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.

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