‘If the truth were to become known, the world would look at him as nothing more than a ghostly freak.’
This Monogram quickie opens with Kenneth Strickfaden’s old laboratory equipment sparking away as it keeps a dog’s disembodied heart beating – prompting kindly old scientist Dr Clark (Edward Keane) to muse (somewhat smugly and with typically overwrought B picture syntax) ‘… and just think what this will mean to humanity, if we can revive in the human anatomy hearts which have stopped functioning … and I’m certain we can.’ Later, at a swanky function, moralistic older boffin Dr Toller (Hugh Sothern), who is supposed to be a psychiatrist but comes on like a clergyman, upbraids Clark with ‘since when has man had the right to bring back life after it has been taken away by the creator?’ and then cautions ‘work to ease the pain of the living, not to bring back the dead.’ The reviving-animals and artificial-hearts gambits of Life Returns and The Man They Could Not Hang eventually give way to a strange feint whereby the revived-executed-criminal business of The Walking Dead prefigures a nice-guy-possessed-by-gangster plotline very like that of Black Friday.
At midnight, Wolf Panino — ‘a congenital killer, a man whose hands have accounted for a dozen known deaths and probably many more’ – goes to the electric chair, just as handsome young banker Philip Bennett (Edward Norris) dies (of shock) in a perfunctorily-staged car crash. When Philip’s father (Frederick Burton) begs the scientist to help, Clark brings the unmangled body back to life, but Panino’s soul moves into Philip’s form. At first, Philip seems to be an amnesiac, but soon he’s snarling like a thug, smoking out of the corner of his mouth and (an infallible sign of evil) being angrily barked at by his formerly faithful dog. He heads out of the swanky if stuffy family home and typically insipid fiancée Louise (Eleanor Lawson), and heads for a lowdown dive where director Phil Rosen shows ambition with moody lighting and the occasional camera track-in to emphasise a point. Taking the name ‘Philip Brown’, the possessed punk hooks up with Wolf’s moll Helen (Marlo Dwyer, in stylishly trampy hats and furs), rubs out the hood (Jack Buckley) who has tried to run the old gang and takes over again. Helen and Number Two thug Hugo (Anthony Warde) wonder why the new boss reminds them of the old one, especially when he needlessly guns down a cop (‘he uses his rod like Panino did, doesn’t care how often it goes off or in what direction’) to kick off a vicious crimewave. Occasionally, the old Philip resurfaces but Wolf runs the show, acting ruthlessly when Helen and Hugo realise he’s at least physically an uppercrust gangster by throttling the girl (too early for the film’s good, since Dwyer is one of the most interesting players) and gunning the goon. Toller starts babbling exposition about ‘the transmigration of souls’, musing that ‘we do not possess the soul so much as souls possesses us’, while Hugo’s brother Eric (Elliott Sullivan) goes to Lieutenant Bradley (Addison Richards), the cop on the case, to finger ‘the society boy’ for the murders. Cynically, the cop wonders ‘how come you don’t take care of it yourself?’ but Eric admits Philip gives his own gang ‘the willies’ and rats out a jewel heist taking place this evening. The cops intervene, and there’s a shoot-out – but it ends back at the Bennett mansion, at Philip’s birthday party when Bradley pursues Philip back to his social circle. Philip, impersonating his old self, tries to get his family and friends to alibi him, and significance is put on cutting the cake at midnight, to celebrate Philip’s birth and Wolf/Philip’s death. Bradley plays cat and mouse with Philip, and mentions the new mob boss’s use of Wolf’s old methods – which prompts the nervous guests, fiddling with their slices of cake, to deduce just whose soul has moved into Philip’s body.
It bluntly contrasts the parallel worlds of Bennett’s circle and Wolf’s crime ring, paying off the gilded youth’s venture into the underworld with the eventual intrusion of the cop into the mansion and the calm shock of a gun drawn at the birthday party (Rosen conveys Panino’s influence by casting highlights on Norris’s eyes or forehead). After Philip plugs the cop, Clark shoots him in the back to even things up and the whole set-up unrolls in a superimposed montage before – in an imaginative cop-out which prefigures The Woman in the Window – the original Philip wakes up from a coma he’s been in since his accident (‘it was a nightmare … a horrible nightmare’). The ending feels like a last resort since Edward Norris, unlike say Lon Chaney Jr, is just too much the nice guy juvenile to pay for the many crimes he’s committed onscreen, yet the censors wouldn’t allow him to be ‘exorcised’ and let off after several cop-killings, a dame-strangling and sundry other misdeeds. One reason for the movie’s obscurity is that it doesn’t topline a horror star – perhaps because the film is built around the possessed Philip, competently played by Norris, rather than the miracle-working scientist. The fairly bland Keane makes a less cliché B picture researcher: he’s neither a martyred saint (like Karloff in The Ape or Night Key) nor a ranting villain (like Lugosi, Atwill, Carradine or Zucco in labcoat roles) but simply a slightly pompous, jovial fellow who doesn’t think things through. Despite writer Joseph Hoffman’s derivative plot and convoluted dialogue, it’s among the better Monogram horror films, mostly thanks to Rosen’s direction and Norris’s solid playing in the dual role (even the standard juvenile cheeriness of the early scenes is necessary to contrast with the later glowering psycho gangsterism).