Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Undead, The (1957)

... aka: Trance of Diana Love, The

Directed by:
Roger Corman

An ultra low budget 'B' picture supposedly filmed in less than a week, this Corman quickie has a completely undeserved bad reputation, thanks in part to being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It's actually a fine example of what can be done with limited resources when you have an efficient crew, a colorful cast and an ambitious and imaginative screenplay (cooked up here by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna). Quintus (Val Dufour) returns to the "American Institute of Psychical Research" after a seven year absense in Tibet. He's there to prove to his former teacher, Professor Olinger (Maurice Manson), who had flunked him, as well as to the world at large, that he's just made an important scientific breakthrough. Using hypnosis, he believes he can tap into information contained somewhere within all of us about our past lives. For his demonstration, Quintis needs someone weak and impressionable. Someone almost devoid of willpower. Someone like amoral streetwalker Diana Love (Pamela Duncan), who isn't in the doctor's office for five minutes before she picks his pocket. Claiming he'll experiment on Diana with or without his assistance, Olinger feels no other choice but to aid Quintis in his 48-hour experiment in regressive hypnosis.

Once under, Diana reveals she was of French royalty in a past life, but delving even further back than that to the Middle Ages, Quintus uncovers another previous identity, that of Helene. A young innocent being held in The Black Tower after falsely being labeled a witch, Helene will lose her head the following day after the eve of the Witch's Sabbath unless she can break free or prove her innocence. Interestingly, Diana is able to communicate with Helene telepathically at first, who coerces her into seducing a jailer and then hitting him with her shackles. Now on her own, Helene escapes into the forest and manages to hitch a ride in an already-occupied coffin on singing gravedigger Smolkin's (Mel Welles) coach. As it turns out, real witch / temptress named Livia (Allison Hayes) has cast a spell on Smolkin and framed Helene for doing so, in order to get to Helene's sculptor love Pendragon (Richard Garland), whom she has also fallen for. Aside from Pendragon, innkeeper Scroop (Bruno Ve Sota) and (sometimes) Smolkin, who's mad and of little real use, a good witch named Meg Maude (Dorothy Neumann), complete with warts and a pointy chin and nose, helps to combat the evil plot.

Part of the joy of The Undead is its unpredictability. The movie cuts back and forth between the modern day hypnosis session and the past life footage and several unexpected (though some may say ridiculous) events happen along the way to change the entire course of the story. When things start getting out of hand and Diana's life may be at stake, Quintus is able to transport himself back in time to Helene's world with the help of a contraption that synchronizes brain waves. Because Diana had helped Helene escape the executioner's axe by coaching her to break out of her cell and thus altered the course of history in the process, when Quintus arrives on the scene he offers Helene an ultimatum. She can either live her full life now and then cease to exist for the rest of eternity after she passes on or sacrifice her life in order to allow her other reincarnated selves to exist. The plot probably sounds confusing as hell but the film itself moves rather smoothly considering how layered the story is.

Despite what you may have read, the performances found in The Undead are uniformly good. Duncan (who'd also star in Corman's ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS - along with Garland - the following year) and Dufour are just fine in their lead roles, and receive nice support from most of the rest of the cast. One major standout here is the Hayes as the sly, seductive and hard-to-resist Livia. Best known, of course, for her iconic role in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (1958), Hayes' role here is actually much better suited to her talents; playing a character with a ruthless side, and a soft one. This is possibly her best-ever role in a genre film. The same can pretty much be said for Welles, who's best known as the grumpy flower shop owner in Corman's LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, but steals most of the scenes he's in here. Neumann - channeling Margaret Hamilton for sure - is great as the other real witch. Richard Devon makes for an over-the-top, somewhat flamboyant (though fittingly so) Satan; a character that bookmarks the film. Billy Barty plays Livia's mischievous, garlic-bulb-eating Imp, who can transform into a lizard (Livia herself transforms into a black cat), Paul Blaisdell (who did the fx) has an uncredited cameo as a corpse and Dick Miller has just one brief scene as a Leper who sells his soul.

With a budget of just 75,000 dollars, Corman couldn't afford elaborate sets (supposedly they constructed these inside a closed-down supermarket!) nor a cast of thousands to make the medieval village really spring to life. Instead we mostly get cardboard sets that sometimes wobble, heavy use of a fog machine and no more than about a dozen people seen on screen at the same time. To further cut costs, Blaisdell's bat-monsters-on-strings from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956) were reused. Enjoyment requires an certain acceptance of these budgetary limitations. If you're a stickler for realism, someone who likes to pick apart small detail or someone who demands elaborate period detail, this may not be for you. However, if you can just go with the flow and accept this on its own terms, it's quirky, imaginative, playful, witty and ultimately even somewhat moving. It's also still completely unique after 55+ years, which says a lot in and of itself.

Filmed as The Trance of Diana Love, this was made in response to the best-selling book "The Search for Bridey Murphy" by Morey Bernstein, which sparked a lot of interest in reincarnation at the time. It played on a double-bill with VOODOO WOMAN (1957).


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