Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: C is for Curse of the Undead (1959)

As dawn breaks on a quiet dusty street in an old western town, Dr. John Carter (Hoyt) and his daughter, Dolores (Crowley), push the horses pulling their buckboard to pick up the pace. Seems the local sawbones is in a hurry to check on one of his patients -- one of many young women who have contracted some mysterious, rapid-onset wasting disease. And judging by the number of doors they’ve passed adorned with black wreaths, fatalities are high as his efforts to properly identify this malady and provide treatment have not been going well at all. In fact, the good doctor just lost another patient and is now speeding to check on a girl named Cora, the last infected, and now, sole survivor of this plague; a plague the good doctor fears may in fact be some kind of curse.

Thankfully, it appears young Cora (Kilgas) is doing better and may just yet survive. Her parents thank the doctor for his efforts but he defers to the work of Dan Young (Fleming), the town preacher, who held an all night vigil over Cora, praying for the girl’s recovery, feeling His “medicine” has been more effective than his in this case. Her relieved parents insist they all join them for breakfast. But as they gather around the kitchen table, they hear Cora scream. And as they all rush back into her bedroom, they find the girl dead, sprawled awkwardly on the bed, and the retracted window-shade still spinning over the open sill. And as Doc Carter and Dolores console the grieving parents, Young tends to the body. But as he kneels over her to pray, the preacher notices her night dress is partially opened at the neck and two small puncture wounds on her throat, leeching out blood.

Later, after returning to their ranch, Doc Carter finds his son, Tim (Murphy), all wound-up after an encounter with their neighbor; a rancher named Buffer. Seems this Buffer dammed up the only water source in the county as part of an effort, Tim insists, to force the Carters and all the other area ranchers to give up and sell their land cheap to this wannabe land baron. And when Tim took his grievances to Buffer, his men gave him a beating and then shot at the boy as he fled. Convinced the man will no longer listen to reason, if it's a range war Buffer wants, then Tim will be happy to provide one. But his father forbids this, and then heads into town to consult with the Sheriff (Binns), determined to let the law handle this dispute. And while the Sheriff heads to the saloon and has a lengthy conversation with Buffer (Gordon), who eventually agrees to release the water to keep the peace, Doc Carter heads for home but fails to notice a pale rider, dressed in black, sporting a gun, mounted on a black horse trailing him out of town. And strangely enough, when the wagon reaches his house, Doc Carter, to his children’s horror, slumps off the seat and falls to the ground dead. And just like with Cora, his neck is bloodied with the same two distinct puncture wounds.

Already on the prod, a grief-stricken Tim loses it when he finds out Buffer tore down some fences and ran off a sizeable chunk of their herd while they buried his father. And despite Dolores and Young’s best efforts to stop him, he secretly heads into town to confront Buffer at the saloon. And while waiting for him to show, the younger Carter gets blind drunk. The Sheriff gets wind of this and does his best to wind the boy down. But when Buffer finally arrives, the Sheriff nearly and rather deftly defuses the whole situation but this proves for naught as the drunken Tim keeps mouthing off, goading Buffer into a shoot-out to save face in front of his men -- a shoot-out Tim loses.

And since Tim drew first, Buffer is free and clear in the eyes of the law -- but not in the eyes of the grieving Dolores, who starts hanging posters around town advertising a reward for anyone willing to gun down the “murderer” of her brother. Enter the pale rider in black, who takes up one of the discarded posters the Sheriff keeps tearing down as fast as Dolores can hang them. He takes it into the saloon and orders a whiskey, drawing the attention of Buffer, who knows a professional gunslinger when he sees one. And hoping to do an end-run on Dolores, Buffer tries to hire the stranger first. But Drake Robey (Pate) refuses this offer, saying he will take up Dolores’s crusade and collect that reward instead. With that, one of Buffer’s men tries to get the drop on Robey. The cowboy fires first, apparently misses, but only gets his gun shot out of his hand in return because, Robey says, no one paid him to kill the man. After Robey leaves, an angry Buffer berates the wounded man for failing to kill the stranger. And all the man can say before he is fired is insist he hit his target dead center. And at that close range, even we in the audience know it would’ve been awfully hard to miss that guy…

