Directed by Edward Dein
Produced by Joseph Gershenson
Written by Edward Dein and Mildred Dein
Director of Photography: Ellis W. Carter, ASC
Music: Irving Gertz
Film Editor: George Gittens, ACE
CAST: Eric Fleming (Preacher Dan Young), Michael Pate (Drake Robey), Kathleen Crowley (Delores Carter), John Hoyt (Dr. Carter), Bruce Gordon (Buffer), Edward Binns, Jimmy Murphy, Helen Kleeb, Jay Adler.
Also known as Mark Of The West. Working title: Affairs Of A Vampire.
MGM had its musicals. RKO had a real knack for film noir. The best gangster pictures came from Warner Bros. Republic made the really good serials. And from 1931 (with Dracula) through the Fifties, Universal absolutely owned the Horror Film — and they were no slouch when it came to 50s Westerns.
The studio had been bringing Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man together in various “monster rallies” or having them meet Abbott & Costello since the 40s, and it makes sense that they’d eventually get around to combining the two genres they truly excelled at. And in 1959, they did just that — with the clever Curse Of The Undead. (Today, we’d probably call it a mash-up.)
But this wasn’t some Big Idea that came down from somebody at the studio. This genre-busting “vampire western” started out as a joke.
The story goes that writer-director Edward Dein and his wife Mildred wrote a screenplay as a lark — a satire about a gay vampire gunslinger biting the young men of a small Western town. Its title: Eat Me Gently. The Deins passed their gag script around their circle of friends, and it eventually wound up in the hands of Joseph Gershenson. A music supervisor and sometime producer at Universal-International with a list of credits as long as your arm, Gershenson saw a real movie in there somewhere, and the Deins set to work refashioning their screenplay into what would become Curse Of The Undead.
It’s a well thought out picture, operating just enough within the conventions of the genres it inhabits, using the clichés of both to its advantage. You can tell the Diens had fun turning conventions upside down. You’ve got the usual range war plot, with a typical gun for hire — only this time he’s Drake Robey (Michael Pate), a member of the undead. The idea that a vampire can’t take daylight is reworked to let our bloodsucking cowboy ride the range — here, exposure to the sun is only painful. And the vampire lineage comes from Spain, not Universal’s beloved Transylvania. What’s more, suicide makes you a vampire, not the bite of another vampire. (It’d be interesting to find out just how much of Eat Me Gently still resides in Curse Of The Undead.)
A strange illness is killing young women in a small, unnamed Western town. The only clue: two small puncture wounds on each girl’s neck. Dr. John Carter (John Hoyt) and Preacher Dan Young (Eric Fleming) are baffled. It’s a scene we’ve seen played out many times, only minus the western wear. At the same time, Dr. Carter is being pressured by a local rancher, Buffer (Bruce Gordon), to sell his ranch — another familiar scene.
Into these converging plotlines rides Drake Robey (Michael Pate), a gunslinger and vampire. Needing the blood to survive, he’s responsible for the mysterious deaths. And he’s working his way into the ranchers’ squabble, killing Dr. Carter and drinking the blood of his daughter Delores (Kathleen Crowley), who’s now in charge of her father’s ranch.
Preacher Dan is engaged to Delores, and he begins to suspect that Robey is more than just a hired gun protecting the Carter ranch. Dan eventually discovers an old diary, where he learns of rancher Don Miguel, whose son Drago Robles returned from Spain to find that his beloved had been seduced by his brother Roberto. Drago killed Roberto, and overcome with grief, killed himself. This suicide cursed Drago to spend eternity among the undead.
Not to give too much away, Curse Of The Undead builds to a gunfight involving bullets with crosses etched into them — as Preacher Dan squares off against the vampire. A key scene really illustrates the liberties taken with the genres’ conventions and just how clever the Deins’ screenplay is at blending them. Buffer challenges Robey in the saloon. Both men draw and Buffer is hit — and dies certain that he drew first and hit his opponent. Later, we see a hole in Robey’s vest — Buffer had indeed been quicker on the draw. (This idea of an undead gunfighter, who wins even if he’s outdrawn, could easily have been the basis of an entire film.)
