Bowery at Midnight is a dark film and I'm not just referring to the multitude of night-time outdoor, and basement scenes that combined with the grainy monochrome print make it hard to discern exactly what's going on. Bowery at Midnight is a dark film with psychopaths, double lives, indiscriminate murder, and we've not even got on to the resurrection of the dead. It's also not often I make the case that I'm not entirely sure what the zombies bring to the film other than a mechanism to turn the rather bleak ending into something altogether more cheer-some for those leaving the theatre.
Bela Lugosi may have received the bulk of his fame / infamy from his portrayal of Count Dracula both on stage in the late 20's and then in its big screen namesake in 1931, and then later when Ed Wood rather infamously pulled him from his drug induced oblivion in the late 50's. During the 30s and 40s when avoiding being typecast he starred in many unique films demonstrating both his unrecognised versatility and without question his star talent. In Bowery at Midnight Lugosi plays Professor Brenner by day; an erudite confident psychology professor with doting wife and nice house. By night he assumes the role of Karl Wagner, a philanthropic soup kitchen owner, known for his unconditional kindness and no-questions policy. What his wife, students and those unfortunates he helps aren't aware of, is he's also a double crossing, jewellery robbing, sociopath who takes a huge perverse pleasure in destroying people's lives; and Lugosi is terrifyingly convincing.
Writer Gerald Schnitzer and director Wallace Fox have fashioned quite the intriguing, intelligent, coherent and yet deeply disturbing story of deception, murder and mayhem. Lugosi as Wagner uses the soup kitchen to spot vulnerable young men who might be open to highly illegal but immensely profitable night time skulduggery. Then once the deed is done, with their skills no longer required he, or his right hand man, then kill the fellow leaving him at the scene; not just as one would think, as a way of decreasing the split, but as is revealed subtly over the movie, because he enjoys it too. As he tires, or begins to distrust his lieutenant, they too are replaced and then with the blood still warm he heads home, as Brenner, to his wife (Anna Hope) with gifts and apologies for being up all night researching his next book.
While I've been rather disparaging of the zombie element of the film, taken in isolation I'm rather taken with how Fox has presented them. Dr Brooks (Lew Kelly), a written-off old quack as well as caretaker of both sides of the soup kitchen has seemingly dedicated his spare time to bringing the dead back to life. It's medicine and science and there's no voodoo or magic which is something in itself given the year it was penned. They're also a hard one to define as they're never the focus appearing only as background to the basement action scenes. They're back from the dead, so alive and not undead, but up until the final scene, which I'll come to, they do appear docile and compliant, and not exactly cognisant or the way they were before. Then there's the way Brooks keeps them locked in a room below the basement, refers to them as his pets, and when they're called upon they're unreservedly violent, tearing, metaphorically, into Wagner as the net closes in on his crime spree. The final scene I mentioned? Well to take the edge off a story where the perpetrator does finally get his just deserves, but on reflection has ruined a lot of people's lives by killing an awful lot of loved ones, Fox ends with the resurrected back as their old selves, as if nothing's happened. It's a contradictory couple of minutes I didn't much care for; totally out of place coming as it does, straight after the savage zombie beat down that really should have ended proceedings.
Bowery at Midnight is first and foremost a crime-drama, a suspense driven thriller; and a rather successful one. What it isn't is a horror, supernatural or otherwise, and it's certainly not a zombie film. If anything the resurrected victims of Brook's nefarious schemes are the one element that threatens to break the coherence, in danger of turning a truly dark, subtle, intelligent, and utterly engaging exploration of one man's detached morality, into a bit of farce. Not only is the throwaway idea of an old doctor on his own discovering a way to resurrect the dead incredulous, but more importantly, it tries to remove consequence and impact from the death and destruction graphically witnessed. Bowery at Midnight has moments that are truly evil and raw, Lugosi's performance as an over confident and out of control serial killer is remarkable, and I really don't want to see its resonance minimised for the sake of some silly resurrections and a happy ending. This all being said, and maybe because I'm conditioned to see corpses walking about, I was able to distance myself from the distractions and marvel at what the film does do right, which is an awful lot. A remarkable piece of war time cinema I'll certainly be returning to - 7/10.