Yeah, with all the mounting evidence -- the mysterious multiple deaths by neck-wound, a killer who only strikes at night, a man who survives being shot at point blank range -- and not to mention the fact he spends the daylight hours sleeping in the coffins of the men he killed, you’ve probably figured out already that Drake Robey is some kind of vampire long before the next scene, which finds him painfully reacting to the wooden crucifix button pinned to preacher Young’s jacket (-- the cross made from a thorn from the site of the Crucifixion, Young claims), when he visits the Carter ranch to take up Dolores’s offer. Then again, this Drake Robey is not your ordinary run of the mill vampire -- and that goes way beyond the western setting he currently finds himself in.

See, Curse of the Undead (1959) is nowhere near the vicinity of the too competent for their own good but still not competent enough Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1966) or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). But strangely enough, the film started out as a gag by the two-punch combo of Edward and Mildred Dein. Edward Dein broke in as a screenwriter in the 1940s, penning several entries for The Inner Sanctum, the Falcon, and Boston Blackie franchises. I was unable to unearth much info on how he met Mildred but they first worked together on a couple of Spanish/English co-productions, Come Die My Love (1952) and Sword of Granada (1953), before tackling their best known film: an excellent little anti-commie sleaze noir called Shack Out on 101 (1955) for Allied Artists. Several more films followed, with Edward both directing and co-scripting with Mildred. And then one night, on a lark, in their makeshift castle up in the hills of Laurel Canyon, complete with a moat and drawbridge, the duo typed up a whopper of a tale; a western horror story hybrid about “a homosexual vampire running around the desert southwest feeding on little boys” called -- wait for it, Eat Me Gently.

From there, the script circulated amongst the Dein’s friends as a private joke, but one of those friends was the wife of Joseph Gershenson, a producer at Universal International. Gershenson first hired on at the studio back in the 1920s as a musician and was eventually promoted to head of the music department in the 1940s, meaning his name appeared on nearly every Universal picture made between 1949 and 1969 due to his title of musical supervisor. And under his pseudonym, Joseph G. Sanford, Gershenson branched out into producing, beginning with the comedy, Cracked Nuts (1941). Gershenson began his association with Universal’s monsters as an executive producer on House of Dracula (1944) and did the same for Monster on Campus (1958) to feed the studio’s resurgent sci-fi / monster boom of the 1950s, which, sadly, was kinda petering out by 1959 when he got wind of the Dein’s oddball vampire flick and decided he wanted to make the picture -- after a few standards and practices dictated revisions, naturally. Still, according to the early press materials the film was still intended as a satire of vampire movies AND westerns. I have no idea when and why the satire was taken out but it is nowhere to be found in the final version that is played deadly serious with more than a few subtle hints of perversion; mostly the whiffs of homo-erotic necrophilia during those scenes in the crypt when Robey settles in for the day.

Now, it is strange to have a vampire show up in a standard range-war western but it works surprisingly well in Curse of the Undead because from Edward Dein on down the film was played entirely straight -- both the monster elements and the western elements; and I especially dug the Yojimbo / A Fistful of Dollars (1961/1964) nature of Drake Robey as he rides into town and clandestinely stirs up trouble, playing the Carters against Buffer for his own personal gain -- that gain being Dolores, the lovely sole heir of a sizeable ranch; land he covets for reasons we’ll get to in a second. For despite preacher Young’s protests, Dolores hires Robey to take care of Buffer. And for a down payment, Robey sucks a few liters of blood out of her neck while she sleeps. Meanwhile, Young and the Sheriff broker a deal with Buffer, who, fearing for his life, agrees to a stiff fine if any of his men even sniff around the Carter property. And when Young delivers the good news to Dolores, he finds her zoned-out in front of a roaring fire, complaining of the cold. She also appears to be very compliant, a far cry from her usual headstrong self, and readily agrees to let Robey go now that she no longer needs him.

