Search This Blog

Sunday, October 27, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 27: THE UNDEAD (1957)

Having mastered mysterious psychic powers from shamanic priests in Nepal, psychological researcher Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour) seeks to prove that he can send a person's consciousness back through time and into their past lives. In the presence of his old college professor, now head of the American Institute of Psychical Research, Ratcliff sends "Diana Love" (Pamela Duncan), a hooker (whom he randomly picked up off the street) into a trance that could last for two days or more, during which she first channels the persona of a French-speaking ancestor before finding her consciousness transposed through the centuries into the body of Helene, a woman in the Middle Ages. (The time is confirmed later in the story as being during the reign of King Mark of Cornwall, meaning sometime in the 6th century A.D.) 

How to time travel sans DeLorean.

Upon waking in the past, she has no memory of her 20th century self and is horrified to find that she is in chains in a dungeon, awaiting beheading for suspicion of witchcraft. With the aid of a disembodied voice that only she can hear — actually Diana's future consciousness — Helene narrowly avoids being raped by her guard and knocks him cold, fleeing into the night.

 The travails of Helene begin.

Her flight leads her to encounter Digger Smolkin (Mel Welles), an allegedly simple-minded monk who serves as an undertaker/gravedigger and whose odd manner and perceived retardation is believed to have been caused by bewitchment, a state supposedly brought upon him by the accused Helene. After she hides beneath a corpse within a coffin that Smolkin is about to inter, Smolkin discovers her, takes pity, and protects her from pursuing knights. Though Smolkin has been told that Helene was the one who bewitched him, Helene convinces him that she is innocent, begging him to protect her until dawn; the execution of herself and two other accused women is scheduled for dawn but if she remains un-apprehended until then, she will have a year in which to prove her innocence.

Sorceress Livia (Allison Hayes) and her imp sidekick (Billy Barty).

Meanwhile, we are shown that Helene's accuser is an actual shape-shifting sorceress named Livia (Allison Hayes), who framed Helene for witchcraft in order to separate her from the knight Pendragon (Richard Garland), Helene's true love, whom Livia fancies for herself. Livia tracks Pendragon, who had been searching for Helene, to an inn, where she offers herself to the knight in absolutely no uncertain terms, citing that Helene will be lost to him with the coming dawn, but Pendragon holds fast to hope and politely rebuffs the smokin'-hot witch. And speaking of witches, Smolkin drops Helene off at the cottage of Meg-Maud (Dorothy Neumann), a witch of the more stereotypical Grimm's fairytales aesthetic, who fills Helene in on Livia being her accuser (and later revealing Livia as the one who bewitched Smolkin). The old hag, however, is sympathetic to Helene and is a match for Livia, having had a mother who cheated Satan, stole his knowledge of trickery, and lived to keep her soul, while passing on her skills to Meg-Maud, so the gauntlet for a witchy cat fight is thrown. And as if all of that weren't enough, the witches' sabbath occurs at midnight in Smolkin's cemetery and Livia plans to attend as "the queen of sorcery," standing at Satan's side while bearing a freshly-severed heard "to prove that she is true to his black trust." Yes, Satan himself (Richard Devon) is putting in a live appearance, so you know shit's getting thick.

Getting down at the witches' sabbath!

Let's Make A Deal: Satan  trades cash and prizes for souls.

As events spiral toward a dire climax,  back in the present, Ratcliff, informed of the situation by the words of the still-entranced Diana (speaking as Helene) and noticing that the regression is physical as well as mental (Diana's body bears the bruises that Helene incurs during her misadventures), sends himself into the past, where he steals the armor of a passing night in order to effect a rescue. But how can he save Helene from her fate without causing all of her subsequent incarnations to never have happened? The answer to that query involves a diabolical pact and a shocking resolution...

I first encountered THE UNDEAD when it was subjected to the hilariously snarky treatment of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 during that show's eighth season (1997), and it's one of the handful of "bad" movies featured in that showcase that in no way deserved to be counted among such legendary stink bombs as CASTLE OF FU MANCHU or MONSTER A GO-GO  Part of the slew of cheapies cranked out by legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman — who either helmed and/or produced such cult classics as ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERSTHE WASP WOMAN, the original THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, DEATH RACE 2000, and ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL  to name but a few — THE UNDEAD came about during the 1950's craze of fascination with the concept of reincarnation, and what the the script does with that is fuse that aspect with an interesting variant on time travel. Though the film's costumes and sets do nothing to hide its cheapjack production values — it was apparently cobbled together with spit and baling twine from leftover assets from poverty row Arthurian time-fillers — the effort is bolstered by a fun and intelligent script with a game cast that gives its all.

Digger Smolkin (Mel Welles), morbid lyrical genius.

The standout performances are led by Mel Welles, aka Mr. Mushnik from THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, as Smolkin. Though bewitched, Smolkin is a character straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon, merrily singing morbid tunes to himself as he conducts the grim business of  the gravedigger.   He's an hilarious presence whose antics somehow manage to avoid veering into the obnoxious, in fact, his songs are so morbidly ridiculous, they inspired this bit from MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000:

Allison Hayes, best remembered now as the titular star of the schlock classic ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (1958), steals the show as Livia, a sultry sorceress who could tempt even the most pious of men to give it up for her Satanic lusciousness.

The utterly bewitching Allison Hayes as Livia.

Her attempts at beguiling Pendragon leave nothing to the imagination, and it's made very clear that her intentions, diabolically-tinged though they may be, are indeed sincere. For example, this exchange:

LIVIA (after planting a heartfelt kiss to Pendragon's lips): Our Spirits may despair, Pendragon, but dare those spirits tie the hands of flesh?
PENDRAGON: Do not tempt me...
LIVIA (going for broke): I do not tempt... I give.

Livia makes her move on Pendragon. Buddy, if you don't want her, GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY WAY!!!

Note should also be given to the legendary Billy Barty in the role of Livia's nameless and silent imp accomplice. Another shape-shifter, the imp is infectiously happy to do his mistress' evil bidding, and his delight in his job is written across his face.

Billy Barty, having impish fun in the presence of Allison Hayes' magnificent rack.

Coming in at just under 75 minutes but bearing enough ideas for at least three movies, THE UNDEAD is an unjustly overlooked gem in the Corman roster, and it deserves rediscovery by modern audiences. It overcomes its cheesiness by sheer effort and exudes a singular charm that makes it a film that once seen, you will want to share with others. It is by no means EXCALIBUR, but it gets a very strong and unabashed recommendation from me.
Poster from the original theatrical release.

No comments: