Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Undead (1957)

Whilst not the first film to signal Roger Corman’s potential talent in squalid poverty-row productions, The Undead is undeniably one of his best pre-The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) efforts. Ancestor of his canonical Poe adaptations as well as the tongue-in-cheek approach to The Raven (1963), it’s also one of the relatively few American horror films from between the end of WW2 and the near-concurrent, zeitgeist-altering eruption of the Hammer horror films. The Undead is only a horror movie in the loosest sense of the phrase, really more a playful fantasia on the traditional imagery of folk-tale mysticism with its parade of Halloween-party witches, pseudo-Arthurian setting, and pitchfork-wielding devil collecting souls with his ledger book. Incredibly cheap and lacking drive, The Undead nonetheless betrays the antic intelligence of Corman and his regular screenwriting collaborators Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hannah, in a film that feels something like a rough draft for The Twilight Zone, down to the blackly comic twist ending. The film kicks off with a curiously urgent set of sequences, in which a blowsy streetwalker, Diana Love (Pamela Duncan), selling herself on a dark and misty street, is approached by a stranger who offers her a light, and then draws her away for a tryst. The stranger proves to be no ordinary john, but Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour), an experimental psychiatrist who has returned to confront his old teacher, Professor Ulbrecht Olinger (Maurice Manson), with the discoveries he’s made living with Nepalese shamans. “All of your old students return, don’t they professor? Even the ones you failed!” Quintus says, to the Professor’s retort, “Particularly the ones I failed, they all want to prove me wrong.”

Quintus espouses theories the Professor dismisses as “Sunday Supplement nonsense” as he proposes to regress Diana’s mind through all the inner layers of her subconscious, including her past lives. Finally she comes to a rest in the time of her soul’s earliest incarnation, Helene, a young woman accused of witchcraft in “the second year of the reign of King Mark,” on the night before she’s due to die by the executioner’s axe. Marie’s streetwise survival instincts are able to guide Helene through steps to seduce the guard, knock him unconscious, and escape the castle dungeon where she’s held. The flavourful rush of these early scenes inevitably dissipates as Helene, freed, escapes into the set-bound, humorously indistinct historical setting. But the film offers up some agreeable recompense, as it introduces the shape-shifting devilish pairing of Livia (Allison Hayes) and her Imp (Billy Barty). Livia is a real witch, who committed the crimes, including leaving Smolkin the Gravedigger (Mel Welles, doing his best Eugene Palette) addled-brained, that Helene was accused of. This was part of Livia’s attempts to ensnare Helene’s true love, the sturdy knight Pendragon (Richard Garland). By helping save Helene’s life, Diana has unwittingly doomed her own, and all of the other reincarnations since Helene’s execution. Helene forms an alliance with white witch Meg Maude (Dorothy Neumann, who later played practically the same part for Corman in The Terror, 1963), who vows to save her from Livia’s machinations, whilst the evil witch fools Pendragon into thinking Helene has been recaptured, and convinces him to make a pact with Satan (Richard Devon) to save Helene’s life. The executions of Helene and other accused witches were timed to coincide with the end of the Witches’ Sabbath, during which Satan holds court in the local cemetery and signs up soul-sellers.

The lividly tacky on-screen atmosphere is peculiarly charming in decorating the clever, surprisingly rich little screenplay with its acres of mock-Shakespearean dialogue. Anticipating Mario Bava, Corman plays an amusing game with traditional representations, as the luscious Livia contrasts the crone-like Meg Maud with her familiar witchy look of great ugliness with a pointed nose and chin, except that Meg is good and Livia evil. As with Corman’s later horror films, there’s not just an admirable air of inventiveness, but an unexpected thematic depth, and a willingness to find amusement in ideas and not just low-rent spectacle or gore, as well as a certain dry, often black humour, percolating throughout. As with the likes of The Haunted Palace (1963), the Corman team, in spite of their schlock-opera production resources, nonetheless displayed an anticipatory intelligence that looked forward to later revisions and interests of genre filmmakers. Here that includes the notion of inner-space science actualising fearful antecedents, as in Cronenberg’s The Brood (1978) and Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), as well as looking forward to the new-age psychic adventures of Corman’s The Trip (1967). The blend of the science-fiction theme of time travel with more intangible notions is likewise interesting, introducing another soon to be recurring genre theme, the equivalency of modern science and medieval wizardry. This, and the willingness to embrace endings that avoided the usual resolutions in favour of dark twists and uncertain notes, means that Corman’s horror films seem somehow more modern and conceptually witty than most other genre epics of the era, even if the visual appeal and style of this film seems uniquely that of its era.

