Grade: C+/B-
Western-horror
Not rated (would be PG)

A week ago, if you had asked me to name a Western that bridged genres and included vampires, I would have said, “I know, I know: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula!” That 1966 movie is famous for being so absolutely awful that it’s not even laughably bad—an insipid film that’s only known for the blending of genres that everyone thought unique. But a few days ago I became aware of another vampire Western—Curse of the Undead—and it turns out that this black-and-white 1959 film was really the first vampire Western.

What’s more—and here’s the shocker—it’s not a silly movie that takes itself seriously, thereby setting itself up for an audience that likes campy films, films that are wink-wink so bad that they’re kinda good. You need to know this, so you won’t look at the cover art and think, Oh, we’re going to have so much fun making fun of this rotten film. It’s not rotten and it’s not campy. Writer-director Edward Dein, who would go on to direct Robert Conrad in three TV series (Hawaiian Eye, The Wild Wild West, The Black Sheep Squadron), plays this absolutely straight. It’s a surprisingly good drama that treats vampires a little less like Universal monsters and more like what legend says they were. If it were shorter, it might pass for an episode of The Twilight Zone, and tonally it’s very much like the classic monster movies that Universal cranked out in previous decades.

To make the Western aspect work, it helps that one of the stars is Eric Fleming, who played Gil Favor on the highly respected Rawhide (think Blues Brothers!) TV series and also appeared in several episodes of Bonanza, that other long-running TV Western. In this vampire Western, Fleming plays Preacher Dan. Somebody has to have a cross, right?

One of the other stars is John Hoyt, who appeared in such TV Westerns as The Virginian, The Big Valley, Laredo, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick, Laramie, The Rifleman, Death Valley Days, and Union Pacific. All of those Westerns were popular because they were aimed at adults. They were serious dramas and not just Saturday morning formulaic shoot-‘em-ups.

In this film, even the vampire—Michael Pate—worked in TV Westerns that were played for drama, not laughs, including shows like Zane Grey Theater, Maverick, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Sugarfoot, and Broken Arrow. These guys knew how to play cowboys, and it’s both surprising and refreshing that the vampire in Curse of the Undead doesn’t transform into a bat, doesn’t say “I vant to suck your blood,” and doesn’t behave like he just got in from Transylvania. He looks and acts like the kind of gunslinger you’d encounter in the Old West: dark and menacing as a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike.

There’s always a ranch or town boss in a Western who’s the villain, but when there’s a vampire gunman in town any villain is going to seem soft by comparison—even someone like Bruce Gordon, who played Frank Nitti in the old Untouchables TV series and also appeared with Vincent Price in Tower of London. And there’s always a damsel in distress, a delectable morsel-in-waiting in every vampire movie. Here, the part is played by Kathleen Crowley, who was in her fair share of B movies and Westerns, including The Rebel Set, Target Earth, Female Jungle, and Maverick.

If you look at Amazon you’ll see that people who bought an earlier VHS version of the film complained about the quality. Well, there won’t be any complaints about the brand new 2K master used to create this Blu-ray, with a sharp picture that helps to showcase the low-contrast lighting and the creepy elements, so that it almost feels like it came right out of Universal’s famed monster series. Except this one doesn’t have a monster. Drake Robey (Pate) is a mysterious stranger who wears black and a grimace and presents himself as a hired gun. There’s an outbreak of young girls getting mysterious ill, crazy, and dead—in that order—and no one in town suspects this stranger, who lurks the way Universal monsters lurk. No one except Preacher Dan, that is. It might be the only logical flaw in the screenplay by Dein and his wife, Mildred, which presents viewers with not just a classic monster pic but a classic triangle as well, between Dan, Drake, and Dolores. (Triple D? It even sounds like a Western!).

Kino Lorber brought in a big gun to handle the audio commentary: Tom Weaver is one of the leading scholars of the horror genre, especially the Universal horror films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. The author of 35 books, he knows his stuff, and his commentary is well worth a listen. It’s one of the better ones.

Clearly the Universal Monster Pictures were of a particular time, because this one, though very much in the same mold, lapsed into obscurity while the films from earlier decades are regarded now as classics. Maybe it was a little too realistic for classic monster movie fans; maybe Drake just isn’t enough of a monster; or maybe it just came along a decade too late.

Entire family: Yes (though only older kids will appreciate the deliberate pacing and subtlety)
Run time: 79 minutes (Black-and-White)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some violence and themes of death)

Language: 1/10—I didn’t catch anything objectionable, so the 1 is here as a cushion

Sex: 1/10—Same thing here, just an innocent kiss or two

Violence: 4/10—Pretty nocturnally innocuous, with most of the action off-camera

Adult situations: 4/10—The whole vampire preying on girls and girls acting crazy and screaming before they’re found limp and lifeless can be unsettling, though brief and the real action is off-camera

Takeaway: The trailer pretty much captures the tone and essence of the film, which is surprisingly straightforward