“Have you been hearing some weird stories recently? About telepathy, the fourth dimension, or GHOSTS?”
After a prologue where a woman is murdered, The Dead Talk Back gets down to business with this off the wall monologue from one of its two narrators. Two narrators? Yes, director Merle S. Gould went all out here. Like most movies of this kind, the cast was a bunch of non-actors who didn’t get paid (you’ll get royalties, honest), except now we get double the scenes of disinterested people sitting around doing nothing while an off screen voice tells us what they’re supposedly thinking and doing. So don’t worry, the running time may only be sixty-five minutes, but thanks to this great padding you’ll definitely feel like you’re sitting through five hours.
It’s no wonder this movie, despite being filmed in 1957, sat in an editing room and was not discovered and released until 1993! A hasty VHS printing was made by Sinister Cinema, where it was quickly discovered by the makers of comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000. The episode devoted to a verbal evisceration of The Dead Talk Back is pretty much the only reason anyone has heard of it.
So our narrator is Henry Krasker (Aldo Farnese). He talks bit about his “work,” and then introduces us to his roommates. Almost no one here matters, as each character is given a line of exposition and then only appears later when they’re being questioned by Lieutenant Lewis. The two stand outs are Christy Mattling (Kyle Stanton) and Renee Coliveil (Laura Brock). Mattling plays a great Bible thumping hypocrite, while the latter has limited screen time but probably the second best performance in the film. She’s barely in the movie, but gets to shout the immortal “Oh shut up you potentate of righteousness!” at our resident zealot.
The “best” performance though, and real showcase in The Dead Talk Back
, however, is Aldo Farnese’s turn as the showy paranormal criminologist. The film opens with a barely perceivable car chase and struggle that would fit well into Plan 9 from Outer Space
(1959), but Farnese’s lecture immediately after almost puts Jeron Criswell King’s to shame. Instead of The Amazing Criswell’s zealous vigilance
over a UFO cover up, Farnese delivers a full retread of Victorian era spiritualism, complete with a demonstration of a modern take on the 19th Century safety coffin and a “scientific” radio that can tune into the voices of spirits! Filmed just two years before both Plan 9
‘s release and The Twilight Zone
hitting the air, it’s hard to tell if Krasker’s smug talk is due to an outdated script, too late for its 1930s spiritualist audience, or if it’s brilliantly prescient of the “scientific” paranormal film trend that would begin exactly two decades later with Exorcist II: The Heretic
(1977) and end with Prince of Darkness
Krasker’s presentation to the audience is mostly about how in the future, murders will be solved by asking the ghost of the victim who did it, showing off a high tech device that, when set to the right frequency, causes a crystal to resonate and synchronize with the voices of ghosts. I’ve always found this kind of thing charming because it implies that yes, after death you become a spirit that can still communicate with other things and move around and do whatever, but you would instead just float around near your body hoping someone wants to chat with you. Krasker’s radio to the dead, however, looks like a crumpled ball of tinfoil glued onto a skillet. This is connected to an electric stove top mounted on a wall. Impressive technology, but I wouldn’t advise the otherworldly equivalent of holding one’s breath waiting for this thing to work.
Either way, the movie pretty quickly sets things up. The one devout religious character is a blowhard chump, everyone’s alibi for where they were during Renee’s murder holds up, and even Lieutenant Lewis slowly becomes a true believer in Krasker’s ethereal broadcasting potential. But they had to get this to at least sixty-five minutes, so Krasker ends up disappearing or a while as we have multiple scenes of Lewis going to each charater’s place of work and asking them to explain themselves again, again, and again while also narrating his own investigation. This is made even “better” by his fellow detective being silent for most of the film, obliviously looking at nothing with a face that says he lost a bet to appear in this as Lewis drones on about how tough the case is.
Farnese himself would go on to host a few public access children’s shows for several years in Philadelphia, while a few of The Dead Talk Back‘s cast members would have successful careers on television. An interesting one though is Lieutenant Lewis’ indifferent partner. Played by Gil Martin, according to IMDB he also appears as himself in The First 48, an ongoing A&E reality show that follows homicide detectives at the start of murder investigations. As an actual CSI specialist in 2004, Martin’s boredom at having to sit in front a camera and listen to an almost actor deliver endless monologues about how he’s going to solve a case by systematically asking people where they were over and over again must have been particularly grating.
Eventually, Lewis has finally spoken to everyone and is about to give up when Krasker suggests using his incredible new communication device. Lewis and Krasker gather everyone into his basement and it works great, with Renee’s ghost telling us the murderer is in the very room. The real killer cracks almost immediately, and then, things get interesting. The body sits up, it turns out “Renee’s” body wasn’t there at all, but was another character dressed like her. Krasker, Lewis and this third character arranged this from the beginning to make the killer give himself up. HOWEVER, as the closing narration informs us, if a real dead body were there the machine would have worked.
On the one hand, with a title like The Dead Talk Back, and with a script like this movie has, surely Merle S. Gould on some level wanted the audience to sympathize with the possible reality of paranormal communication, and yet the climax of the movie reveals Krasker as just a showman, and his machine a hoax. Did Gould intentionally create a movie to lure in and then mock believers in the supernatural? Definitely. What initially seemed incompetent pacing now seems like a masterful way to make the viewer rabid for some paranormal event to conclude the film, only to have their hopes crushed in the last five minutes of the movie. This isn’t to say that this flash of insight and cynicism on Gould’s part makes The Dead Talk Back a good film, it’s still one of the worst I’ve ever seen. However, it was a pretty interesting way to prove our skepticism right from the minute we first see Krasker’s machine in the opening.
Gould only has two other films to his name, The Body is a Shell (1957) and Mystic Prophecies and Nostradamus (1961). At a glance, surely someone directing movies with titles like these is a true believer. But let’s take a look at the films themselves. Mystic Prophecies is basically half an hour of Basil Rathbone (no really, HOW did he get Rathbone involved in this) looking at the camera and telling us about how all of Nostradamus’ prophecies are true, with occasional cuts to “relevant” pieces of art from various time periods. The second half is Rathbone narrating as an actor playing Nostradamus sort of, well, wanders around aimlessly for a while.
Anyone using the internet in the months after 9/11 remembers that gullible folks were forwarding made up “prophecies” of Nostradamus about how the “Great Eagle” George W. Bush was going to unite the civilized countries of the planet and destroy all enemies and bring a new age of peace upon us. Mystic Prophecies and Nostradamus was released in 1961, nearing the height of the Cold War, just a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unsurprisingly, the narration quickly takes on a patriotic tone and the entire film ends up being propaganda about how the United States will prosper in the future and will always thrive beyond all of its enemies, because Nostradamus said so. The exact kind of easy money film someone cynical enough to have The Dead Talk Back end the way it does would choose to direct.
Mystic Prophecies and Nostradamus was also the last film written by Peter Ballbusch, who also conceived the story and the wrote the script for The Body is a Shell. Unlike Gould’s other two films, this one clocks in at eighty-three minutes, his only feature film (Mystic Prophecies especially seems like it was intended as a TV special). And yet, I can find no information about it anywhere, from anyone. Third time’s the charm, there’s a pretty focused theme across all three of his movies but I’d love to know for sure if Merle S. Gould made them to make a quick buck or because he was a true believer.