May 26, 2011

Gunslingers and Graveyards

Curse of the Undead (1959)

If it weren't for the unambiguous title, I'd be tempted to classify Curse of the Undead as a western, albeit with strong horror elements. Certainly all the classic Western plot elements are there: a dispute over water rights; a beautiful, plucky heroine doing battle with a corrupt land baron; the heroine's hot-headed younger brother who itches to mix it up with the land baron and his hired thugs; the straight-as-an-arrow fiance who at first urges caution, but in the end must fight for what's right; a well-meaning but ineffectual sheriff trying his best to keep the peace; drunken cowboys drawing on each other in a saloon, and of course the hired gun dressed in black… who just happens to be a vampire.

While I was never a big fan of westerns as a kid (I've certainly come to appreciate them over the years), Curse grabbed my attention when it first played on local TV. It never occurred to me that you could mix monsters and six-guns, so, despite being a bit slow and talky in places, it made a bigger-than-average impression on me. It was like discovering that Little Joe on Bonanza was secretly a teen-age werewolf.

It didn't occur much to filmmakers of the era to mix the two genres-- an IMDb search for horror-westerns between 1940 and 1970 only pulls up 30 or so titles, most of them obscure, low-budget Mexican films made in the 1960s. What's left is a small, undistinguished list including z-grade fare like Teenage Monster (1958; a boy in a western town becomes a hideous killer after being irradiated by a meteor), Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (also 1966). The less said about these, the better.  Obviously, the film industry didn't see much potential in this sort of genre melding. (Although, horror-westerns seem to have come into their own in the past decade, with some very interesting-sounding titles: Legend of the Phantom Rider, 2002; The Ghosts of Edendale, 2003; Dead Birds, 2004; The Quick and the Undead, 2006; The Burrowers, 2008; Blood River, 2009; Gun Town, 2009; and the forthcoming Dances with Werewolves, 2012.)

In the midst of a horror-western desert, Curse of the Undead stands out as a very interesting, if somewhat flawed, genre-blending experiment. Set in an unnamed western town, Curse starts off on an ominous and somber note as Doc Carter (John Hoyt) and his daughter Dolores (Kathleen Crowley) drive their carriage past house after house with funeral wreaths on the doors. The doctor has come to see yet another young woman who is wasting away from some mysterious illness. The pair meet the worried parents and preacher Dan Young (Eric Fleming), who has spent the night by the girl's bedside, praying for her recovery. The doc admits that he's baffled by an epidemic that seems to affect only young women: "I'm tempted to throw away my bag and come over to your side." Dan responds affectionately, "You've always been on my side."

The bedridden girl seems to be recovering, so the relieved caretakers and parents assemble in the kitchen for a needed break and some breakfast. The pleasant scene is suddenly interrupted by a cry from the bedroom, and as they rush in they see to their horror the girl's lifeless corpse sprawled over the side of the bed. The roller blinds in a nearby window are flapping, as if someone or something has just escaped outside. Discreetly, preacher Dan examines the dead girl's neck and finds blood flowing from odd puncture wounds.

With a different setting and costumes, this could be the set-up for any gothic vampire film. But the film veers quickly from classic horror set-up to classic western, as we learn from Doc Carter's son Tim (Jimmy Murphy) about greedy land baron Buffer (Bruce Gordon) and his nasty plot to dam up the stream providing needed water to the Carter homestead. Tim's just been beaten up by Buffer's hired thugs, and he's itching to get back at the arrogant landlord and redeem the family name. In short order, the good Doc turns up dead, his blood-drained corpse falling out of the carriage seat just after it pulls up to the front door of his home. Tim, blinded by rage, blames his father's death on the no-good Buffer, and ends up in a pine box himself after baiting Buffer into a shoot-out. Interspersed in all the mayhem is the figure of a mysterious, black-clad gunman, who is first seen spying on the Doc, and then hanging around the cemetery on the day of his funeral.

