As a young adult, I watched a lot of old films. I figured that, if I saw enough of them, I’d identify the movie I’d seen as a child one Easter Sunday at Bala Cynwyd’s Egyptian Theatre (now the Bala). For years, I wondered why it had scared me so thoroughly.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and beginning a career in advertising, and I continued my personal quest to face my fear whenever possible. I vaguely recalled that the film featured a deranged man who roamed the spooky old home where he’d lived during childhood. I wasn’t obsessed, but I was exceedingly curious. Numerous film-society screenings brought me no closer to the elusive flick in those pre-VHS/DVD days.
Then I received an unexpected surprise in the mail: a promotion that listed the date of every Easter Sunday over the previous 30 years. Stationing myself in the microfilm section of the Free Library of Philadelphia, I pored over Easter Sunday issues of the Philadelphia Inquirer to see what was playing at the Egyptian Theatre. In 1946, it was Lost Weekend, with Ray Milland as the classic alcoholic. The year prior’s Easter offering was Laura, a mystery starring Gene Tierney—and before that, No Time for Comedy with Jimmy Stewart, preceded in 1943 by Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story. In 1942, it was the double feature Nine Lives Are Not Enough, with future world leader Ronald Reagan, and Among the Living, with Frances Farmer, Harry Carey and Susan Hayward.
That second film sounded promising.
Old reviews classified Among the Living as a horror movie. It was about a mentally unstable man thought to have died years before. He’d been hidden at his family’s decrepit mansion and cared for by a family retainer. Then he escaped and became violent, causing serious problems for his identical twin brother.
That was the one; I was 9 when I saw it. Now what? Since Albert Dekker played the dual leading roles, I wrote asking him if he knew of a way I could see the movie again. Ten days later, my letter was returned marked “Deceased.” Eventually, I did find Among the Living listed in the thick movie guides at VHS rental stores, but none had a copy. Once eBay arrived, I was finally able to buy one.
Initially, the tape’s poor quality made the black-and-white film as ominous and foreboding as I’d remembered. At one point, when the deranged brother kills his caretaker, he uses stolen money to rent a room and impress the landlady’s daughter, saucily played by Hayward. He later murders a woman who resists his advances and is mortally wounded by an angry mob. Then his twin brother shows up, and things really get interesting.
Viewed through mature eyes, Among the Living seemed dated, trite and only sporadically horrific. I remembered just one scene. Perhaps my fear had more to do with the fact that, after viewing the matinee, I went home to a dark, empty house. (My parents had gone out.)
Oh well. Now it’s simply one fewer thing to wonder about.
John Alexander is a freelancer writer based in Bryn Mawr.