Friday, February 5, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Rufus, the patriarch of the Sinclair family, is laid to rest in the family mausoleum. Nobody seems all that shaken by the old man's death, in fact, it would be difficult not to diagnose the bereaved with a certain amount of happiness. If we can believe their tales, Rufus must have been something of a sadist and a madman, making the life of his wife Abigail (Helen Warren) and that of their children a living hell. Which is not something I'd recommend to people like Rufus who have an uncommon physical illness that makes them prone to seem quite dead when they are still most definitely not, awaking fears of being buried alive. He might have set down certain security measures against it in his will, but no one is actually willing to take them. As you might have guessed, the Sinclair family is about as pleasant as Rufus himself was, with the exception of cousin Robert (Dino Narizzano), the boyfriend of Benson's daughter Deborah (Carnival of Souls' Candace Hilligoss in her completely forgettable other role). He's the young, bland guy the gothic trappings require to survive everything on account of the power of pure, concentrated boringness.

The opening of the will by family lawyer Benson (Hugh Franklin) doesn't go well, anyway, because the will also keeps the money out of the family's hands for a whole year, to make sure Rufus is truly dead. Oh, and by the way, dear children, if you are not doing what I told you, I'll come back from the dead and kill you all after a fashion based on your worst fears.

Obviously, it comes like it has to come - the old man's coffin is soon empty and a disguised figure is slaughtering the charming family one by one. The family calls the local chapter of the keystone cops, but those aren't of much help to anyone, so it's either up to alcoholic son Philip (a young Roy Scheider) or the bland one to step up to the occasion.

And lo! It happened that AIP made a shedload of money with Roger Corman's Poe adaptations and the early Gothics of Mario Bava. And Del Tenney said "I want some of that money too!", and decided to make his own little Gothic picture on the grounds of his father-in-law's highly photogenic property. But something strange and terrifying happened to Tenney. We are not sure if it was a sudden bout of artistic ambition or just a knock on the head with the rubber suit out of his The Horror of Party Beach, but in any case, Tenney suddenly developed the idea of making a cheap knock-off that was also trying to emulate the visual flair of the films (in a sense cheap knock-offs themselves) it stole its ideas from.

So the courageous viewer of Curse of the Living Corpse is confronted with things he won't usually connect with Tenney's handful of films - carefully constructed shots, rather thoughtful framing and effectively moody outside locations. It is really impressive to look at, and even though the sets used for inside shots are a little drab and perfunctory, Tenney (or is director of photography Richard Hilliard to praise?) for once films in a way developed to cover up these limitations.

Alas, while Tenney the director is showing actual artistic development from his earlier films, Tenney the scriptwriter isn't able to rise to the occasion. The script's weakest point is the terrible dialogue, obviously based on the way people in Corman's Poe adaptations speak, but Tenney is neither Charles Beaumont nor Richard Matheson and decides to turn the dialogue up to a crescendo of unbelievable stiffness that is at times difficult to stomach. It is the way stupid people think cultured people of the 1890s used to sound, I suppose.

The dialogue's weakness is quite a shame, too, because the basic character concepts that are lost among all the monologizing aren't bad at all. As a matter of fact, they remind me of the giallo principle of packing your cast full of the most unpleasant people you could imagine (and aren't all rich people unpleasant and of dubious morals, young grasshopper?), giving them more psycho-sexual hang-ups than necessary or in good taste and then killing them off in even more unpleasant ways. The slightly cruel streak as well as the violent-for-its-time murder scenes also give up a whiff of American proto-giallo (more than of proto-slasher), just less class-conscious and less willing to really go to the unpleasant places.

Pacing is of course also a problem. The film is money-savingly talky, something I am willing to tolerate, but also cursed with a bad sense of timing that usually puts the most annoying comic relief imaginable right after a scene that is atmospheric and immersive, as if something in Tenney just couldn't abide the thought of his audience actually being interested in his film, or even thrilled by it.

Acting wise, Curse of the Living Corpse is better than one would expect of a film that affords its - obviously not costly - cast to speak dialogue this stiff with fake English accents. Sure, the accents are sometimes off, but very tolerable, and most everyone does her or his role with solidity. Scheider and his film wife (and Tenney's real life wife) Margot Hartman are even rather good, obviously having fun with being less than pleasant human beings.

The three (oh yes, the humour is so painful it had to be divided between three people, or someone would have died from it) comic relief actors are of quite a different calibre, of course, even making me think wistfully of people like Johnny Walker (at least not, fortunately, of Jagdeep), but when has the odious comic relief ever been well acted, not to speak of funny?

All of this might make the film sound a lot worse than the experience watching it was for me, but I am a fan of Gothic and mock-Gothic horror and therefore easy to please in this regard. Your personal mileage will certainly depend on your love for Gothic tropes.

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