Monday, August 26, 2013

Curse of the Undead (1959)

The Movie: In a town in the Old West, there is some strange sickness going around that has already killed several girls. Dr. John Carter (John Hoyt) has been doing his best to save the victims, but thus far to no avail. However, Preacher Dan Young (Eric Fleming) has spent the night praying over her, and it looks like that’s done the trick. Then again, the family seems to have celebrated too soon. As soon as everyone leaves the room, the girl screams, and everyone runs back in to find her dead. Dan notices the window open and the window shade flapping. When he kneels down to pray over her body, he also notices two small, bleeding puncture wounds in her throat.

Dan and Dr. Carter head back to Doc Carter’s home and two children; Tim (Jimmy Murphy) and Dolores (Kathleen Crowley), who we later find out is also Dan’s girlfriend. There they have to deal with the latest results of Doc Carter’s other major problem. The Doc’s ranch is next door to a wealthy man named Buffer (Bruce Gordon). Buffer, entrepreneuring capitalist that he is, wants Doc Carter’s land and has been harassing him and his family in various ways to drive them off it. It doesn’t help matters that Tim is a hot-headed teenager who feels he has something to prove. Doc heads back into town to discuss it with the local Sheriff (Edward Binns), but the Sheriff isn’t able to do much. Worse, as Doc is riding home a black-clad figure attacks him, bites his throat and drinks his blood.

When the buckboard arrives home with their father’s corpse, Tim and Dolores are beside themselves with grief. Convinced Buffer did it; Tim gets drunk and goes to the local bar to confront him. The Sheriff tries to intervene, and Buffer even tries to walk away, but nothing will stand in the way of the hot-headed youth. When Tim pulls his pistol on Buffer, Buffer shoots him down. Dolores is now doubly upset; and despite Dan and the Sheriff’s attempts to talk her down, reacts to this latest outrage by putting up posters offering “$100 for the death of a murderer”. A mysterious, black-clad gunslinger takes an interest in the posters.

Buffer finds out how much trouble he’s in when he runs into said gunslinger, one Drake Robey (Michael Pate), at the saloon. Robey tells Buffer, very confidently, that he will kill him if he takes the job. When one of Buffer’s goons pulls his gun on Robey, Robey casually shoots it out of his hand even though the goon shot first. The goon protests to Buffer that he shot Robey dead center, but Buffer doesn’t believe it. After all, no man could survive a gunshot that close, and Robey was obviously very much still alive.

Dan and the Sheriff both try to convince Dolores that Robey is bad news and she should get rid of him. However, Dan discovers that Robey’s an even bigger problem while going through Doc Carter’s papers for her. He finds the journal of the man who sold the land to Carter; one Don Miguel Robles (Edward Colmans). Don Robles writes about how his son, Drago, came back from a long business trip to Madrid to find that his new bride, Isabella (Jeanna Cross) had taken up an affair with his brother, Roberto. In a fit of rage Drago killed Roberto; but was overcome with guilt and eventually wound up committing suicide on his brother’s grave. Soon after, many of the local girls, including Isabella, became afflicted by a strange ailment. Hearing Isabella’s scream one night, Don Robles rushed to her room and found her dead. Standing over her was an evil fiend who had once been Drago. Don Robles tried to put Drago to rest once and for all, but just wound up driving him into hiding.

Now Dan knows that he’s got a vampire on his hands, but Dolores refuses to believe him. More and more she’s falling under Robey’s influence, and growing weaker as he feeds on her. Worse, Robey is well aware that Dan is on to him. But how can Dan defeat a monster who shrugs off bullets?

The Review: I first watched Curse of the Undead in college, when I found it among the movies at the local town library. I looked to rewatch it ever since, but unfortunately it never seems to have been released on DVD. Now, about a year ago I discovered a website called Trash Palace that does DVD-R transfers of rare, hard to find and out of print movies. My first purchases were a pair of obscure French movies I’d been seeking for a long time. Admittedly, they weren’t quite what I was after; what Trash Palace had were the American releases, which meant English dubbing instead of French with subtitles. However, overall they did a good job, and I highly recommend them if you’re looking for something and haven’t been able to find it through the more mainstream sources. Anyway, a few weeks back I was looking through their catalogue; and imagine my surprise and delight when I found that this little gem was being offered.

