Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Curse of the Undead (Universal, 1959)

 

Spooky, man

 

And we’ll finish our current mini-season of three horror-westerns, pictures which deliberately crossed between the genres, with a classic of the type.

 

 

If anyone specialized in horror, among the majors anyway, it was Universal. Going right back to the early 1930s, with the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mummy, the studio had, under directors such as James Whale, Karl Freund, Lambert Hillyer and more, with stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, made a long series of creepy thrillers. They had the top cameramen and make-up artists to create the right atmosphere. They were the experts.

 

So when horror became newly fashionable in the 1950s, especially with a younger audience, Universal was well-placed to cash in. And the execs had no qualms about mixing genres and making crossover pictures either, though as far as I am aware a vampire Western hadn’t been done before. But you know, there had been comedy Westerns and musical Westerns and film-noir Westerns, why not a horror one?

 

Edward Dein had a goodish CV as far as horror went: he’d written Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man and Reginald Le Borg’s Calling Dr Death in 1943, then worked on The Soul of a Monster and The Frozen Ghost before helming Curse of the Undead. Eddie had also directed a Western, Seven Guns to Mesa, the year before. Dein both directed and wrote Curse, doing the screenplay with his wife Mildred. It is said that the couple wrote it as a lark, with no expectation of its actually being made, and as a satire, but it was picked up by Joseph Gershenson, Universal’s head of music who branched out into producing, often using the alias Joseph G Sanford. He’d made House of Dracula in 1945 with Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man and John Carradine as Dracula (and Carradine would reappear in the horror-western genre later in the splendidly dire Billy the Kid versus Draculaclick for our review). And Gershenson wanted Curse made ‘straight’, not a parody.

 

Joe wanted it

 

Actually, compared with other films of the type, this one was more Western than horror, I think. Stuff like Teenage Monster or Billy the Kid versus Dracula were just vampire stories that happened to be set in the West, whereas Curse of the Undead, despite its title being more horror than Western, was a ‘proper’ oater, though with a vampire. As Gary W Tooze said, “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 fiancé 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.”

 

The film headlined Eric Fleming. Rawhide had only started in January the same year (Curse was released in May) so he was hardly yet a Western megastar – he’d done no oaters before those anyway. Still, he was building a Stetson-and-sixgun rep. In Curse Eric plays a preacher, rather a straight guy it must be said, though he does his best to be a bit cool, and finally straps on a gun for a quick-draw showdown in the last reel. We assume (though are not sure) that he gets the girl in the end.

 

Straight guy Preacher Eric

 

More Western in the last reel

 

The real star, though, is not Preacher Eric but Michael Pate as the gunfighter/vampire Drake Robey. Dressed all in black (naturally) with a cadaverous and sinister mien, he does Bela, Boris and Lon proud. Australian Pate came to Hollywood and made quite a go of it as writer of and actor in Westerns. He wrote the excellent Escape from Fort Bravo and an episode of Rawhide, with Fleming. As actor, he made a particular thing of Indians, in a time when only white actors were hired to put on war paint, or at least be chiefs, and he was perhaps most notable as Vittorio in Hondo in 1953, also playing many other Indians of different tribes. But he had a good sideline in gunslinger too, as his Harley Baskam in the Randolph Scott Western A Lawless Street proved. Click here for our Pateography.

 

Pate in gunslinger mode

 

We should say early on that Curse of the Undead is way better than the other schlock-horror B-movies we have recently reviewed. On How the West Was Cast Andrew Patrick Nelson talks about it admiringly. Professor Nelson justly says that “Compared to Teenage Monster, Curse of the Undead is practically Rio Bravo.”  The direction is good, the cinematography ditto and the acting not half bad. Even the script is half-way intelligent. You could actually watch this picture, as a film, if you know what I mean.

 

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not John Ford or anything. It was shot in 18 days in black & white, mostly at Universal Studios, and the budget can hardly have been stellar. But it’s well done.

 

Elliot W Carter was at the camera and he did really well with the monochrome, using a lot of shadow and silhouette, which can be well appreciated on the 3QHL DVD, which has excellent picture quality. Carter had worked on The Invisible Monster and The Incredible Shrinking Man so he knew a thing or two about this type of movie.

 

Some excellent photography

 

I didn’t care much for the score, which once again is annoyingly louder than the dialogue so that you either put up with being deafened or you are constantly reaching for the remote. It’s classic trembling woo-woo horror music, you know the kind, by Irving Gertz (It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man, etc).

 

In the first reel, kindly Doc Carter (John Hoyt, The Black Castle, X, The Attack of the Puppet People but also Gunpoint, Mohawk, Duel at Diablo) tends a sick girl and she seems to be getting better but something mysterious happens (we know damn well what but the characters are baffled) and she dies, with two little blood marks on her neck.

