The Good, the Bad, the Weird
Rare was the horror flick Universal Pictures didn't try to make, and Curse of the Undead is Exhibit A. The studio that helped launch horror into the mainstream took a stab at everything while in the process defining monsters (The Wolf Man) and conjuring up all types of strange obscurities (The Mad Ghoul). But while focus began to shift from creatures of the night to men from Mars, Universal made Curse of the Undead, one of the most -- if not the most -- unique properties in their library. Its overall quality is a matter of debate, but courtesy of ye olde bait and switch, director Edward Dein piques your interest with one sort of story and holds it by moving onto something completely different.
Our story is set not in cobweb-laden Transylvania but, of all places, the Wild West. A peculiar plague has beset the young ladies of a dusty little burg, to which ol' Doc Carter (John Hoyt) can offer no explanation. The man has enough trouble as is, fending off a no-good neighbor (Bruce Gordon), but it's clear something strange is afoot when he too meets a bitter end. This series of unfortunate events coincides with the arrival of Drake Robey (Michael Pate), a gunslinger who takes a shine to Carter's daughter (Kathleen Crowley). But it's not long before pious Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) deduces that Drake is none other than a lowdown, bloodsucking vampire. However, when facing a villainous varmint who can shake off a bullet to the heart, it'll take more than a quick draw for Preacher Dan to save his flock.
Tempered as I fancy myself, I'm quick to note that a strange premise is but step one on the road to cult infamy. Curse of the Undead is on the right track, though its inconsistencies keep it sheltered from the limelight. It's a Western first and foremost, relegating frights to the sidelines as it carouses on rejected Gunsmoke sets. In this respect, it's an average flick, until the theremin kicks in to announce that something wicked this way comes. Though I'm not entirely convinced the filmmakers knew what they were doing, Curse of the Undead did catch me off-guard more than once. Who wouldn't be a little unsettled watching Pate's undead gunman creep into a coffin alongside his latest victim? That the horror elements are downplayed works in the movie's favor. Because so much time is spent in saloons you're genuinely surprised when the immortal damned raise a ruckus.
However, the trouble with playing a film by ear is that you may not always hear an appealing tune. Lord knows how many horror conventions Universal established, but Curse of the Undead's ground rules are a tad hazy. Take Drake Robey, who, for all intents and purposes, comes across as a pretty cool bad guy; watching him egg outlaws into gunfights he can't lose never gets old. But so sketchy are his origins and vague his agenda that the man is not very interesting without a six-shooter in his grasp. Drake even walks around in direct sunlight (irritating only his eyes), so being a vampire seems pretty much a moot point. Still, Pate's performance is in a class of its own, not drawing on Bela Lugosi but years spent on TV Westerns to create as unique a part as he can. While Preacher Dan is no Van Helsing, Fleming makes for a stately protagonist, and look out for Edward Binns (from 12 Angry Men) as an equally upright lawman.
Seldom seen nowadays, Curse of the Undead sneaks onto eBay with a few copies commanding rich prices. A little offbeat for traditional Western buffs, the film will probably be of greater value to Universal completists and other disciples of the deranged. But should you have some classic horror buffs in your circle of chums, don't be afraid to hit them up for what will be one of the weirdest trips out west you'll ever see.
MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by MCA/Universal Home Video; not rated by MPAA.)