Monday, March 30, 2015

Curse of the Undead (1959)

... aka: Dans les griffes du vampire (In the Claws of the Vampire)
... aka: Le tueur invincible (The Invincible Killer)
... aka: L'uomo senza corpo (The Man Without a Body)
... aka: Maldición diabólica (Diabolical Curse)
... aka: Mark of the West

Directed by:
Edward Dein

This one mixes horror with western, something extremely popular in Mexico at the time but not quite so common here in America. Though Curse wasn't the first of its type here in the U.S. either – there are numerous examples from the 30s and 40s as well as the Mexican-American co-production THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956) three years earlier -  it was still a fairly fresh concept at the time of release. It also led the charge of enough later films, books, TV shows and comics combining western with fantasy, sci-fi and horror trappings to form an entirely separate subgenre called “Weird West.” Some of the more notable later film entries would include William Beaudine's schlocky duo of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (both 1966), Jim O'Connolly's cowboys vs. dinosaurs adventure The Valley of Gwangi (1969), Alejandro Jodorowsky's acclaimed art house parable El Topo (1970), Clint Eastwood's dark, supernatural High Plains Drifter (1973), Michael Crichton's conceptually-brilliant WESTWORLD (1973), J. Lee Thompson's uneven but interesting The White Buffalo (1977), Kathryn Bigelow's moody and bloody desert vampire flick Near Dark (1987), Wayne Coe's anthology Grim Prairie Tales (1990), Robert Rodriguez's popular From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Trey Parker's gory musical-comedy Cannibal! The Musical (1996) and Antonia Bird's wonderful pioneer cannibal tale Ravenous (1999).

Judging by the track record of these kind of films, they clearly tend to work best on a more modest scale. Numerous attempts at “Weird West” Hollywood blockbusters, like Wild Wild West (1999), Jonah Hex (2010), Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and the revamping of The Lone Ranger (2013), all financial flops of varying degrees, have been met with both critical scorn and audience indifference despite having major studio backing, expensive ad campaigns and major star power at their disposal.

A small western town has recently been plagued by the mysterious deaths of numerous young woman; all seemingly the picture of health one day before suddenly taking an anemic turn for the worse and dying the next. Widowed doctor John Carter (John Hoyt) is at a loss to explain the sudden rash of deaths, but he has even more problems on his hands dealing with greedy, violent rancher Buffer (Bruce Gordon) and his small army of obedient goons. Buffer wants the Carter family's land and will do whatever it takes to get it, even if it means harassing and provoking them or closing a dam to deprive them of water, but the Carter's aren't budging. After an altercation with Buffer, Doc arrives back at his home dead and drained of blood with a familiar-looking puncture wound on his neck. Blaming Buffer for the murder, Doc's hot-tempered son Timmy (Jimmy Murphy) decides to confront him at a saloon, but ends up getting himself shot and killed after calling him a “yellow belly” and a “gutless hunk of coward."

Now desperate for revenge, pretty, hard-headed daughter / sister Dolores (Kathleen Crowley), the last surviving member of the Carter family, hangs posters around town promising to pay 100 dollars to anyone willing to shoot her father and brother's killer, who she wrongly assumes is one in the same. Enter black-clad drifter / killer-for-hire Drake Robey (Michael Pate), who's recently shown up in town but until now stayed on the fringes observing the feud. Drake decides to take up Dolores' offer to snuff out the murderer and she decides to put him up in her home until he does. Drake also happens to be a 130-year-old vampire and doesn't waste any time sneaking into Dolores' bedroom for a little midnight snack. Unbeknownst to his new employer, Drake's also tossed her father out of his own coffin and is currently taking up residence there during the day. Dolores becomes cold, ill and aloof and stops eating, which prompts her preacher boyfriend Dan (Eric Fleming) to talk her into firing Drake and sending him on his way. But by then it's too late: she's already under the love-struck vampire's spell and just rehires him to work there as a ranch hand. And she doesn't care what Dan or the Sheriff, Bill (Edward Binns), has to say about any of that.

