On any given day during the 1940’s if you walked about the movie sets in Hollywood you might see George Zucco acting on stage in films ranging from MGM’s The Seventh Cross starring Spencer Tracy, Where There’s Life with Bob Hope over at Paramount, Warner’s Confidential Agent with Boyer and Bacall to the Universal Monster fest The House of Frankenstein with Boris and Lon. Though his work in Poverty Row is often overshadowed by his frequent co-star Bela Lugosi, George unlike “Poor Bela” kept his foot in the A budget productions with the majors in lesser roles outside the horror genre while taking lead duties at the minors like Monogram and PRC. On that note here’s a trio of fun filled frights that see George minus the more well known faces of horror filmdom released under the PRC banner.
Dead Men Walk (1943)
First up is this vampire thriller that affords Mr. Zucco the opportunity to play dual roles before Bette and Olivia got the chance. With Dwight Frye in the cast in a cross between his Fritz and Renfield characterizations, this thriller bears more than a passing resemblance at times to the Dracula screenplay put forth by John Balderston in 1931.
It’s a kindly Zucco playing a small town doctor who is saddled with a deceased evil twin brother who dabbled in demons and sorcery. When Frye turns up to collect his masters belongings only to find the good Zucco burning them, he warns of the terrible things to come. At just 63 minutes in length, the evil Zucco is quick to rise and claim the life of a pretty young woman. Aside from the two punctures on her neck, Dr. Zucco is baffled as to her demise and the reason for the heavy loss of blood.
Of course there has to be a young couple in love (it’s a prerequisite of most any screenplay at this time) and Mary Carlisle is cast as the good Zucco’s charge. She’s in love with another young Doctor played by Nedrick Young and when she begins to exhibit signs of blood loss and a weakening body, Zucco believes his brother has indeed returned form the dead. We’ve a superstitious old woman who handles the crucifix duties to ward off evil and we’ve even a scene where evil George confronts good George and Ned Young to warn them they’ll never stop his evil reign. Much like those scenes where Dracula tells Van Helsing and whoever happens to be with him he’s commanded armies centuries earlier and will not be stopped by mere mortals.
Sure it’s by the numbers but Zucco has a pretty good go here at playing it both ways and the ending is a spectacular fiery finish befitting a genre entry such as this. I liked it! Of note is that this was one of Dwight Frye’s final roles. He’d die before the end of the year at just 44 years of age. Forever remembered for his Renfield laugh. Shockingly at the time of this writing, Mary Carlisle is still alive at the age of 104! She retired from the screen following this not so classic outing. Nedrick Young? I knew the voice and before the film ended I nailed it. He was in House of Wax as Price’s alcoholic helper who gives up his master to the police.
Fog Island (1945)
In this “old dark house” tale, Zucco is joined by another actor often associated with the horror genre, Lionel Atwill. According to the opening credits, this Terry Morse directed tale is based on the stage play, Angel Island by Bernadine Angus. Zucco is the wronged victim of a financial scam that sent him to prison for five years to pay for a crime he never committed. In a very Karloff like role, he’s going to invite those that wronged him to Fog Island to get his pound of flesh and see to it that his step daughter, Sharon Douglas, receives the treasures lost to her after the murder of her mother while he was incarcerated. Yes, George has gone just a bit loopy after that prison stretch and will have his moment to become unhinged in fine fashion with that “other horror star.”
This reminded me of the dinner party game, How to Host a Murder. Tried one years ago and who knows, maybe this movie inspired the game makers to do something similar. All the guests including Atwill, Jerome Cowan, Veda Ann Borg, Jacqueline deWit and John Whitmey will receive a package with a gift in it. A skull, a key, a chisel etc. will have something to do with Zucco’s plot to uncover who killed his wife and had him sent to prison. He’s prepped the spooky house with hidden passage ways and levers that will flood rooms in the catacombs beneath the building.
It isn’t long before the guests start sweating and doing some plotting of their own as they look for allies. It should come as no surprise that Lionel Atwill will begin to eliminate some of the house guests before finding himself a victim of Zucco’s vengeful ideas. Another nifty ending to this one that sees Zucco get his pound of flesh from beyond the grave while seeing to young Douglas’ future with her love interest who swoops into save her from Atwill and any further harm.
Another fun time to be had in this teaming of Zucco and Atwill. Both actors deserve a slightly better place in the halls of horror having starred opposite the names we most often associate with the genre but outside of the true fans of classic horror are less likely to be recognized by the average filmgoer as opposed to the heavyweights like Boris, Bela and Lon.
Godzilla fans might recognize the director Terry Morse. He’s credited as the director on the U.S. release of the Raymond Burr version of the Toho classic from 1956 having filmed Ray’s scenes and subsequently edited the new version for it’s North American English language release. The one most of us grew up with.
The Mad Monster (1942)
This one’s a joy from start to finish. It’s got a mad scientist essayed by Zucco, a wolf man subbing for Lugosi’s Ape Man, Glenn Strange giving us his own version of Lon’s Lennie and a script that ranks it right up there with the best of Bela’s Monogram efforts.
‘I can control evolution.” says nutty George as he dabbles with a wolf serum that when injected into the kindly behemoth, Strange, turns the docile caretaker into a raving mad wolf-like man on two feet who hungers for blood. George has a vendetta to carry out against the medical field and the men who cast him out as a charlatan for his lunatic like theories. Not surprisingly he’s marked each man for death and will use Strange as his instrument of revenge.
“I like pretty things.” says Strange in his Lennie like state when chatting up Zucco’s daughter, Anne Nagel. Anne of course has no idea of her father’s crazed experiments but thankfully the script will give her a boyfriend played by Johnny Downs who just happens to be an inquisitive reporter. Another plot device regularly utilized in these poverty row features. Before taking on the make up of the Frankenstein Monster, Glenn Strange would undergo a very Chaney like transformation here into a poor man’s version of a werewolf. In suspenders no less! Using a similar technique as Lon, Glenn will slowly change into his new look right before our eyes as Zucco unleashes him on those who he believes have wronged him.
Could we be in for another fiery finale in this by the numbers plot? I’m not telling but once again, this turned out to be another fun thriller from the past that clocks in at a speedy 76 minutes. My favorite line in the film comes from one of the villagers who points out that when seeing the beast on the last hunting expedition, “scared Jed Hopper so bad he went and got religion.” Just struck me as a line that was both funny and not one we’d hear very often from movies of this era.
If you’re up for a nostalgic look back at these Zucco terrors you’ll find them easy enough on low budget releases like Mill Creek or probably on line as well. If you happen to find the Retromedia release of The Mad Monster you’re in for a treat as there’s a lengthy audio interview on it with Glenn Strange from the mid 1960’s that is quite enjoyable as he recounts many of his roles and the people he worked with. Once you locate all three of these titles, it’s an easy way to kill three plus hours on a rainy night with Mr. George Zucco front and center in roles that didn’t require his Egyptian getup from his roles in the Kharis films.