Sunday, April 29, 2007

Curse of the Undead – review

movie poster

Directed by: Edward Dein

Release date: 1959

Contains spoilers

Curse of the Undead, which was originally to be called “Eat me Gently” until Universal got cold feet over the title, was the first example of the vampire Western sub-genre. Late on, I believe on the 90s video box, the name Dracula was associated with the film but, in fairness, the film never makes any form of connection or reference to the Count and builds an unusual lore all of its own.

The film begins with a buggy riding through town, driven by Dr John Carter (John Hoyt) with his daughter Dolores (Kathleen Crowley). Many of the doors of the town have wreaths upon them. They reach a house, visiting a young girl named Cora (Nancy Kilgas) who is his patient. In the house are the mother and father and also Preacher Dan Young (Eric Fleming) – Dan is Dolores suitor. The Doctor declares that Cora is doing much better and, talking to Dan, admits that he doesn’t know why. Many young girls have died and he cannot think of any plague that would target young girls specifically, suggesting it is more like a curse than an epidemic.

Cora diesThe whole group go to eat dinner, leaving Cora alone. They hear the girl scream and enter the room to see her dead across the bed, the blind revolving wildly. Dan notices that she has two weeping punctures on her neck.

The Doc has more troubles than that, however. When he returns home to his ranch he discovers that his son, Tim (Jimmy Murphy), has been beaten by local landowner Buffer (Bruce Gordon) and his men. Buffer had dammed up a stream and, once Tim had asked and begged for him to remove the dam, the young lad tore the dam up himself and got his beating in return. There has also been a spate of the Carter’s fences being mysteriously knocked down and cattle going missing.

the sheriff tackles BufferTim wants to kill Buffer but the Doc will have none of it. He goes to town and sees the Sheriff (Edward Binns). The Sheriff tackles Buffer but a mysterious man in black, we later discover to be called Drake Robey (Michael Pate), follows the buggy out of town. When the buggy reaches the ranch Doc Carter is dead, two wounds on his neck. Tim’s suspicions naturally fall to Buffer and, after the funeral, Tim gets drunk and ends up drawing against Buffer. Tim is gunned down for his trouble.

Delores offers $100 to hire a gun to take down the murderer (whom she believes is Buffer, though he didn't really kill the Doc and his shooting of Tim was self defence) and it is Drake who answers her call.

Michael Pate as Drake RobeyOf course, Drake is a vampire, we have already seen him take over Doc Carter’s coffin as a resting place, and the lore the film draws around us is interesting and unusual – though perhaps not unique.

We discover much of the lore through a diary that Dan finds. He discovers that in 1860 the ranch belonged to the Robles’ family. One of the Robles sons, Drago, was sent to Spain leaving his sweetheart Isabella (Jeanna Cross) behind. She had an affair with his brother Roberto (Henry Delgado) and, on his return, Drago killed his brother. Filled with remorse he committed suicide and it is the act of suicide that turned him into a vampire. This, of course, fits in with some of the more traditional vampire myths. Mark of the Vampire was originally to have suicide as a reason for someone turning into a vampire, though that part of the story found its way to the cutting room floor.

Drago attacks IsabellaDrago’s father, Don Miguel (Edward Colmans), tried to end the curse by pinning Drago’s heart to his coffin. Too late, he discovered that the silver dagger he used was inappropriate as only a wooden stake would do. He found the coffin empty, only the dagger left behind. Drago and Drake are, of course, one and the same – confirmed by Dan through a portrait of Drago - and this is his homecoming.

Drake munching on DeloresDrake can and does function in daylight, though he is uncomfortable and claims he has a rare eye condition. There is some hint of telepathic control, which causes Delores to sleepwalk – he is also in love with Delores, but the film doesn’t fall back on the old reincarnation of a lost love route. As he can survive gunshot he is an ideal gun for hire or assassin and I can’t think of a film before this one where the vampire has taken up that profession.

It is sometimes claimed that this is the first film in which the vampire is reluctant. I’m not too sure about that, there are other examples such as Dracula wishing to be cured in House of Dracula (1945), but this is certainly one of the first were it was done so explicitly; “What I am is not my own choice. You should pity me, not judge me in my torment. Do you think I wanted this?” Robey asks Dan in a confrontation between the two.

Punctures on a victim's neckThe vampire does fear the cross and there is a clever piece of slaying at the end which fits nicely in the old West theme and uses the vampire’s own arrogance against him. The hint is, due to the two puncture wounds in victims’ necks, that the vampire is fanged but, in fairness, no fangs are ever seen.

As a Western I cannot comment, I really am no expert in that field, but as a vampire film this has a lot. It is perhaps slightly less atmospheric than some, even though the director tries his best to pull a moody atmosphere around us, but the lore is unique. I did find the film a tad slow at times and the basic story is perhaps a little simple even if the lore is great. Pate is great as Robey and one thing the film does is take the Western standard of the man in black and make him a real force of (albeit reluctant) evil.

An unusual and interesting film that, perhaps, needed a little more atmosphere but created its own little sub-genre - 5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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