Though this is slow-moving, unimaginatively-filmed, extremely talky and too cheap to really build much in the way of atmosphere or excitement, the somewhat unique portrayal of the vampire helps to maintain at least some interest. The bloodsucker here casts shadows, can go out into the sunlight without dying (it merely causes eye discomfort) and has managed to blend into society whilst simultaneously remaining on the outskirts of it. Instead of being a mysterious yet sophisticated fiend resting on his supernatural abilities and powers to get what he wants, the vamp here is an earthy, blue color vagabond who's extremely talkative and manipulative. The writers have also given him a semi-interesting back story (shown in brief flashbacks set in 1859) that tells how he brought about the vampire curse via fratricide and suicide. Other familiar vampire movie elements, particularly its fear of religious iconography and the loneliness and isolation of the outcast lifestyle, have been carried over. While this undoubtedly falls way short of its true potential, the western movie trappings still help to differentiate it to a degree. A few scenes also boast expressive use of light and shadow.

The cast is also decent enough, with Pate - previously seen used to good effect in supporting parts in THE BLACK CASTLE (1952) and THE MAZE (1953) - especially effective in his role. Fleming, who'd previously starred in Fright (1956) and the camp Zsa Zsa Gabor vehicle Queen of Outer Space (1958), would become best-known for his role on the long-running Rawhide series after this. He was eventually tapped by MGM to star in the two-part TV adventure movie High Jungle in 1966. They sent him to Peru and filming began, but it wasn't long before tragedy struck. While filming in the Huallaga River during a storm, Fleming and a co-star attempted to hop out of their canoe and swim to shore when it began filling with water, but Fleming was swept down river and drowned. His body was discovered three days later fifteen miles away from where they were filming. The lovely Crowley was a former Miss New Jersey and Miss America finalist.

This was filmed at Universal Studios utilizing sets, props and costumes used for dozens of other low budget B westerns of the past few decades. Veteran Universal makeup man Bud Westmore is credited with the makeup here, which amounts to little more than just a few puncture wounds. It played on a double bill with Hammer's The Mummy (1959) in some venues, was a frequent fixture on television in the 60s and 70s and was released on VHS through MCA/Universal in the 90s but, as of this writing, there's no DVD.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Conquest (1983)

... aka: El Bárbaro (The Barbarian)
... aka: La conquista de la tierra perdida (The Conquest of the Lost Land)
... aka: Mace the Outcast

Directed by:
Lucio Fulci

Because of the huge success of Conan the Barbarian (1982), tons of violent, R-rated, sword-and-sandal fantasy-adventures made for adults followed from all over the place over the next decade. Most of these came from Italy and pretty much every Italian Z grade / cult / horror / exploitation director of the day got to make at least one of these things, including Joe D'Amato, Sergio Martino, Franco Prosperi, Umberto Lenzi, Antonio Margheriti, Luigi Cozzi, Claudio Fragasso, Bruno Mattei and Ruggero Deodato. Of course Fulci, who'd just spent much of the past three years of his career riding on the coattails of DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), wouldn't be left out of the loop and soon tossed his own entry into the overcrowded ring. Though the genre was different, Fulci's formula stayed pretty much the same and he piled on the gore as much here as he had in his previous gore-fests, shifting this firmly into horror territory in the process. Fulci was commissioned by producers to direct what he said (in a 1992 Draculina interview) was a “prehistoric movie” and apparently this is what he came up with. It was filmed mostly in Mexico with Mexican, Italian and Spanish funding, with all three countries well-represented here both in front of and behind the camera.

Teenager Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti, star of Fulci's previous effort THE NEW YORK RIPPER) is becoming a man, so an elder decides to send him off to a “dark and evil domain” so that he can help to defeat the evil (I think) and then return there with knowledge and skills to help the next generation of his race. Meanwhile, in that other nameless land, evil queen Ocron (Sabrina “Sellers” / Siani), who speaks in an electronically-echoed voice and is decked out in just a gold mask and g-string, along with her wolf-headed minions, led by Nabyuk (José Gras), are all up to no good. They invade a cave, chop an old man on the head with an axe and then grab a piece of “young (naked female) flesh” and rip her in two, wishbone-style. She's then decapitated, has her head smashed open and the wolf man pass a piece of brain through a straw between each other and finally spit it into the queen's nostril (?) as she gets off with a huge python (!?) and has visions of Ilias (minus a face) making her chest explode with a glowing blue arrow (?!)

