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
1959
(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.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"The Ballad of Adam Rib, Bony Express Rider": A Twisted Tumbleweed Tale

     The desert sun blazed down on a man who couldn’t sweat. The sand beneath his steed’s hooves shifted and sank, swaying his ride and shaking his bones with the sound of an Indian’s turtle shell rattle. He straightened his spine, cracked his neck, and tried to wipe the dust from his upper arm with a clack of his hand. His eye sockets scanned the horizon and found the way station. Knocking his heels against the rib cage of his mount, Adam Rib, Bony Express Rider, spurred Scratch, his skeletal horse, onward.
     Dismounting, Adam plodded to the water trough, untied the black bandanna from his spinal column and dipped it beneath the surface. Removing his battered Stetson, he swabbed the top of his skull with a flourish, rubbing away the dust that had settled there, checking his progress in his reflection.
     When he felt he looked presentable, Adam strolled into the station office. Dust floated in the air, curling around him like cigarette smoke as he approached the desk and the creature playing solitaire behind it. He hitched a thumb between his holster buckle and pelvic bone and waited for the Baron to address him.
     Fnap. The three of clubs. Fnap. The seven of diamonds. Fnap. The five of hearts. The Baron picked up the last card and placed it atop the four of hearts next to the ace of clubs. Without raising his head, red eyes peeked up beneath bushy eyebrows. “Adam.”
     “Baron,” greeted Adam. “Pick up or delivery?”
     “Pick up.”
     Fnap. A joker. Black suit.
     “Tsk. Tsk,” The Baron licked his lips and steam rose from them as he smiled. “Now how did that get in there?”
     Adam cracked his neck.
     The Baron laughed. “Have a seat Adam. I got a special assignment for you.” He put down the deck of cards and placed a buckskin pouch on the desk with his other hand. “Pick up’s in injun territory.”
     Adam paused before sitting. “We got no jurisdiction there.”
     “We do now. Fella’s a white man. Raised by injuns, and now they’re burying him like he was one of them.”
     “Well,” Adam shrugged. “Ain’t he?”
     “Boy was baptized and branded. That makes him ours.”
     Adam shifted in his chair. “They ain’t gonna just let me take ’im.”
     The Baron handed Adam a cigar. “Light up Adam.”
     “You know I ain’t got no lungs.”
     “Humor me.”
     Adam reached for the lucifers on the desk and lit the cigar. He placed it in his mouth and shuddered as the smoke flowed down, coiling around his neck bone, slithering along his spine and caressing his ribs.
     The Baron exhaled black smoke from his own cigar towards the ceiling, “You’re not afraid of some little ol’ injun spirits are you?”
     Adam took the cigar from his mouth and tapped off some ashes. “Fear’s got nothin’ to do wit it.”
     “That’s good to hear.” The Baron sucked on his cigar for a long moment. “Red man’s day is comin’ to an end. Their spirits are weakening with each piece o’ land we grab.” He pointed to the pouch. “That’ll get you through the fence line safe enough.”
     “Mind tellin’ me what it is and where it came from?” asked Adam.
     “Matter o’ fact, I do,” smirked the Baron. “But I’m willin’ to be generous. It belonged to a shaman who found Christ. Both he and this pouch were blessed by a priest. So now this thing can open the fence lines between our territory and the red man’s.”
     Adam picked it up. “How’s it work?”
     “Just head toward injun territory, it’ll do the rest. Use it to collect our boy the way you would your saddle bags.” The Baron handed him a piece of parchment. “This here’s our boy’s brand.”
     Adam unfurled the scroll. On it was a black blotch, which looked like a squished tarantula.
     Fnap. Jack of spades. The Baron continued his game. Adam knew he was dismissed.
     He extinguished his cigar.

