Ride ’em, rope ’em, bite ’em? Is this ‘Dracula Goes West,’ or ‘Fangs of the High Chapparal?’ The fading Universal-International house of horrors squeaks out a bizarre horror item that one sits through just out of curiosity… are these people serious? We respect the professionalism of Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley and Bruce Gordon as they give their all to a dead horse of a concept. A threadbare production stages us vampiric action so tame that it’s toothless, figuratively and literally. Critical snipers suggest that the whole thing might have been some kind of in-house joke — if so, where are the laughs?
Curse of the Undead
KL Studio Classics
1959 /B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 79 min. / Street Date October 6, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Eric Fleming, Michael Pate, Kathleen Crowley, John Hoyt, Bruce Gordon, Edward Binns, Jimmy Murphy, Helen Kleeb, Jay Adler, Eddie Parker, Don Sullivan.
Cinematography: Ellis W. Carter
Film Editor: George Gittens
Original Music: Irving Gertz
Written by Edward Dein, Mildred Dein
Produced by Joseph Gershenson
Directed by Edward Dein
Fulfilling our sworn duty to regard each and every film production in the best possible light, CineSavant will refrain from poking fun at this … no, I’m not making that promise. Fans of vintage fantasy-horror revere some movies precisely for their occasional maladroit qualities. This late bloomer from Universal-International is just that kind of picture.
With the departure of producer William Alland, U-I ceased its series of mid-range science fiction thrillers with the superb The Incredible Shrinking Man (May 1957), the not-so-wondrous The Land Unknown (October 1957), and the totally unnecessary but halfway entertaining Monster on the Campus (December 1958). Universal instead began to outsource its yearly horror infusion to England’s Hammer Films, starting with the highly popular Horror of Dracula (May, 1958). A quickie film unit was set up to provide cheap, short horror features to round out these Hammer double bills. To accompany the Christopher Lee Dracula movie, short subject producer and director Will Cowan came up with The Thing That Couldn’t Die. For pairing with Hammer’s terrific The Mummy (December 1959), producer Joseph Gershenson and director Edward Dein produced Curse of the Undead, a hastily-concocted genre hybrid. To perform second feature duty for The Brides of Dracula (September 1960), the same pair then cobbled together a shocker with the appetizing title The Leech Woman.
Were the producers of these pictures aware that they had been charged with making ‘filler?’ I happen to like The Leech Woman quite a bit, thanks to its clever screenplay and a fine performance by Coleen Gray. But the other two features are for orthodox, card-carrying horror fans only. But if one started digging in the back-lot location of 1959’s Curse of the Undead, one would soon strike the proverbial bottom of Universal’s barrel. Actually, The Thing That Couldn’t Die probably is the barrel’s bottom, being a bore about supernatural doings around a magic charm and an ancient chest found on a ranch. It feels too insubstantial to serve as a TV show. Theater managers may have preferred low-wattage second features for some bookings: a turkey like Couldn’t Die might serve to clear the theater, freeing up more seats to be sold for the next showing of Horror of Dracula.
The middle film of the trio has an awkward concept — it’s western in which the clad-in-black-leather bad guy is a garden-variety vampire. It’s another curse from the past: the land grant for the Carter ranch doesn’t divulge that an heir to the old Spanish property, Don Drago Robles (Michael Pate), committed suicide to atone for a crime of passion. In this version of the vampire mythos, suicides are Damned with a capital D, and are cursed to return as vampires. The undead Don Drago is now calling himself Drake Robey, a scurvy hired killer by day and a bloodsucking menace by night. When Robey provokes a gunfight he enjoys a distinct advantage, despite not being fast on the draw: bullets pass harmlessly through his body.
The vampire story element advances in standard fashion. Robey bites and kills one person after another. We see the big double bite marks on throats both male and female, but the only people that catch on foolishly stay mum until their own jugulars are on the line.
In this corner of the old West the Carter clan led by the feisty Dolores Carter (Kathleen Crowley) is on shootin’ terms over water rights with its obnoxious next-door rancher ‘Buffer’ (Bruce Gordon). Attempting to keep peace is the insufferable Preacher Dan (top-billed Eric Fleming) and the standard-issue lawman Sheriff Bill (Edward Binns). When Dolores’s brother Tim (Jimmy Murphy) is killed she rushes to hire the sharp-talking, take-charge gunslinger Drake Robey. Preacher Jim objects, but Dolores is so angry with Buffer that she doesn’t care. The big bluffer Buffer gets the shakes after he witnesses Robey’s apparent imperviousness to gunfire. Preacher Dan may be dull, but he believes the supernatural warning on an old document, and decides that only he knows how to kill the Six-Gun Vampire.
Plain and simple curiosity has always made Curse of the Undead something of a must-see. We immediately forward a guess as to why it was made: The Universal City lot had generic western sets to spare. The hillsides we see would eventually be erased to build Universal’s tour complex, the now-gone music pavilion, the popular ‘Citywalk.’ The narrow hill street that opens the movie was where the tour staged a ‘movie flood’ scene for the tourists on the trams (in the late 1990s). The cowpoke aspect of Curse is to yawn at. People ride back and forth between the cantina and the Carter Ranch house; the major addition is a Robles mausoleum, a marble building fit for a castle in Spain. The town seems underpopulated, as if waiting for the cast and crew of Bonanza to arrive and start shooting.
The respected Australian actor Michael Pate is most often associated with occasional Indian roles (Hondo, Major Dundee) but provided solid support in many notable pictures. For a live-broadcast ‘Climax’ presentation of Casino Royale (1954) he played an English Felix Clarence Leiter to Barry Nelson’s American James Bond. Pate always did good work but was nobody’s idea of a potential star. It’s likely that his best and most fulfilling work was on the stage.