Ilias arrives with his special bow, saves a young woman named Ayana (“Maria Escola” / Gioia Scola) from a snake and then finds himself being chased down by Ocron's henchman until Mace (“George” / Jorge Rivero in a long wig) shows up on the scene with his nunchaku weapon to save him. Though Mace believes that “every man is an enemy,” he has a soft spot for animals and refuses to kill them... though he has no moral issue with killing an innocent human and then taking their meat. Some hero, eh? In exchange for teaching him how to use his bow, Mace agrees to let Ilias accompany him “wherever our feet may take us,” which, in screenwriter lingo, roughly translates to "aimlessly wander through fields because we have no real plot." The two travelers then set off on a series of mist-drenched little adventures. After getting lost in a cave, the two briefly seek refuge with Ayana and her mother Aza, but Ocron's men show up, kill the ladies, kidnap Ilias and take the bow. Mace rescues him from certain death but only manages to piss the evil queen off further. Now desperate for revenge, Ocron calls forth the great, masked spirit Zora (Conrado San Martín) and offers up her body and soul to have him make our heroes “suffer a thousand deaths” by conjuring up various creatures to attack them.

This was shot by Alejandro Ulloa, who'd done a more-than-competent job shooting both black-and-white (Jess Franco's wonderful The Diabolical Dr. Z) and color (the minor classic Horror Express) genre films in the past. However, it really needs to be pointed out that the photography here, despite some occasionally nice and even beautiful shots sprinkled throughout, is appallingly awful for the most part. Seems someone, clearly intending to give this whole thing a “dream-like” sheen, went way overboard with the Vaseline smears and layers of gauze and ruined many of the scenes in the process. After all, there's a huge difference between the picture being soft and lush and a picture being blurry and frequently impossible to make out. Shame too about much of this because they really found some lovely and picturesque places to shoot at and downplay that aspect through poor aesthetic choices, plus there's very nice use of filters to make the sky appear a multitude of different colors.

To make matters even more annoying, the camera obsessively points right up to the sun to cast people in gratuitous silhouette at least two dozen times. Sure, it looks cool once or twice but dozens of times? Geesh, learn some restraint! They also unwisely decided to compound the already-hazy imagery problem by draping a dense layer of fog over top of pretty much everything. As for the night scenes (including the finale), well, imagine an already out-of-focus shot with next to no lighting and I'm pretty sure you can figure out how well that all turned out. I've seen it mentioned that they were trying out something new and different here, but there's a good reason a film hadn't been shot like this before: Viewers typically like to see what in the hell is going on! In a career spanning over 30 years and around 150 films, it's certainly no coincidence this is one of only two instances where “Alejandro Alonso Garcia” opted not to use his real name.

The saddest thing about this film's abject failure, is that it's filled with potentially enjoyable material the director has no clue how to make interesting, exciting or even fun. Aside from what's already been mentioned, there's a porcupine plant shooting poison arrows, another plant with healing leaves, a body covered with puss-oozing infected sores, our warrior hero sharing a telepathic link with the animals (ripped off from the previous year's The Beastmaster), impalements, beheadings, heads smashed to bloody pulp with prehistoric weaponry, a crucifixion, a bat attack, a doppelganger fight, people turning into dogs, cocoon-wrapped, marble-eyed mummies that see in green and speak in synthesized voices, some underground-dweller creatures that are impossible to see because it's too dark, poorly-choreographed, ineptly-edited slow-mo fight scenes and, of course, the all-important random dolphin rescue. Hell, Fulci even manages to throw in a handful of moaning swampland zombies. He probably couldn't even help himself by this point.

Despite the cheap-looking effects and monster masks, the film had a rather healthy budget; one of the director's highest actually, but was a flop pretty much everywhere except for in Mexico, due entirely to the presence of Mexi matinee star / heartthrob Rivero. Here in America, it was given a brief and limited theatrical run in 1984 before being dumped on video by Media in 1985. A DVD came in 2004 courtesy of Blue Underground. Only Fulci completists, who'll no doubt fall over themselves about how “dream-like” *cough* incomprehensible *cough* the whole thing is, need apply. Even taken as just a dumb, undemanding little adventure, this doesn't have near the excitement level or amount of fun necessary to elevate it to "good trash" status. Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame contributed an electro-rock score to the works.

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