The two then spend the rest of the day going over her father’s papers, looking for a will that proves maddeningly elusive. The only place they haven’t searched is in an old lock-box that is jammed shut. Young offers to take it home and work on the latch while Dolores gets some much needed sleep. After he’s gone, Robey stops by and Dolores breaks the bad news to him. But playing off her sympathetic nature, Robey says he’s ready to give up his life as a gunman and settle down but no one will give him a chance. Dolores takes the bait and offers him a job as a ranch hand. Robey takes the job but has a special request. Seems he suffers from some kind of congenital eye-condition that causes him to avoid daylight as much as possible; and so, he volunteers to be her permanent nighthawk. She agrees and offers him a place to stay: the old caretaker’s cottage by the cemetery -- if he doesn’t mind sleeping near the dead. But Robey says the dead don’t bother him. It’s the living that cause him trouble.

Later that night, Robey appears at Dolores's bedside while she sleeps. But he hesitates, takes in the girl’s features longingly, and then leaves before feeding. Thus and so, Robey has officially fallen for Dolores and the only thing standing in his way is Dan Young, who has also professed his love for the girl. Speaking of Young, he’s managed to jimmy that box open in his study and finds the diary of Don Miguel Robles (Colmans), the former owner of the Carter spread, who sold it to them after suffering some kind of “family tragedy.” Here, Young reads as the elder Robles narrates a flashback and relates his tale of woe:

Seems almost fifty years ago Robles sent his eldest son, Drago, back to Spain on family business. Drago wanted to take his new bride, Isabella (Cross), with him but the elder Robles nixed this, fearing the girl wasn’t up to the arduous journey. But while Drago was gone all those months, the lonely Isabella wound up in the arms of Drago’s brother. And when Drago finally returned and uncovered their betrayal, he stabbed his brother to death in a jealous rage. And to compound this tragedy even further, so overcome by grief and guilt over what he’d done, Drago wound up taking his own life, too, stabbing himself in the heart -- a spectacular and insurmountable pile-up of mortal sins in the eyes of his faith.

And so, for several months after Drago’s death, a familiar rash of sickness and death haunted the surrounding community as several young girls died under dubious circumstances -- including Isabella, whose death screams alert Robles, who finds the root cause of this malediction: Drago, back from the dead and feeding on the blood of the living. To end his undead son’s reign of terror, Robles, following the advice of an old witch, uses a silver dagger to pin Drago to his coffin through the heart. Unfortunately, when Robles confesses his sins to a priest, he learns only a wooden stake can destroy a vampire. And when he returns to the crypt to rectify this, Drago is gone. And as Young finishes this final entry in the diary, a photo falls out. It’s labeled Drago Robles but the man in the photo is clearly Drake Robey. (Hey, at least he didn’t try to pass himself off as Selbor Ogard.)

And this revelation is what sets Curse of the Undead well apart from its like-minded brethren: it’s vampire is based in European folklore, not on the Victorian literature of Bram Stoker, or Universal’s own bastardized set of concrete vampire rules, which were later reinforced in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958) released the year prior. No, Robles, now Robey’s, vampirism finds its roots in Spanish folklore. And being Catholic-centric, Spanish vampires divine from the teachings of the Church. And so, Robey became a vampire because he committed the mortal sin of suicide, wasting God’s most precious gift, not because he was bitten by another vampire. (This was why suicide victims used to be buried at a crossroads to confuse them or placed in the coffin face down so when they reactivated and tried to unearth themselves they’d dig in the wrong direction.) And so, vampirism in this case is less of a contagion and more of a Divine consequence. Thus, the normal cinematic rules no longer apply. Sure, Robey still kills his victims by draining their blood but he’s not infectious. Therefore, those he killed will not become vampires. Robey can also move around in the daylight, though it pains him considerably. And of course, being a fallen Catholic, religious symbols will have a definite detrimental impact on him.