The Undead is also just about the earliest film I’ve encountered that treats the theme of potential paradox in time travel with any depth, becoming a kind of voodoo variation on Back to the Future (1985) as layers of cause and effect are threatened with being eternally tangled and self-annihilating. Such comparisons are not entirely positive, as The Undead might have been a lot more ambitious and gripping. But the film’s inspired lunacy and wry pastiche continues to percolate as Quintus eventually follow Diana into her past as the shamans taught him, to try and intervene, but for an uncertain purpose. He is recognised by the devil as both nemesis and colleague in the mischievous art of screwing about with peoples’ lives. Quintus is an interesting figure in his mix of sullen, self-satisfied brilliance, and a disturbing indifference to the results of his experiment, introducing a note of moral ambivalence as he strides into the historical setting, capturing the armour of a knight and assuming, with seeming effortlessness, a lordly aspect. But the film interrogates the moralistic underpinning of Quintus’ attitude to Diana, whom he describes as belonging to a class with barely any independent will, urging Helena to turn her back on this future life rather than succumb to such degradation. He tells Meg Maud that he doesn’t much care whether Helene lives and destroys her future lives or does the opposite: he later joins with Satan in recommending that Helene save herself and abandon her future lives, because of the degraded state Diana was in. This proves, however, his moral undoing, having essentially abandoned his therapeutic mission, especially considering that encountering her past self inspires Diana to escape her current degradation.

Meanwhile little fillips of delight are scattered throughout the film, like Livia and the Imp’s manifestations in high trees branches, and their transmogrification into animals, which pays off in humour when Livia, in the guise of a mouse, is caught in a tin can by Quintus. He later impresses Livia by showing her his wristwatch and then turning its dial backwards, something she immediately interprets as control of time itself. Livia, talking with an innkeeper Scroop (Bruno VeSota), whom she will later behead to decorate the Witches’ Sabbath, is told by him that’s he placed garlic, the surest guard against supernatural evil, all around his tavern, only for Livia to hand a clove under the table to the Imp who takes a greedy bite out of it. Satan, who seems less the malevolent infernal agent than a particularly droll bureaucrat giving everyone enough rope to hang themselves, offers his rewards – recipients are marked with a seal based on his trident like a brand trademark – to cueing lost souls, including a leper played by Dick Miller. He has a trio of ghoul women dance for the assembly, suggesting an unholy mating of Isadora Duncan with Disney’s dancing skeletons. In the climax, there’s a marvellous little moment as Helene listens to all her future lives begging for existence, inspiring her to rush to the executioner and offer up her head, whilst Satan delivers some bad news to Quintus, who has lost his ticket back to the future. He’s left his clothes still sitting upon the chair from which his body has vanished at Diana’s side, the very image of a self-impressed expert revealed as a puffed-up suit without a real man inside. 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.


Erich Kuersten said...

Agreed! I love this awesome movie - it's right up there with Ghosts of Mars and Spider Baby as classics of deadpan comic horror! I love the casual way Meg Maude asks "are you from this time, or from time yet to be?" as if for witches time travel is just another wacky magic feature of the middle ages.

Roderick Heath said...

Well said, Erich. The Ghosts of Mars and Spider Baby comparisons are dead accurate.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Must mention the Mystery Science Theater 3000 take on this. It's one of their best, with the catchphrase "SLEEP!", a visit from the evil witch, and a listen to Digger Smolkin's greatest hits:

"Isn't it filth?
Aren't we a corpse?"

It's great to see an MST3k movie that isn't eyeball meltingly bad.

Roderick Heath said...

Wow, this was an MST3K movie?...Somehow that strikes me as even more misguided than doing This Island Earth (although their take on that is actually very good and compliments the movie nicely - at their best the MST3K crew seemed to make different, concurrent movies out of what they tackled).

Henry R. Kujawa said...

GREAT review!!!!!

I just saw this movie for the first time, had no idea what it was about until it started (I'm watching a pile of Cormans I never saw before this week).

While initialy inspired by a book about reincarnation, the film itself seems like it may have inspired bits of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Jack Kirby's THOR & TALES OF ASGARD (the evil "Enchantress" who loves the hero, the Shakespearean-style dialogue), and DARK SHADOWS (psychic time-travel, changing history, gettig stuck in the past). I was even reminded of THE TERMINATOR, as the guy arrives in the past naked.

Decades back I read the informative & hilarious book "BRILLIANCE ON A BUDGET", and it's thrilling to finally be catching up on some of these films. People like to make fun of Corman for doing cheap films, but the turth is, he did amazing work with only a fraction what others had their hands on.