Sunday, October 31, 2010

Curse of the Undead (1959)

aka Mark of the West

There's trouble in a small town in the Old West. The youngest daughters of of the town's families are dying from a mysterious illness. The local physician, Doc Carter (John Hoyt), is at a loss to explain what's happening to the girls, but he won't have to suffer from the doubts that come with his lack of explanations long. While out at night, he dies mysteriously with only two little marks on his neck to show as a cause.

Despite the way of Carter's death speaking against it, the doctor's son Timmy (the atrocious Jimmy Murphy) and his daughter Dolores (Kathleen Crowley) are convinced that their neighbour Buffer (Bruce Gordon), the local would-be major bad guy who has been trying various shady methods to steal the family's ranch for some time now, is somehow responsible for their father's death.

Timmy, as stupid as he is badly acted, provokes Buffer into a gunfight and pays for it with his life. Pained by the doubled loss, Dolores decides to throw all her principles in the wind, attract the anger of family friend and suitor, the perversely upright Preacher Dan (Eric Flaming), and hire a gunman to kill Buffer for her. And a gunman very soon appears in front of the Carter Ranch's door. Drake Robey (Michael Pate), as he calls himself, has been hanging around in the shadows of the area for some time, but nobody in town who is still alive knows of that. The gunman is in fact the true killer of Doc Carter, his deed however has nothing whatsoever to do with ranches or water rights. He's only a vampire returning to a place he once called home, and the doctor was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although Robey is a cruel bastard and habitual liar, he's also something of a tragic vampire, not merely a wild animal hiding behind a human mask, and falls for Dolores, which pushes him into a fateful rivalry with the preacher. Preacher Dan soon finds out the truth about the nature and history of his enemy, but knowing it and making others - especially Dolores - believe that truth, or conquering his enemy, are quite different things.

The first half hour of Curse of the Undead is not very promising. Too many of the actors - worst of the worst being the guy playing Timmy and Bruce "Buffer" Gordon - are just not very good. The film tries its damndest to be as generic a Western as possible, neither showing any of the sophistication typical of one half of the better US Western movies of the 50s, nor of the heated intensity lying just below the surface of the other half. Like the machinations of Buffer, the early parts of the movie are just too bland and by the book to excite.

That state of affairs changes once the film introduces Robey, puts Buffer on the plot-enabling backburner and concentrates on the surprisingly complex relationship between Dolores, Dan and him. The interest in the nature of good and evil many 50s Western show appears here too, and what better character to explore that in than in a vampire? This is not to say that the film goes the full-on tragic vampire route with Robey. There's a certain amount of sympathy for him, but the film also shows the vampire as a conniving bastard who uses the tragic part of his fate (and a fate he is not at completely innocent of to boot) as an excuse to indulge in his own worst impulses (or as much as US 50s cinema allows - I'm quite surprised they got away with the child murders or the very obvious sexual aspects of his desire for Dolores). Michael Pate, whom I mostly know from heavy roles in other Westerns, projects just the right cross of physical presence (his Robey is a supremely physical vampire), sadness and unpleasant self-righteousness. Played this way, and supported by a variation of vampire lore that is low on the supernatural, Curse's vampire is supremely human, which seems like a nice change from the teen idol as well as the wild animal vampire modes that are en vogue right now. Though I hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with those modes per se - creatures like the vampire need to change to stay relevant to different times and audiences.

Unfortunately, Robey's counterpart in Preacher Dan is much less interesting. Dan is upright and good in that inhuman, flawless amount that tends to make me as a viewer slightly nauseous, so it's quite difficult to see this self-righteous ass as the hero and speaker of eternal moral the film sets him up to be. Although he's emotionally perfect and always right, he's also quite crap as a vampire hunter. It sure doesn't help his case that I find his theological arguments abhorrent - according to his sort of religion, Robey deserved to become an immortal killer for committing suicide, notwithstanding the fact he committed that "sin" to make up for the actual evil act of murdering his own brother in cold blood. And let's just not even begin to talk about the fact that there would be a few young girls alive and happy in Dan's town if his rather thoughtless godhood hadn't turned Robey into a vampire. Your mileage with this sort of theology may of course vary.

None of this is Dan's actor Eric Fleming's fault. He's doing his best to keep his stick-in-the-arse character looking like an actual human being and even succeeds partially, which is about as much as could be asked of him.

Crowley does her best with what the script gives her, and really manages to sell her emotional wavering between Robey and Dan excellently. As someone born in the late 70s I would have wished for more agency for her - you know, like having a hand in solving her own problems, at least - but for the time the film was made in, and the state of the genres it belongs to at that time, her role in the film is at least not as bad as it could be.

Edward Dein's direction of his own and Mildred Dein's (sister or wife, I don't know) script is alright. He sure is neither Andre de Toth nor Jacques Tourneur, but he doesn't do anything wrong. In some scenes Dein's play with shadows is even rather impressive.

So, if you can get over a slow beginning, Curse of the Undead is certainly one of the better attempts at crossing the genres of western and horror.

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