Despite some reviews claiming he did, Robey cannot and does not turn into a bat but he does appear to have some preternatural abilities as he seemingly disappears at will in a couple chase scenes. He’s also impervious to a lot of damage and is essentially bulletproof -- the perfect asset for a gunslinger, I’d say. No matter who is the faster draw, he will always be the last man standing. The only real nods to Hollywood vampirism is Robey’s hypnotic influence over Dolores and holing up in coffins during the day, desecrating sacred ground, which could also be read as a blasphemous middle finger at the Almighty or chalked up as a perverse inside joke from the Deins. And the fact that he only sleeps in coffins occupied by male victims feels like a leftover nugget from the slightly homophobic Eat Me Gently.

Making all this work is a wonderful performance by Michael Pate as the vampire gunslinger, Drake Robey. (In fact, Robey might just be my all time favorite cinematic vampire.) A veteran character actor and career second banana, Pate appears to be wearing the same outfit Audie Murphy wore as the bad guy in No Name on the Bullet (1959). The man easily delivers the menace but he also brings a surprising amount of humanity to the role even though he technically no longer has a soul. But despite all the killing I think there is still something tragically decent about the man; a moral center that has been battered over the years by his curse but is still standing. He is haunted by what he is, what he has to do to survive, and what he has done and what he is about to do. This was a good man, who, in a fit of passion and grief made two catastrophic mistakes he will now spend the rest of his unnatural life paying for (-- and it doesn’t get much more Catholic than that). And now, he appears to be out to reclaim his birthright as the eldest Robles and take back what is rightfully his: the old family homestead. And yet he cannot bring himself to kill Dolores, and so the plan changes. He will now get the land back with her instead of through her. (And now a quick show of grateful hands that Dolores was NOT the reincarnation of his old love, Isabella. Everyone? Good.)

Countering Robles is preacher Dan Young, played with righteous conviction by Eric Fleming. I always was a fan of that guy ever since our old ABC affiliate started showing Rawhide reruns back in the 1980s after the 10 o’clock news. And another interesting twist in Curse of the Undead is how Young never, ever questions his faith even in the face of something supernatural like Robey. Personally, I usually find this kind of blinding faith to be a character flaw that will only lead to some kind of fall from Grace. But Young is a rock on which the film’s ultimate salvation will be sprung. And so, it’s a pleasure to watch these two go after each other. And this conflict comes to the forefront when Robey confronts Young after he kills the Sheriff, who threatened to run him out of town. 

What follows is an outstanding game of cat and mouse, where Robey chases Young through the darkened streets, closes in for the kill, but is then suddenly and violently driven away when he runs into the shadow of the cross atop the church’s steeple; but he quickly regroups and finally corners the preacher in his study. Confronted with the diary and the photo, Robey admits to being the same man. And when Young starts throwing religious epitaphs at him, calling him an unholy monster, Robey will not hear it, saying what he is was not his choice. Thus, he should be pitied and not judged for he cannot help what he does or what he is -- something he did not want.

Things degenerate from there, and Robey easily overpowers Young and moves in for the kill. But the fight alerts others who come to help, and so Robey flees with the photo and an old map of Rancho Robles, leaving the battered Young with just the diary. And without the photo, this does little to convince Dolores that Robey is an undead ghoul who feeds on the living. And so, in an effort to convince her, Young takes her to the cemetery and the large crypt where they find the original coffin of Drago Robles, which proves empty except for that silver dagger. But if Robey isn’t in his coffin, he must be in someone else’s -- and the only two coffins that haven’t been interred yet belong to Dolores’s father and brother. With that, Dolores explodes with anger and will only let Young open them over her dead body.

Young leaves, but promises to return with a court order to open the coffins. After he’s gone, an overwrought and over-tapped Dolores collapses. Right on cue, Robey emerges from her father’s coffin, has himself a little nibble (-- and cups himself a pretty good feel, too), and then carries her home. When she wakes up, Robey is waiting for her with that old map. Seems Buffer fudged the property lines and that stream he’d dammed up was actually on Carter property. He denies attacking Young, saying he was out all night confirming the new boundaries on the map. And now he intends to confront Buffer with this evidence, but promises Dolores he won’t use his gun during the negotiations and will only talk to the man. And while they technically do talk, it isn’t long before Robey goads Buffer into a gunfight over preacher Young’s protests. Again, Buffer appears to be the faster draw and fires first but he’s the one gunned down. After Robey leaves, the dying Buffer’s last words to Young is swearing he hit the man square in the heart.

