotte Austin chitchatting amicably with horror buff/gorilla man Bob Burns (referred to by Tom Weaver in the commentary as "the heart of horror fandom") and horror historian Tom Weaver (who refers to himself as "the liver and spleen of horror fandom"). All three are having a great time talking about this unloved but fun film and the commentary track is not to be missed.
The third film is the 1940 "musical mystery" YOU'LL FIND OUT which is a star vehicle (not the first) for swing band leader Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge (complete with Ish Kabbibble). Oh yeah, also amongst the antics we find Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre skulking for all they're worth. For some reason or other, Kay Kyser and his band end up along with Helen Parrish and her boyfriend Dennis O'Keefe inside her dotty aunt's spooky old mansion when the bridge (the only means to and from the house) blows up and they are all trapped. Also in the house if kindly old Judge Karloff, shifty seance swami Lugosi and debunking Professor Lorre. There's a plan to murder Helen Parrish for some money and etc. etc. etc. You know the drill. I probably saw this movie in the mid-80's on AMC and I didn't like it at the time. However, I must have mellowed in my old age since I found all the silliness rather enjoyable this go 'round. It is all one big dopey "old dark house" cliche punctuated with several swing tunes by the band but its all kinda fun actually. And the three horror greats seem to be having fun as well; giving it their all in the shifty, sneaky and sinister departments. An empty bit of harmless fluff.
The fourth movie in the set is ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY from 1945 and I was shocked to discover that it's something of a comedy sequel to Val Lewton's RKO classic I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. It all takes place on the same island (San Sebastian) and the cast includes Lewton alumni Darby Jones (once again as a frightening zombie) and Sir Lancelot (once again as the calypso-singing guitar-strummer). Bela Lugosi is shockingly only given about 10 minutes of screen time but still manages to steal the picture; his performance as the zombie-making Dr. Renault is vigorous and laden with a little bit of comic timing as well! The nominal "stars" of the film are poor man's Abbott & Costello rejects Wally Brown and Alan Carney who RKO wasted several features trying to make into a comedy team. They're not. In fact, their final "comic" pairing was in GENIUS AT WORK with Lionel Atwill and, again, Bela Lugosi. Perennial gangster Sheldon Leonard plays -- you guessed it -- a gangster who is going straight and planning to open a nightclub called "The Zombie Hut". Brown & Carney are a pair of publicity agents who make the mistake of promising a REAL zombie at the club's opening night. Gangster Leonard "compels" the two idiots to head to San Sebastian to pick up a real zombie -- OR ELSE!!!! While on the island, the bumpkins encounter the aforementioned Bela Lugosi as well as the actual zombie Darby Jones. Various quite predictable hijinx ensue. While ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY is no comedy classic (in fact, it's RARELY even remotely funny), it does somehow manage to be watchable. The unfunny Brown & Carney manage to keep just under the line where they would become gratingly annoying. Lugosi, in fact, has the only comic timing in the film and manages one or two sly little line readings. Director Gordon Douglas (later to direct the classic 1954 giant ant movie THEM!) keeps things thundering along nicely and manages to do what ALL directors of "horror comedies" should do: he presents the truly frightening monster role of Darby Jones' zombie SERIOUSLY and doesn't poke fun at or belittle the character. Just like ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the comedy is played for comedy but the monsters play it straight. That is THE ONLY comparision with A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN you can legitimately make with ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY. An even emptier bit of fluff but still watchable and somewhat fun.