Michael Pate is quite good as the vampiric Robey/Robles. His approach to the material seems to set the tone of the whole film. Menacing and eerie, to be sure, but clearly in on the gag. Dein and Gershenson were wise to offer him the part.
Michael Pate: “I was sold right away, then when Eddie and Joe told me it looked as if they’d have Kathleen Crowley playing the girl in it and Eric Fleming the preacher — well, I just couldn’t wait to start filming.”
Kathleen Crowley: “I loved character actors, much more than the pretty boys. Michael Pate was one of those men. I always remember being in bed in Curse Of The Undead and Michael taking the blood from my neck — that was so exciting. He was very nice and I enjoyed working with him.”
Eric Fleming, who plays Preacher Dan, was in the early days of his success as Gil Favor on TV’s Rawhide. The show began its run in January of 1959, with Curse Of The Undead hitting theaters in July.
Pate: “Eric was a very well-meaning actor and person and worked very hard, but he was inclined to be a little dour.”
Some of Fleming’s dour expression may have been the result of plastic surgery — a Seabee, his face was severely injured in an accident during World War II.
Of course, much of the picture’s success has to be credited to the Deins. Edward had written Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1941, additional dialogue), The Cat Creeps (1946) and Seven Guns To Mesa (1958), so he came to Curse Of The Undead with experience in both horror and the Western. Mildred had worked on a number of her husband’s earlier scripts, including Shack Out On 101 (1955), a quite effective, and completely original, cheap noir picture.
Kathleen Crowley: “He knew how to ‘get inside’ of people — very unorthodox, but an excellent director and a very truthful person. I enjoyed working with him, I think he brought out some good work in me in that.”
Michael Pate: “Eddie was an amazing character. He lived up in the hills just above Laurel Canyon with his wife Mildred, who was a real sweetheart, in an old castle with a moat and a drawbridge that you drove over to get inside the entrance courtyard.”
Kathleen Crowley: “He and his wife Mildred invited me out to his house, which was tucked away in Laurel Canyon — and it seemed rather bohemian! It was a strange house, with a drawbridge, and cats all over the place! It was almost like the Addams Family! But they were both very nice to me, and Mildred was very involved with Edward’s work.”
Michael Pate: “It was stylized, it had good set design, very good lighting, it was photographed well.”
Pate is referring to the work of cinematographer Ellis W. Carter, a veteran of Universal sci-fi pictures from the period like The Mole People (1956), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957) and The Land Unknown (1957, in CinemaScope) — along with such 50s Westerns as The Texas Rangers (1951) and A Day Of Fury (1956). He gives the night scenes mood to spare. It’s genuinely eerie in spots, with a score that makes good use of the theremin.
Curse Of The Undead is a cheap little movie. Aside from a few quick shots done on a western street, it plays out on a few budget-strapped, under-propped sets. (Seen in its proper 1.85 cropping, Carter shoots those sets so they don’t seem so spartan.)
Michael Pate: “It didn’t have a lot of money spent on it and perhaps there were many things that could have been done with it. There were some scenes that were shockingly corny, no question about that and one or two sets that looked as bare as a baby’s bottom. But overall there were many very, very good scenes in it.”
That was always Howard Hawks’ criteria for a good picture — “three great scenes, no bad ones.”
Curse Of The Undead deserves to be seen as more than a curio. A unique blending of the Western and horror film, it doesn’t cave to the cliches of either — and it’s a better movie for it.
Just how much better is probably a matter of taste.
Be sure to read some of the other fine posts making up the 50s Monster Mash Blogathon.
Sources: The Astounding B Monster, It Came from Horrorwood by Tom Weaver, Universal-International Westerns, 1947-1963 by Gene Blottner.
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