Saturday, July 1, 1978: Curse of the Undead (1959) / Black Friday (1940)

Synopsis: In a frontier town in the Old West, Doc Carter (John Hoyt) is baffled as a number of young women under his care are dying under odd circumstances. Despite being young and healthy, they quickly grow weak and pale. When they die, there isn’t a mark on their bodies, except for a couple of small puncture wounds on the neck.

Meanwhile, local rancher and neighborhood troublemaker Buffer (Bruce Gordon) has been damming up the water upstream of the Carter ranch. Carter’s son Tim (Jimmy Murphy) goes to Buffer’s ranch to settle things, but gets beaten up by Buffer’s men. The town sheriff (Edward Binns) talks to Buffer, and with the help of town preacher Dan Fleming (Eric Young) he gets Buffer to stand down.

But when Doc Carter dies under mysterious circumstances, Tim immediately suspects Buffer is behind it. He impulsively picks a gunfight with Buffer, and gets killed in the local saloon. Enraged, Dolores puts up flyers in town offering $100 for a hired gun. The only man who answers the ad is a black-clad gunman named Drake Robey (Michael Pate). Preacher Dan insists to Dolores that killing is wrong, but Robey tells him that it’s perfectly just for Dolores to defend her land with a hired gun — it is, after all, exactly what nations do when they are under attack, and this is a similar situation.

Preacher Dan is suspicious of Robey and his intentions, and begins to look into his past. He soon discovers a terrible secret: Robey is in fact Don Drago Robles, once a young Spanish nobleman, now a vampire stalking the streets of the American frontier.

But Dolores refuses to believes the fantastic tale Dan has presented to her. Meanwhile, Drake Robey proceeds to insinuate himself into Dolores’ life…

Comments: Tonight’s lead-off feature is Curse of the Undead, a modest programmer that does a good job making the Old West seem like a reasonable haven for vampires.

It was produced by Joseph Gershenson, Universal’s longtime music supervisor whose first production credit was Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus the previous year. And while Curse of the Undead is silly stuff, it is definitely likable.

Initially released on a double bill with Hammer’s The Mummy, Curse of the Undead is the first time I know of that the western genre, which had reached the zenith of its popularity in the 1950s, had been melded with the gothic demands of the vampire picture. There actually aren’t a lot of examples of this particular hybrid — the only other one I can think of is the dreadful Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). The two genres don’t mesh easily, but in this film it works pretty well. There’s an eerie similarity between the myths of the old west gun-for-hire and the vampire. Both are cool loners who survive by killing others, and both seem relentless and unassailable.

Edward Dein directs his own screenplay, and while the interior scenes tend to be standard 1950s depictions of the old west — unimaginatively staged, lit without shadows and with clean-cut actors — the exterior nighttime scenes take on an eerie tone as Drake Robey rides through town, picking out his next victims.

I liked how Dein bends and often breaks the rules of vampire lore for the purposes of the film. Robey seems to prefer operating at night, when his power is greatest, but he walks the streets of the western town in broad daylight without trouble. When he first sees the cross pin on Preacher Dan’s jacket he at first looks away, but then turns to face it, and even compliments Dan on it (Dan asserts that it was made of slivers from the True Cross, which would have been quite a claim even if made a thousand years earlier).

The irony of Drake Robey’s fearsome reputation as a gunfighter is that he’s terrible on the draw; even when he’s facing a mediocre gunman he always the last to pull the trigger. It’s the fact that he’s invulnerable to bullets that always saves him.

Michael Pate is the most interesting actor in the movie, playing Drake Robey with a swagger that befits a vampire acting as hired gun. Pate has an odd look; he might be considered handsome if it weren’t for his large, puppet-like mouth. It makes you think there’s something distinctly wrong about him — and of course, in this movie there certainly is.

Black Friday

Synopsis: Mild-mannered professor of literature George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) teaches at bucolic Newcastle College, and while he is happy in this familiar setting, he announces to his students at the end of the term that he may not be back; he is being considered for a position at a more prominent university.

Young Jean Sovac (Anne Gwynne) walks with him to the car being driven by her father Dr. Ernst Sovac (Boris Karloff) who is one of Kingsley’s closest friends. Along with Kingsley’s wife Margaret (Virginia Brissac) they go into town. Crossing the street alone, however, Kingsley is run down by a car driven by gangster Red Cannon. Cannon was being chased by a group of gangsters in another car: Marnay (Bela Lugosi), Kane (Paul Fix), Miller (Edmund McDonald) and Devore (Raymond Bailey).

