Weird Westerns: Curse of the Undead (1959)
An entertaining and well-crafted movie about a vampire gunslinger, and the only Weird Western in which almost everybody seems more interested in the Western storyline than the horror/fantasy storyline, including the vampire.
By Max Sparber
We film critics sometimes use the word "atmospheric" to describe horror films we like but aren't especially horrific, and it's probably not the best word for the job, but it's hard to think of another. As an example, I think' Curse of the Undead" is a superb Weird Western, but it isn't frightening. It doesn't even try very hard to be frightening — most of the film's scenes of violence are classic Western gun duels, only notable for the fact that one of the duelists is a vampire and a slow-draw. But, then, he doesn't need to be especially fast. Bullets can't kill him, as his opponents quickly discover.
Despite the lack of scare scenes, there is much to enjoy about the film, not the least of which is the fact that, as mentioned, it has a gunfighting vampire. He is played by Michael Pate with the sort of endless cool and S&M leather cowboy outfits favored by Western villains.
He's an interesting vampire, because screenwriter Mildred Dein and screenwriter/director Edward Dein (who were also responsible for the superb, little-seen noir film "Shack Out on 101") looked to European folklore for his story, jettisoning a lot of what we associate with cinematic vampires. Pate's vampire cannot turn into a bat, has little difficulty walking about in the daylight (although he complains it hurts his eyes), and isn't especially fond of crosses but doesn't flee them.
He preys on a Western village's young daughters, causing them to die of what seems to be a wasting illness; in fact, our first shot of the village is of a place with black wreaths covering nearly every doorway to commemorate the dead. And the bitten do not return as vampires. No, that punishment is reserved for suicides, which, we learn, is the cause of this vampire.
This plays out in the background for a while. The film at first seems to mostly be interested in a border conflict between competing ranches, one owned by a gregarious bully named Buffer (played by Bruce Gordon, whose casual menace was well-used in the role of enforcer Nitti in the "Untouchables" television show), the other by the Carters, who are mostly decent folk. Father John is the town doctor, and his isn't long for the movie, showing up one night with his throat slashed. Son Tim is a hothead, and it earns him a bullet from Buffer. And daughter Dolores, played by Kathleen Crowley, has plans of her own, which includes posting a $100 reward for anyone who kills Buffer.
Weirdly, our vampire also seems more interested in this storyline as he does his own, as he immediately shows up and offers to shoot Buffer, and also helps Dolores revisit the lines between her and Buffer's ranch, discovering that Buffer has seized a fair amount of Carter land.
The only one who seems aware that this is a vampire movie is the town preacher, played with supreme blandness by "Rawhide's" Eric Fleming. Nobody has much interest in the preacher's speculations, and the vampire even stops vampiring, biting Dolores once but then deciding he loves her and leaving her alone.
One gets the sense that this could all turn out well, with the vampire acting as a sort of night security for the Carter ranch, presumably becoming a little more cautious about eating the local girls since his interests have moved away from bloodsucking and into ranch management. Alas, it is not to be, as the preacher insist on a duel with the vampire, greatly aided by a lapel button containing a cross made from a thorn that grew at the site of the crucifixion.
At first this sounds unlikely, but we actually have a pretty good idea where Jesus was crucified, and it's the back of a bus station near the Damascus Gate right now, so it's entirely possible somebody could pluck a thorn from the rock face and make a cross from it. Anyway, it's a handy thing to have if you plan to have a shootout with a vampire gunslinger.
"Curse of the Undead" is a surprisingly good-looking film — it seems to have been mostly shot at Universal Studios on two or three redressed sets, and the Carter ranch, in particular, looks fantastic, with an enormous fireplace, large enough to cook an entire steer in. The film has all the benefits of being a studio production, enjoying superb cinematography and generally excellent performances. In fact, the film is directed with an eye for slight melodrama, and so people respond to the vampire's murders with screaming and sobbing.
The whole thing is far more entertaining than perhaps it should be, including the fact that almost everybody in it is more interested in the film being a Western than a monster movie. I suppose, if you find yourself wondering whether a Weird Western is a subgenre of the Western or of the horror/fantasy genre, pull out the horror/fantasy elements and see if it's still a movie.
Not only would this still be a Western, but you get the sense that the characters would prefer it that way.