The mysterious man in black takes a nap between gunfights.
Grief-stricken Dolores is suddenly head of the Carter household, and in a simmering rage tries to nail up wanted posters for Buffer around town, but the by-the-book sheriff pulls them down as fast as she can post them. The upstanding preacher (and Dolores' beau or fiance, it's not quite clear which) tries to calm her down. In a neat little bit of business, she replies to him in exasperation, "If the Devil can stop some of this pain in me, I'll even pray to him!" Just at that moment, the shadowy gunfighter in black, Drake Robey (Michael Pate) comes calling with the wanted poster in hand. Dan tries to get her to throw the "professional killer" out, but she's too intent on revenge, and Robey's silver tongue wins the day: "Preacher, you've been reading the good Book too long. You should look at life as it really is. Miss Carter's in trouble… why don't you think of me as a professional soldier come to help…?"

Preacher Dan knows evil when he sees it, and spends the rest of the film's running time trying to get his beloved Dolores to see the man for what he really is. His fears are doubly-realized when he stumbles upon an old diary at the Carter place, and finds out that it was formerly the site of Casa Robles. It seems that the two Robles brothers were in love with the same woman, but she ended up marrying Don Drago Robles. When he came back from a journey to find his brother making love to his wife, he killed him in a fit of rage, then, filled with remorse, committed suicide. The father writes of the terrible curse that fell on the village in the aftermath, as one-by-one young women were found drained of their blood. He describes the horror of grappling with a phantom figure in the dead of night, only to discover that it is his son Drago! Just in case there's any question about who's who and what's what, Dan finds a small portrait conveniently tucked into the diary's slipcover-- and it's the spitting image of Drake Robey! Hmmm… Drake Robey, Drago Robles…

It's interesting that Curse's director and screenwriter Edward Dein (along with co-writer and spouse Mildred Dein) dredges up the old eastern European conception of vampires as the revenants of suicide victims. What he lacks in budget and overt thrills, he makes up for with unique touches like this. We never see so much as the hint of a fang, and precious little blood. What we do see is a tortured soul (Drago/Drake) wrestling with two desires: to love the beautiful and strong-willed Dolores, and to feed off her blood. Despite being a monster, he has a strict code of ethics. When Dolores has a change of heart and tells him to forget about killing Buffer, she offers to compensate him for his time. "No thanks," he responds, "I don't take money for something I didn't do."

Like many a good movie villain, Robey is so dynamic and interesting that the ostensible good guy suffers in comparison. Preacher Dan is straight-laced and conventional to a fault, and it doesn't help that Eric Fleming's performance is mostly stiff and colorless to match the character. Watching Dolores calmly negotiating with hired gun Robey to kill Buffer, Dan rudely inserts himself into his fiance's business: "I'm not asking you to turn this man [Robey] out, I'm telling you to!" When she rebuffs him with "You keep your telling to the pulpit!", we cheer for her (and by extension, Robey).

The final showdown between good and evil.
As the preacher and and the monstrous gunslinger battle for the good woman's soul, it hardly seems a fair fight. Robey is dark, handsome, and sophisticated. Dan is conventionally handsome, but self-righteous and wooden-headed. Toward the end of the film, after Dan has learned Robey's secret, they duke it out not with guns, but with words. Robey protests that he never wanted this curse, but to simply live and love. Now he has another chance-- with Dolores. Dan of course, is having none of it:
Dan: How can you speak of love, when all you do is kill?
Drake: I kill to exist -- that is my life -- it's a force I can't control!
Dan: Why don't you call that force by its right name? Your force is the Devil!
Drake: He's so much a part of this world, he must be in me too. Now remember, without the Devil, you'd have no profession. You should be grateful!
Some deft use of eerie imagery and other unusual touches complement the elaborate dialog and help the film stand out from the usual B picture fare. After discovering the sheriff's body with familiar bite marks on his neck, Dan is chased through dark, deserted streets by a shadowy presence. Cowering at the front door of his church, he's saved by the well-placed shadow of the church's cross (see the clip below). Additionally, we get to see not once but twice what an unfair advantage an undead gunfighter has-- he can be as slow on the draw as he wants, since bullets can't kill him! Robey saunters away as one of his bewildered victims insists with his dying breath that "I'm sure I hit him dead center!" And, the climactic showdown between good and evil features a very unique, but logical method for killing an immortal vampire gunslinger. (Interestingly, the shootout appears to take place in broad daylight!)

Curse of the Undead is a neat little neoclassical tragedy masquerading as a B horror-western. It deserves a better fate than near-total obscurity. Creepy Classics has a good DVD-R copy for sale.

Preacher Dan Young is stalked by a shadowy figure as he walks down the dark, dusty street:

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