Michael Pate’s gunslinger Drake Robey does just fine; he’s more menacing than, for instance, Nedrick Young’s similar bad man Crale in Joseph H. Lewis’s Terror in a Texas Town. Director Dein’s flat camera angles do Pate no favors, making him look short in stature and overdressed in black bad guy duds. All in all, Pate’s ‘Vampire Robey’ is just strange. The production ignores what Hammer brought to vampire lore. Robey approaches victims both male and female as if sneaking up on their throats. There’s no hint of blood lust or perverse hunger — as if the filmmakers don’t want anybody to think something perverse is happening. Robey displays no fangs — did they try a set, and someone laughed? The biggest eye-roller is when Vampire Robey brings his cloaked arm up to discreetly block our view of his feasting, just as Bela Lugosi had done 28 years before. The most disturbing act by that dastardly Drake Robey? He appears to share a coffin with a corpse. The movie is so reticent on such matters that viewers might not be aware that the coffin we see is supposed to already be occupied.
Kathleen Crowley is yet another beautiful, talented ’50s actress that ended up doing a lot of work in westerns and fantastic films and for whatever reason wasn’t rewarded with career-ladder breaks. Her good effort gives a boost to the unrewarding Target Earth (1954); the woebegotten The Flame Barrier (1958) is so insubstantial, she and Arthur Franz must work in a dramatic vacuum. Ms. Crowley was by no means an also-ran, as she worked steadily on television until 1970 or so.
Why would actors like Michael Pate and Kathleen Crowley get involved with this crazy movie? It means a starring role in a nationally-distributed studio feature, something neither of them ever had. Finally, a name on a marquee somewhere. And who knows, weirder projects have become runaway hits.
Pate and Crowley approach their quasi-romantic scenes as professionals, taking everything seriously and trying to work up some interpersonal on-screen tension. Director Dein does show Ms. Crowley off with a nice camera move or two, but the screenplay is just too big of a barrier. It’s a joint effort by Edward Dein and his wife-collaborator Mildred, and it has its share of clunker lines and clichés.
Curse of the Undead is one of those movies where the interesting characters keep getting killed off. Fans of The Untouchables will enjoy seeing that show’s Frank Nitti in a different role. Bruce Gordon’s Buffer traces a bit of an arc as he moves from arrogant bully to nervous scaredy-cat. John Hoyt’s town doctor is doing well but makes an early exit from the story. The talented Ed Binns keeps looking for a real scene to play, and Jay Adler is almost invisible as a bartender. The high body count makes us spend too much time with the likes of the personality-challenged Eric Fleming. Commentator Tom Weaver tells us that Fleming had just filmed a number of Rawhide episodes, but when CBS didn’t pick up the series, he was quickly reassigned to duty on Curse. A cancellation in the network schedule saw Rawhide launched as a mid-season replacement. He finished Curse and went right back in the saddle again.
By 1959 fans of TV’s Shock Theater and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine were already hip to vampire protocol, but the non-canonical script for Curse of the Undead sends confusing signals. Drake Robey strides around in broad daylight, which seems wrong. He’s violently repelled by crosses, which plays less as vampiric than as a punishment from the Catholic church authorities for the sin of suicide. Preacher Dan isn’t a Catholic priest, but he’s quick to weaponize the iconography. Robey’s Kryptonite response to the shadow of a cross is kind of a head-scratcher, as he previously had no difficulties strolling through a grove of stone crosses getting to and from the Carter crypt. By the way, this one-horse town with nobody in it has a really high-class cemetery with lots of fancy tombstones, like the ones back in Kansas City. They should have written a song about how up to date it is.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Curse of the Undead is a spotless & sparkling remastered encoding of a horror oddity that usually gets mentioned in terms like, ‘oh, then there’s that vampire picture from left field…’ The horror histories that make space for it more often than not praise it as evidence of the malleability of the genre. And a choice still photo from Curse seems to show up in every film publication about vampires — Ornella Volta’s classy erotic art book Le Vampire immortalizes Michael Pate carrying off an unconscious Kathleen Crowley, with the caption “Cow-boy vampire (Dans les griffes du vampire, film d’Edward Dein, 1959).
Cinematographer Ellis Carter’s night scenes are decently lit, but beyond a shadow or two little evidence is offered of a style, horror or otherwise. The show was made for a low price, and all it needed to do was to look respectable next to Hammer’s incomparably impressive The Mummy. I would imagine that viewers hung on to see if Michael Pate would surprise them with an interesting death scene, as did the previous year’s The Return of Dracula.
The cover illustration reproduces artist Reynold Brown’s poster artwork, which pictures a ghoul-on-horseback visual suitable for a story of Ichabod Crane, in the style of early Hammer posters.
Tom Weaver’s fairly laid-back commentary has plenty of relevant information to divulge about Curse of the Undead. He has good memories of his interviews with some of the participants. We get no distribution analysis this time, but David Schecter reads us the lowdown on Irving Gertz’s film score. It’s noted that Gertz’s composer credit is a real anomaly for 1950s Universal-International, where department heads took the bows and nobody else dared ask for overtime pay. If I have my history right, U-I was all but bankrupt in 1959, with the in-production movie Spartacus worth more than the whole studio. Many of the makeup craftsmen and composers had already jumped ship or been laid off. Perhaps Gertz got his composer credit because the whole seniority system had caved in.
My generous Aunt Gina took me on the Universal Studio Tour in 1965. I had no idea that the movie factory was a shadow of its former self, in terms of production volume. Yep, under those conditions I should think that Michael Pate and Kathleen Crowley would jump at the chance to play leading roles in anything that was offered.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Curse of the Undead
Movie: Fair ++
Supplements: audio commentary by Tom Weaver; Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 27, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson