Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Grey Market Cinema: The Undead (1957)


In my formative movie nut years, one of the activities that I looked forward to the most was when the ‘rents did a little stepping out at Saturday night dances at the country club (yes, we belonged to a country club—believe me, it wasn’t as hoity-toity as it sounds since there wasn’t anything else going on in that one-horse town) …because that meant I could stay up late and watch—Chiller Theater!  I’ve talked about this television showcase on the blog in the past, and suffice it to say it’s where I received my formal education in Horror Movies 101.  Chiller was a Saturday night staple of WOWK-TV (Huntington, WV) for many years, and a long procession of babysitters and I loved watching everything from Frankenstein (1931) to Tarantula (1955).  (Ma and Pa Shreve hired babysitters because I was not to be trusted with keeping an eye on my younger sisters.  The “long procession” part refers to the fact that sister Kat tended to try the patience of many of them.)

Memories of those halcyon horror movies on TV days came flooding back to me the other day when I sat down with The Undead (1957), which I purchased from Finders Keepers Classics sometime back.  Directed and produced by TDOY idol Roger Corman, Undead is a low-budget programmer inspired by Morey Bernstein’s The Search for Bridey Murphy, which was brought to the silver screen by Paramount in 1956.  In the Corman film, a streetwalker named Diana Love (Pamela Duncan) attracts the attention of psychic-scientist Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour)—who wants to conduct an unorthodox experiment in hypnosis despite the objections of Quintus’ mentor, Professor Ulbrecht Olinger (Maurice Manson).  Ratcliff puts Diana in such a deep trance that she regresses back to the Middle Ages and a past life she lived as Helene, a woman convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to die with a swing of the executioner’s axe.

There’s a slight complication: somehow, the modern-day Diana can communicate with Helene, and she helps Helene escape from the tower where she’s been imprisoned.  If we’ve learned anything from the classic Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder,” it’s that mucking around in the past can alter future events and make everyone very unhappy.  As Helene runs to safety in the arms of her love Pendragon (Richard Garland), Quintus must devise a way to ensure she meets that appointment with death…and the individuals who have a vested interest in Helene’s demise include sultry sorceress Livia (Allison Hayes)—whose romantic interest in Pendragon is the reason why Helene was accused of being a witch—and Livia’s master, old Beelzebub (Richard Devon) himself.

This is Satan (Richard Devon).  Try to hide your disappointment.

Director Corman asked writer Charles B. Griffith (who would later pen the director’s A Bucket of Blood [1959] and The Little Shop of Horrors [1960], to name just a few) to work up “a Bridey Murphy story” at the same time Paramount was working on their adaptation of the Bernstein book.  (American International Pictures would also tackle reincarnation in their 1956 vehicle The She-Creature.)  Though Griffith was convinced that the Corman project was doomed to failure because of rumors at the time that the big-screen Bridey was experiencing problems, he rose to the challenge and with co-writer Mark Hanna produced a screenplay that was originally written in iambic pentameter.  (Corman was delighted by this…but then got cold feet when several people he asked to read the script didn’t understand it, and he asked Griffith to translate it into English.)

“The script was ruined,” Griffith later recalled in an interview, “but The Undead was a fun picture to shoot, because it was done in ten days at the Sunset Stage, which was a supermarket on Sunset Boulevard.  We filled it with palm trees and fog, and it was the first time Roger had used any of that stuff. He didn't like to rent anything.”   Other sources, by the way, assert the movie was knocked out in six days.  You know the old joke about “The Pope of Pop Cinema”: “Corman could negotiate the production of a film on a pay phone, shoot the film in the booth, and finance it with the money in the change slot.”  I think, however, you’ll be surprised by how good Undead is despite its budgetary limitations (deliberately filmed on the cheap and later released on a double bill with Voodoo Woman); the special effects are primitive but effective, and the acting quite solid for a picture of its type.

Everybody dance now!

Granted, The Undead has problems that go beyond its budget—particularly in the characterization of Quintus.  Concerned about the course of history should Helene not fulfill her destiny of losing her head, the scientist does a little time traveling himself by matching his brainwaves with hers (science!), and he’s soon physically walking around in the same period.  (For some odd reason, he leaves his clothes behind—necessitating in his mugging a knight for new duds—but later produces a wristwatch that he shows to Livia as proof of his “sorcery.”)  Once Quintus is in the middle ages, however, he’s one of the voices urging Helene not to submit to her fate…so why did he bother traveling back in time in the first place?  (Hint: it’s so the movie can conclude with an admittedly nifty twist ending.)

Pamela Duncan is a standout as Diana/Helene (I liked her tearful scene where she contemplates the difficult decision between life and death), and Allison Hayes delightfully wicked as Livia—when her character is first introduced, it’s via a slow pan from her legs upward…and I kind of snickered, saying to myself: “She’s not fifty-feet tall in this one!”  (Interestingly, the “bad” witch is presented as a fabulous babe while the “good” witch [played by Dorothy Neumann] is the typical “hag” caricature, complete with pointy nose and chin.)  Cult favorite Mel Welles (best remembered as florist Gravis Mushnik in Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors) provides a little comic relief as gravedigger Smolkin (who’s been ‘bewitched” by Livia) and you’ll also see familiar faces like Billy Barty (as an imp!) and Bruno Ve Sota (from Dementia).

Hey!  It's That Guy Dick Miller!  Billed as "Richard Miller" (classy!) The Man Who Would Be Paisley has a nice bit as a leper who's cured by simply signing his name in Old Scratch's autograph book.

The Los Angeles Times declared The Undead to be “a rather imaginative yarn,” and I’m sure that’s the reason why the movie has remained in the memory mist all these years…though I’ll admit I was a little nervous about revisiting it (I honestly had not seen Undead since those Chiller Theater days—I purposely avoided watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 send-up because I refused to believe it’s all that terrible), because mist and fog are often interchangeable.  My Facebook compadre Roderick Heath has a splendid write-up on the film at This Island Rod, summing things up nicely by noting: “It’s hardly Day of Wrath, but The Undead is a minor gem of its own peculiar species, the sort of off-hand pleasure that makes trawling old B-movies worthwhile.”  The Finders Keepers DVD is first-rate (though it appears to be “liberated” from another source, possibly a Region 2 disc), and well worth a flutter.

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