     Adam reached the end of the desert and the beginning of the grassy plains that marked Indian Territory. Scratch’s front hooves pawed at the sand and his hind legs shifted from side to side. Adam patted his mount on the skull, and took the pouch from the saddlebags.
     To his surprise, the drawstrings untied themselves as the air above the grass blurred, creating a hole in the fence line. Adam cracked his neck, gritted his teeth with an audible clack, and squeezed Scratch between his knees, urging the steed forward.
     The grass cried out as Scratch stepped upon it, and a gust of wind flowed through Adam, flapping his neckerchief. The grass tugged away from them, trying to pull free of their roots as Scratch walked further along the field, scorching the ground with every step. There was grass as far as the eye could see, stretching far into the distance where the sky met the earth. The sun shone directly above.
     Hours passed, and the sun remained overhead. Adam tilted his hat so the brim shielded his eye sockets, then tightened his grip on the saddle horn.
     A whinny from Scratch made him look up. It could’ve been minutes or hours later. In the distance was a tier with a body lying atop it.
     He halted a couple of hundred feet from the tier when Scratch started to quiver. He dismounted.
     The body was naked save for the wolf fur covering its extremities, and a beaded headband. Four open-mouthed rattler heads adorned the tops of the tier’s posts in fanged snarls.
     Adam lifted the pouch.
     Something grabbed his shinbone, yanking him off his feet. Twisting onto his spine, he could see a rattlesnake’s head rising above him as its body tightened its grip on his leg. Behind it, he could see three other rattlers, shedding their wooden skin from the posts that held them, and the burial platform fell flat to the ground.
     The snake clutching his leg leaned its head down, hissed into Adam’s face, and snapped his leg off. Adam jerked away, leaving his left shin and foot bones in the rattler’s embrace, drew his revolver and blasted the snake’s head off with a bone bullet.
     Before he could aim at the second closest rattler, Scratch appeared and trampled it beneath his hooves. Then the skeletal horse lunged towards the third snake and bit its head off.
     The fourth snake slithered toward the pouch. Adam pulled his shinbone free from the dead rattler and bludgeoned the live one with the heel like a club.
     Scratch walked to his side. Adam grabbed hold of the stirrups, and managed to pull himself up onto his one foot. He placed his broken leg bone in his saddlebag.
     Adam hopped over to the body of the white Indian, and pulled the wolf skin off. The legs of the flattened tarantula, which was the Baron’s brand, peeked out from the body’s back like a spider in hiding.
     He placed the pouch atop the corpse’s chest, and leaned back. The bag opened.
     The body twitched once. Twice. It arched its back and trembled. Its head flopped from side to side, slapping against the ground. Then it collapsed--the skin shriveling around it, tightening until its skeleton burst free from the flesh, which clung to the bones like tattered clothing.
     The drawstrings tied and the pouch rolled itself off the body.
     If Adam could smile, he would have. He reached for the pouch when the snout of a wolf clamped its jaws around it.
     He grabbed at the animal, but it slipped through his finger bones, fluid as water. It was the wolf skin, gliding away from him, and sailing above the plain like a kite.
     Adam drew his revolver and fired. The bone bullets punched holes through the wolf skin, billowing it like a flag in a strong breeze, but didn’t even slow it down. He reloaded, and raised the pistol in both hands, aiming for the wolf’s head. His shot took out the lower jaw. The pouch dropped and the skin tumbled along the grass like a desert tumbleweed.
     Wasting no time, Adam remounted Scratch and pounded after the fallen pouch. Scooping it up, he raced back towards white man’s territory. Adam secured his prize to his rib bones with a double knot.
     He looked behind him, revolver drawn, expecting hell knew what animal or injun spirit, but only saw the sun falling.
     Up ahead, Adam could make out the fence line and the desert beyond. From out of the grass before them rose a three-headed totem pole. It charged Adam, lowering its top head, a buffalo bearing horns.
     Scratch reared up as the totem just missed taking Adam’s head off. Claws from the mountain lion head on the pole’s bottom swatted out as they veered to the left of the behemoth. It spun towards them, snapping at them from the beak of the eagle in the middle of the totem.
     In a cacophony of howls and screeches, the totem raced after them. As Scratch crossed the fence line, the sky erupted from night into day, blinding Adam. Scratch stumbled as the grass became sand, spilling Adam out of the saddle with a jarring fall, his revolver spinning out of reach.
     The totem tore through the fence line with a roar, then shrieked as it touched the sand. Unprotected in the white man’s realm, its wooden faces started to crack and splinter. It retreated back over the line and sank into the grass as if it had stepped into quicksand.

     Adam used bandages to wrap his shin and knee bones back together, knowing they would heal completely in time. He hopped off of Scratch and limped to the office.
     Fnap was the first sound to greet Adam when he opened the door. The Baron glanced up.
     Adam pulled the pouch loose and dropped it on the desk, scattering the Baron’s cards. He clicked his tongue. “Well done.” He opened the drawstrings, releasing a black mist in the shape of a squashed spider. It floated in the air for a few seconds before twirling into a twister and spinning into the Baron’s open safe. Its door closed with a clang.
     He looked at Adam and sighed. “I’m afraid I got some bad news for you.” He opened the shutters behind his desk. A wooden pole stood directly in front of the window with two wires extended from the top of it to the roof. The wires stretched out from the other side of the pole towards the horizon where it attached to another pole and yet another into eternity. “It’s called a telegraph.”
     “Telegraft?”
     “Graph. Some new fangled device that can transport souls quicker than you boys can fetch ‘em.”
     “What about the Bony Express?”
     “Disbanded. Defunct. Dead.” The Baron frowned. “You’ve all been recalled.”
     Adam hobbled over to the window and stared at the pole.
     He remembered what it was like to be buried. Trapped in the box, packed beneath six feet of earth, rotting away, until the Baron appeared offering employment with the Bony Express.
     He was not going back.
     “It’s out of my hands I’m afraid,” the Baron continued. “You got five minutes.” The Baron swept his cards off the desk and left the office.
     Leaving the pouch behind. The key to Adam’s jail cell.
     He brought it outside and climbed aboard Scratch. The Baron was nowhere in sight.
     Without waiting for a kick in the ribs, Scratch started to walk into the desert, away from the telegraph poles.
     The pouch opened in Adam’s hand, and the air shimmered before them like a lake after a stone has skipped across it.
     He looked over his shoulder. The Baron was leaning against the station office, arms crossed. He touched the brim of his hat.
     Adam nodded, clicked his heels against Scratch and entered the portal, the colors of which he thought resembled a setting sun.

Twisted Tumbleweed Tales
18 Stories of the Wild Weird West
Save 20% at Crossroad Press with your first purchase
Use Coupon Code: FIRSTBOOK