Back at the Carter ranch, as Robey justifies his actions with Buffer, Dolores notices the bullet hole in his vest; but he claims his metal cigarette case saved him. She then reveals Young’s plan to get a court order to open the coffins of her family and how she means to stop him. Robey offers to take care of Young but once again must promise no gun play. (Because that worked out so well the last time.) Luckily for all involved, the Carter housekeeper overheard all of this and tips preacher Young off. And so, knowing Robey’s modus operandi of letting the other man call the draw, Young steels himself for what’s to come, puts his faith in the Almighty to see his plan through, and digs out his gun belt. 

Meanwhile, Robey tries to sneak into town on his own without Dolores, who discovers this deception and follows suit. But she’s several minutes behind, giving Robey enough time to call Young out. And just like always, Robey allows his victim to call it. And after pacing off a fair distance before turning and firing when prompted, like all the others, Young manages to get a shot off first. 

Again, Robey is hit, only this time the bullet has a devastating impact on him as he crumples to the ground. Dolores arrives just in time to see his corpse disintegrate into the breeze, leaving only his outfit behind. And once the body is gone, Young retrieves the spent slug, on which he embedded his wooden crucifix on the tip.

Wow. Now THAT is how you kill a vampire -- just one of the many hosannas I can sing about Curse of the Undead. Sure, it’s low-budget status shows pretty badly at times as this thing was pretty grounded in the backlot (-- most of the sets can be correlated with a concurrent TV show). But the eccentric and quirky Dein was up to overcompensate for these shortcomings with some interesting set-ups and a few stellar set-pieces which will stay with you once the film is over. His film was highly stylized giving those sparse sets an artful minimalist quality. The lighting was top notch and cinematographer Ellis W. Carter, who shot nearly every monster movie for UI in the 1950s, effectively captures the offbeat mood of the piece by keeping it nice and simple. And all their efforts were greatly enhanced by the eerie theremin score of Irving Gertz. His cast was game, and the commitment of the three leads, Eric Fleming, Kathleen Crowley, and, again, especially Michael Pate, really kicks this thing up several notches. Pretty good for a film that was only allowed 18 days of shooting.

It’s really too bad that Universal didn’t include Curse of the Undead in that Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection boxset along with the likes of Tarantula (1955) and The Monolith Monsters (1957). I mean, if Cult of the Cobra (1955) and The Leech Woman (1960) qualify as “Sci-Fi” then why not Curse of the Undead, too? (And while we’re at it, where the hell was The Thing that Wouldn't’ Die?) It definitely would’ve helped elevate this flick from a rare curio to an offbeat gem. A rarity this good that hasn’t officially made the digital leap yet is unforgivable. I mean, it definitely at least rates one of those DVD-R releases direct from the studio’s From the Vault series because you don’t wanna know what the out of print VHS tapes are going for right now. Thus, we have a convention defying film that’s a pretty good B-western that is also a fantastic B-horror movie that is nearly impossible to see. But I still encourage the effort to find a copy, most likely a VHS-rip on YouTube or Dailymotion, because the reward is definitely worth it.

Other Points of Interest:

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's three down with 23 to go! Up next: Dragnet of the Dead.

Curse of the Undead (1959) Universal International Pictures / P: Joseph Gershenson / D: Edward Dein / W: Edward Dein, Mildred Dein / C: Ellis W. Carter / E: George Gittens / M: Irving Gertz / S: Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, John Hoyt, Bruce Gordon, Helen Kleeb


Dr. Freex said...

Here's something I ponder every now and then: if Robey's original family name, Robles, was a nod to Mexican actor German Robles, who made several vampire movies in 57-58 (and many more in the 60s). Who knows? Nice to think it is, though.

W.B. Kelso said...

Very well could be. Would love to get my hands on the Dein's original spoof script and give it a read. And I'm still not convinced that it wasn't Robles who knocked down the fences and ran off the cattle, not Buffer, which finally pushed young Tim into a shootout, which all plays more into my vampire-Yojimbo theory.

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