 

Doc Hoyt

 

Now we meet Doc’s rather wild son Tim (Jimmy Murphy) and daughter Dolores (third-billed Kathleen Crowley, Target Earth and The Flame Barrier in the horror domain and Ten Wanted Men, Showdown, The Silver Whip, etc in the Western one). And we are introduced to the subplot of classic rapacious rancher with henchmen, the kind who wants the whole valley, you know how they do, at whom young Tim rails and whom he wildly wants to gun down. This rancher fellow, Buffer, is played by standard heavy Bruce Gordon, “whose leathery, sinister looks typecast him as a mobster,” as the IMDb bio puts it. You’ll remember him as Frank Nitti on The Untouchables but he did go West now and then.

 

Frank Nitti goes West

 

Jimmy foolishly challenges him

 

The young Tim drinks too much in the saloon to get up the (Dutch) courage, then goads Buffer until, despite the preacher’s pleading for peace, guns are drawn, shots are fired and the young man lies dead on the floor. But the sheriff was there and it was a clear case of self-defense, so Buffer walks.

 

And Tim’s dad the doc comes home, collapses and it’s RIP. Yup, bite marks on the neck. That’s two Carter family members deceased on the same day. Preacher Fleming starts to suspect that something’s up, perhaps because the music has got spookier.

 

The coffins of Doc and his son are placed in a mausoleum and sinister Robey finds that a convenient haunt. He sleeps in one. Creepy, huh.

 

 

Dolores posts a reward on the ‘murderer’ Buffer, to the annoyance of the sheriff (for it was not murder) and Robey, who is a gun-for-hire, says he will collect it. You can see he is lusting after the fair Dolores, though whether to woo and wed her or to bite her neck isn’t yet clear. It will be, come the next full moon. But Preacher Eric is already sweet on Dolores, so there’s even more cause for conflict now.

 

Dolores in danger

 

Gradually we get the back-story. Years ago Drake Robey was Drago Roblès, heir to a Spanish land grant which is now the ranch owned by Dolores. He stabbed his own brother to death in a fit of jealous rage when the bro was smooching with Drago’s girl, then, consumed by remorse, Drago stabbed himself. Suicide being a mortal sin, he became a vampire. I’m not quite sure of the vampire lore there but that’s what happened in this movie anyway. So Drago Roblès became Drake Robey and ever since (without getting any older of course) he’s been undead and earning a living as a bounty hunter. He can walk about in sunlight, though he says it hurts his eyes and he prefers the dark.

 

Usually seen in shadow

 

Well, it all builds up to an exciting climax. If you watch it you’ll see. The final quick-draw showdown is pretty nifty. I thought the preacher would gain an advantage by using a silver bullet in his .45 but I was wrong.

 

Draw!

 

Dennis Schwartz said, “The film veers from awkward scenes to gems, like the one of the undead killer joining his latest vic in a coffin retreat. The rarely seen offbeat Western is worth checking out because it’s so unique and creepy.” Dan Stumpf said, “What could have been a campy disaster emerges as an off-beat effort with some memorable moments. Not a complete success, but much better than you’d expect from a Vampire Western.”

 

The vampire is put off by the preacher’s lapel button

 

I suppose vampires and gunslingers do have something in common, in a way. They are both loners, cut off from society, and they both deal in death. Pate did a good job, I thought, and Fleming was suitably stalwart. All in all, it’s quite a good film.

 

 

6 Responses

  1. 1998 John Carpenter’s Vampires starring a very charismatic John Wood and shot in gorgeous New Mexico is probably the best western horror movie ever made even it is a modern western with cars, machine guns or crossbows and harpoons…

  2. By the way about films you have not seen yet, I did not find in your index anything on Northwest Outpost (Allan Dwan, 1947). Just read it is a “musical” western maybe that’s the reason why… Interestingly enough it is set in the then Russian Fort Ross.

    1. Yes, it’s billed as ‘Action, Drama’ and is a Nelson Eddy musical, so it’s not really my scene. However, I’ll watch anything by Dwan, the reviews do seem to comment on its ‘Westernness’, the cast is an interesting one and I do find the whole Russian Fort Ross episode fascinating. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t seem to be available on DVD or YouTube. But if it comes up, on TV or something, I’ll give it a go!

  3. Hi Jeff! Andrew Patrick Nelson and I just want to tell you how much we appreciate you listening to our podcast, How the West Was ‘Cast. It’s always a pleasure to see you quote a line or an observation from our show in one of your comprehensive blog posts. Thanks so much!

    1. Great to make contact. I do enjoy your show and hope there will be more episodes soon! I have updated various posts on the blog in the light of your and Andrew’s interesting discussions. You might find in the index various articles on subjects which you have also covered. Best wishes, Jeff

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