Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Film Review: Curse of the Undead

Curse of the Undead (aka Mark of the West)
Written by Edward and Mildred Dein
Directed by Edward Dein
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Homepage)

Copyright © Universal Pictures

If you’re willing to overlook the extreme acting performances ranging from wooden to melodramatic, you’ll find Curse of the Undead to be a fun and unique weird western.

In an unnamed common 19th century frontier town, an epidemic has stricken several young girls. Doc Carter (John Hoyt), his daughter Dolores (Kathleen Crowley), and her beau Preacher Dan Young (Eric Fleming, the wooden performer I referred to in the first paragraph) have their hands full healing the infirm, both physically and spiritually. When a girl who appears to be making a recovery suddenly dies, Preacher Dan notices two puncture marks on her neck.

After this teaser, the film drifts into a typical western tale. Doc, his sensible daughter, and his hothead son Tim (Jimmy Murphy, the melodramatic performer) refuse to sell their land to greedy rancher Buffer (Bruce Gordon), whose men have been harassing the Carters by damning up the brook and rustling their cattle. Without proof, Bill, the town Sheriff (Edward Binns) can only strut around and warn Buffer to back off.

Enter Drake Robey (Michael Pate) a gunslinger watching the growing Carter/Buffer feud and waiting for a chance to ply his trade. When he does get into a gunfight, he’s always outdrawn—and even shot—yet he’s always able to defeat his opponent unscathed. Later we learn that Robey has an aversion to crucifixes, likes to sleep in coffins, and that he cannot tolerate sunlight.

Preacher Dan, none to happy that Dolores is interested in employing this shootist, uncovers his true identity as a vampire. Unable to convince Dolores, Dan can only watch as Robey mesmerizes her, but Robey cannot hurt her because he has fallen in love with her. Eventually this love triangle, and the fate of the town, is decided in a showdown between preacher and bloodsucker.

Although they employ the usual western movie clich├ęs, co-writers Edward and Mildred Dein break some vampire ones with their unique creation of Drake Robey. Instead of being bitten by a vampire, Robey committed suicide and this original sin caused his soul to return as a nosferatu. Despite his stated aversion to sunlight, Robey is out by day quite a bit. He also enjoys cigars and whiskey (remember Bela Lugosi’s Dracula? “I never drink…wine.”)

Michael Pate gives an understated performance compared to the rest of the cast, and probably the best. His Robey is a sympathetic, tortured soul, rather than the demon Eric Fleming’s preacher will have us believe he is. In a scene where the antagonists argue faith and morality, Robey pleads his case: he never wanted to be a vampire, but he must drink blood in order to survive. To redeem his soul, he’s willing to put down his guns and become a ranch hand to win Dolores’s love. Robey is an early example of the anti-hero—out for himself, yet willing to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

Filmed in black and white, director Edward Dein effectively plays with shadows during night scenes (ala Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu). With minimal gore (some bloody necks) and no visual supernatural effects (Robey doesn’t even sprout fangs), Curse of the Undead is far from horrifying, but it is entertaining. Universal Pictures deserves credit for attempting something new rather than revisiting their classic movie monsters in more sequels.

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