Cannon’s car crashes after hitting Kingsley, and Cannon himself is paralyzed. When Dr. Sovac examines him at the scene, Cannon tells him that if the doctor saves his life he’ll split $500,000 with him that he’s hidden. Kingsley is also still alive, but has sustained considerable brain trauma from the accident.

Realizing that $500,000 would allow him to start a new and far better practice, Dr. Sovac hatches a plan: he decides to transplant part of Red Cannon’s brain to Kingsley, replacing the portion damaged in the accident.
Kingsley makes a speedy recovery, and during his convalescence Dr. Sovac proposes an unusual form of therapy: he suggests the two make a trip into New York and live it up — check into a nice hotel, see a show, eat out at fancy restaurants, and so on.

The two go to the city. Sovac knows that Red Cannon was a regular at the Midtown Hotel, and takes Kingsley there, hoping it will jog Red Cannon’s memories. The tactic works – Kingsley asks for a specific suite of rooms at the hotel, and tells the bellhop to use a specific knock, which the bellhop recognizes as Cannon’s.

Later Sovac takes him to a show, where Kingsley recognizes singer Sunny Rogers, Red Cannon’s girlfriend. Back at the hotel, an exhausted Kingsley falls into a half-conscious state. Sovac is able to coax Red Cannon into consciousness. He tells Red what has happened; and while Red is at first unhappy to find himself in an unfamiliar body, he soon realizes that none of his old associates will recognize him. He slips away from Sovac and murders Devore.

The next morning, Kingsley is Kingsley again, but Sovac knows he’s been up to no good during the night when he sees blood on his hands. He believes Kingsley is back in control now, but the wail of a siren brings the Red Cannon part of his consciousness to life. Soon Cannon is completely in control of Kingsley’s body, and swears to avenge himself on all of his former gangland friends….

Comments: Even if you’d completely missed the opening credits, you would have no trouble figuring out who wrote the screenplay for Black Friday. The movie is filled with ideas that Curt Siodmak would use over and over throughout his career.

Plot elements from this film would be cannibalized for a number of later films. Brain-swapping would be a prominent part of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); the revenge subplot was recycled for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943); and the idea of a criminal’s brain slowly taking possession of an innocent man’s body was revisited in Siodmak’s most successful work, his novel Donovan’s Brain (1943), which was adapted for the screen twice, most successfully in the 1953 film of the same name starring Lew Ayres.

When people talk about this film, though, they usually talk about the casting. Black Friday is blatantly marketed as another Karloff-Lugosi team-up, but Lugosi only appears in the relatively small role of gangster Marnay. Karloff, most sources agree, was originally slated to play Kingsley / Red Cannon and Lugosi Dr. Sovac.

Some accounts claim that Karloff found himself unable to effectively play the Red Cannon part. This seems unlikely, since Karloff had started his film career playing tough guys and gangsters. The more common (and far more likely) explanation was that Karloff coveted the Sovac role because of the two it was closer to the “lead” (Sovac narrates the story in flashback as he is being led to the electric chair). With Karloff playing Sovac, another actor had to be found to play Kingsley / Red Cannon. It wasn’t a good fit for Lugosi and his thick accent, so Stanley Ridges stepped into the role and Lugosi was demoted to playing Marnay.

Ridges is actually quite effective in the part, perhaps better than Karloff himself would have been. He does well differentiating the vacant milquetoast Kingsley with the tough, driven Red Cannon and they really do come across as completely different characters.

On the whole Black Friday works, though it is built on an astonishingly rickety set of plot contrivances. The mechanics of just how Red Cannon’s brain is fused with Kingsley’s isn’t very well explained, and a lot of people who write about the film seem to think that Cannon’s brain was completely transplanted into Kingsley’s body (in fact only part of it was). On top of this, getting gangsters involved in the life of a shy English professor is accomplished via the clumsiest of plot devices: an improbable high-speed chase down the streets of a sleepy college town.

Equally unlikely is Red Cannon’s promise to split the money with Sovac, and Sovac’s decision to perform a completely unprecedented brain transplant in order to take him up on the offer (after all, the Nobel prize Sovac would earn as a result of such revolutionary surgery would pay much more than Red Cannon’s stash). Sovac also seems to know just how to trigger Red Cannon’s memories once the surgery is complete. For his part, Kingsley seems pretty chipper for a guy who recently underwent brain surgery – there isn’t even a trace of a surgical scar anywhere on his scalp.

But picking apart this movie seems unfair. Black Friday is fine for what it is, an entertaining programmer that came and went quickly, as movies of the time did, with no expectation that they’d be remembered.

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