Fangs for the memory
I’m like a dog with a bone as far as Jesse James and Billy the Kid are concerned. Any movie that features them, be it good, bad or indifferent, will get a watch from me.
At some (unspecified) time in 1966 – Variety indicated in September ’66 that the pictures were playing that month in St Louis, MO as a “reissue” – Embassy released, as a double-bill, a pair of movies produced by Carroll Case (who would reach the heights later of making Two Mules for Sister Sara) with associate producer Howard W Koch. These were films which designedly blended genres, in this case schlock horror and B-Western. They were clearly not aimed at the ritzy theaters in big cities, more at fleapits and the drive-in market. They were Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (which we reviewed in days of yore so click the link for that epic) and Billy the Kid versus Dracula. Together they were promoted as ‘Shockorama’ and ‘The NeWest in Terrortainment’.
By the mid-1960s, the swinging sixties, a decade after the ‘horror’ films of the 50s, you might expect these pictures to be self-mocking or jokey parodies of the genre, yet they are played straight, not for laughs, as if the makers expect us to take them seriously. But it’s very difficult to imagine anyone doing that.
Both pictures were (nominally at least) written by Carl K Hittleman, better known as a producer, though there is a suggestion on IMDb that Johnny Mack Brown and Lash La Rue screenwriter Jack Lewis actually wrote them and sold the rights and credits to Hittleman for a mighty $250. It may be true.
Embassy was a small studio and distributor founded in 1942 by Joseph Levine, and it specialized in low-grade pictures. As a production company in the late 50s and early 60s they made a Steve Reeves Hercules picture and assorted B-movies, but they had bigger ambitions. They did a $30m deal with Paramount to screen bigger films, and Levine produced the likes of The Carpetbaggers and its Western prequel Nevada Smith. Embassy reached the heights with their distributing The Graduate and The Lion in Winter. It didn’t stop most of their own output being dross, as these two movies proved.
Both were directed by William Beaudine (1892 – 1970), one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors. He started as an actor in 1909 and was an assistant director to DW Griffith on The Birth of a Nation in 1915. He himself first directed, a short, at the age of 23 and went on to direct features at struggling Warners in the 1920s. Here he demonstrated his skill at making films look more expensive than their budgets, which became something of a trademark (though you wouldn’t know it from the Jesse and Billy movies). The 1959 book Classics of the Silent Screen: A Pictorial Treasury, credited to Joe Franklin but actually written by noted film historian William K Everson, remarks on “what a really fine director William Beaudine was in the silent era, long before he became the principal director of the Bowery Boys ‘B’ comedies” – but again, you wouldn’t know it.
His career declined as he was obliged to accept work on cheapo programmers, which he did under the alias of William X Cowley. He was known as ‘One-Shot’ Beaudine from his habit of only using one take, even if an actor fluffed some lines or a special effect didn’t work – though to be fair, trailers of his movies do sometimes show alternative takes. He himself knew he wasn’t making great art. When told that one of his pictures had fallen behind schedule at Monogram, he said, “You mean someone out there is actually waiting to see this shit?” He also justly said, “I’d like to see a George Stevens or a William Wyler shoot a Lassie in three days, the way I do. Heck, they’d be three days trying to make up their minds about the first shot.”
As far as Westerns go, Beaudine would direct large numbers of TV oaters (69 episodes of seven different series) but for such a busy director he made relatively few feature Westerns – a silent Tom Mix picture in 1922, a couple of ‘out West’ comedies in his long series of Gas House Kids and Bowery Boys flicks, three Yukon yarns wit Kirby Gant, a couple of others. The Jesse and Billy horrors were his last feature films.
The budget must have been tiny, though the pictures were in Pathécolor. Koch said, “They were made as cheap as movies can be made.” He probably meant cheaply; I don’t think they deliberately made them look cheap. The ‘special effects’ were laughably bad, such as the hovering plastic bat that Dracula occasionally turns into.
The pictures were filmed up at Corriganville and at the Producers Studios in LA. The cinematographer was Lothrop Worth, who had worked on the 3D of House of Wax and shot I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, so he knew the game. Beaudine was well into his seventies so maybe he was a bit past it (but then I’m 75 and I’m not past it –am I? Don’t answer that.)
The music (Raoul Kraushaar) is of the classic woo-woo horror kind. I’m sure you know what I mean.
Production supervisor Sam Manners said that “Levine expected to clear more than $5m on each film.” I can’t believe he succeeded.