Curse of the Undead is a movie that employs two familiar sets of tropes; western and gothic horror. However, it is not afraid to play with those tropes and do something different with them. For example, on the horror side, the vampire himself is a far cry from the example set by Bela Lugosi. Now, for those of you who don’t know who Bela Lugosi was (and shame on you if that’s the case), he played Dracula in the 1930s Universal Pictures movie of that name, and pretty much established the public image of the vampire. The long capes, the goofy accents, mirrors, death by daylight, coffins, turning into a bat or a wolf, all of it goes back to Lugosi. Now, I’m aware that these days we’re seeing a new generation who hears “vampire” and thinks sparkly, centuries old cradle robbers and majorly unhealthy relationships that are somehow supposed to be romantic. However, for the sake of this review I’m going to pretend that we live in a better world that was never submitted to Stephanie Meyer’s vision of the genre.

Anyway, Drake Robey is far more akin to the vampires of traditional European folklore than he is to Dracula. For example, his condition comes from his committing suicide, and there’s no indication that he can spread it to anyone else. There have been many cultures, particularly in Catholic Europe, who believed that suicide was such a horrible sin that those who committed it would return to plague the living. In fact, people were burying suicides at crossroads as late as the 19th century to keep them from coming back. Robey’s evil is linked entirely to that unforgivable sin he committed. There are even some indications that he doesn’t like his condition and isn’t truly evil by nature. However, that one act has driven him beyond the pale.

As for lesser tropes, daylight doesn’t seem to be a huge issue for Robey. He’s obviously much stronger at night, and tends to stick to the shadows, but he can walk around at high noon just fine. He does seem to need some coffin time, every so often he holes up in Doc Carter’s coffin, but it only appears to be every once in a while. The cross does have an effect on Robey, but that is tied to the body of folklore he comes out of. Finally, he can be destroyed by a wooden stake through the heart, but that isn’t how it’s eventually done.

I find the character of Dan equally interesting. He is decent, honest, brave and upright; but what else would you expect of a western hero from this era? He’s also devout, but somehow I don’t find any of that as cloying or unrealistic as I otherwise might. Somehow, the scene of him making out with his girlfriend established him as human for me. Likewise, he does have his doubts. In all, I found him a likable character and was cheering him on.

From the horror end, I found one trope that the movie diverged from interesting. In these vampire stories you usually have two particular types among the heroes. One is a Van Helsing type; usually an older man who knows all about vampire lore and who spurs the rest of the heroes on to fight the monster. The other is the dashing young hero who stands at the front, usually the true love of the heroine the vampire has designs on. Dan fits into both categories. On the one hand, he’s the one who first notices the signs and puts all the pieces together to figure out he’s up against a vampire. On the other, he’s also the one who carries the fight to Robey. And, I might add, it’s also his girlfriend who Dan is fighting for.

That’s it for the horror tropes. The western ones are just as interesting. For one, everybody seems determined to try and stay on the right side of the law. Dan never decides that his fight with Robey supersedes the law, and he’s one of the two major individuals trying to talk Dolores down from taking revenge on Buffer. Buffer himself visibly makes an effort to stay on the right side of the sheriff, and he only shoots Time when the boy pulls his gun. Even Robey provokes Buffer into drawing before he shoots, so that he can then legally claim self defense. In fact, only Tim, the hotheaded teenager, and ostensibly one of the good guys, lives by the philosophy of shoot first and shoot often that we tend to associate with western settings.

Curse of the Undead may move kind of slow for the adrenalin junkies of this generation, but I think it does a good job of building up its plot and establishing its characters. There are a few effective scenes; my favorite being an incredibly creepy one where Robey stalks Dan through the town streets at night. And finally, when Dan defeats Robey at the end, it’s in a way that I, for one, think is rather ingenious; and yet it flows organically from both genres.

In conclusion, I think that Curse of the Undead is a fun, well done little movie that shakes up the tropes of both genres that it covers. I, personally, think that it’s a mortal sin that it’s so hard to get a hold of. If you like westerns, horror, or just clever takes on familiar tropes, this one’s worth a watch if you can find it.