In some ways Billy the Kid versus Dracula isn’t a Billy the Kid movie or a Dracula one either, because this Billy (Chuck Courtney) does not reference either the historical one (well, no Billy pictures did that) or the legend either. This Billy is a goody, having gone straight, become foreman of a ranch and fallen for a young rancher (Melinda Casey). He could be any cowboy.
As for Dracula, the name is never mentioned – the villain poses as James Underhill, the blonde rancher’s uncle. The picture isn’t even a Western, in the sense that it’s vaguely set in the 1880s in New Mexico but it could be pretty well anywhere and anywhen. It’s just a vampire story that happens to be set in the West. There’s one ‘Western’ bit, a gunfight in the saloon, but that’s it. And I am told it isn’t a proper Dracula myth picture either because this ‘Dracula’ eats meals, sleeps in a bed (he’s even bizarrely shown making the bed in one scene) and walks about in daylight, which is apparently not on for vampires. And in the end (spoiler alert, oops, too late) Dracula is killed with a scalpel through the heart, not a wooden stake, and actually it’s more like a giant spike, damn big scalpel anyway. I am informed that Billy the Kid versus Dracula ‘borrowed’ a lot from the plot of The Return of Dracula (1958), but that’s not a picture I know intimately so I can’t say.
Still, ‘Underhill’ was played by John Carradine and if anyone was immediately identifiable as Dracula, especially in that costume and haircut, it was Carradine. He’d played the count in the 1940s in Universal’s House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, also appearing in some later big- and small-screen Dracula screenings. He does overact terribly in the Billy the Kid one, perhaps deliberately, as a self-parody. He regretted it later, saying of the film, “I have worked in a dozen of the greatest [films], and I have worked in a dozen of the worst. I only regret Billy the Kid versus Dracula. Otherwise, I regret nothing.” He also said, “My worst film? That’s easy, a thing called Billy the Kid versus Dracula…It was a bad film. I don’t even remember it. I was absolutely numb!”
The best actor on the set was Olive Carey as the lady doctor. She had oomph and presence and stole the picture (admittedly not hard). She had a good bit when she jailbreaks Billy from his cell in the sheriff’s office.
Her son Dobe (Harry Carey Jr) also had a bit part; Beaudine was loyal to actors he knew, especially if they needed a gig. Dobe later said, “I wasn’t the easiest guy to cast back then” [his way of saying he was an alcoholic who couldn’t get it together workwise] adding, “When I worked on Billy the Kid versus Dracula I remember I only had a few lines, but I took the job anyway because it was work.”
The Billy actor, Courtney, billed second after Carradine, had actually appeared in quite a lot of Westerns, dozens of different TV shows (he was the Lone Ranger’s nephew Dan Reid on TV) but also 18 features including three John Wayne pics, admittedly with small roles, Rustler (uncredited) and so on, but still. He was mainly a stuntman (who commanded a thousand dollars a minute for some stunts). Though only fourth-billed, he was actually the hero of a 1953 B-Western also helmed by Beaudine which we reviewed in 2017, Born to the Saddle (click for that). He’s frankly pretty bland fighting Dracula but he does his best, saying the lines dutifully. Brian Garfield, though, thought he was “astonishingly incompetent.” I don’t know his leading lady. Ms Casey was doubtless a talented thespian in other genres. Or not.
I did recognize one fellow, though, Portland Mavericks owner Bing Russell, Kurt’s dad, as Billy rival and enemy Dan ‘Red’ Thorpe. He’s the one whom Billy shoots in the saloon – not surprisingly because in an earlier fist fight, after winning, in scorn Bing had kicked Billy’s hat on the ground. As we were discussing the other day, here, abusing a man’s hat is a shootin’ matter.
There’s a DVD on the appropriately-named Cheezy Flicks label, if you are so minded.
Critic and historian Tom Weaver said that the film could have earned “the semi-respectability” of Curse of the Undead, another vampire-themed Western “if it [were] truer to vampire lore, if it didn’t feature a ‘name’ outlaw like Billy the Kid, if the vampire in it weren’t Dracula, and if Carradine’s performance [were] much better. That’s a lot of ifs.” Johnny D Boggs in his excellent book Billy the Kid on Film tried to decide which picture, the Jesse or the Billy one, was worse but couldn’t, declaring “both pictures stink.” Dennis Schwartz reckoned that “To get into this flick one not only has to suspend one’s disbelief, but one’s sense of judgment and taste.” Brian Garfield thought you’d have to be retarded to enjoy it. A bit harsh. I know I’m not Einstein but I almost enjoyed it, in that way that the truly bad can be weirdly watchable.