Saturday, October 29, 2016


You get the feeling watching William Beaudine's horror-western that the real creative work had been done when someone thought up the titles for the notorious double-feature of this film and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. Put those titles on a poster, someone must have thought, and you'll get people into the theaters. At that point, it doesn't matter what they see. It has to have been like that -- doesn't it? -- to explain what we still see. Beaudine was near the end of a very long career that stretched from Mary Pickford A pictures in the 1920s to Bowery Boys Bs and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla in the 1950s. Apart from the color, BvD is no real advance on the horror films Beaudine had made with Lugosi twenty years earlier for Monogram. For John Carradine, returning to the role of Dracula (though no one calls him that in the film) after twenty years, it was the opposite of an advance. He is a sadly shabby vampire despite the desperate attempt to tart him up with poofy cuffs and a huge red tie. His hypnotic gaze looks more like the drunken leer it probably was. His special-effects surrogates are some of the worst bat effects you'll ever see, and the transitions are truly primitive. A fake bat glides behind some object -- a rock or a stagecoach, for instance -- and Carradine scuttles out from behind.  He's probably the least graceful Dracula, though that's more the producers' fault for casting so physically limited an actor in the role. And with all these handicaps, Carradine is almost still the best actor in the cast. His only real rival is Olive Carey as a folksy old female doctor who becomes the nearest thing this film has to a Van Helsing.

But who needs Van Helsing when you have Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney)? The legendary gunman has gone straight and hopes to live in obscurity as just plain old William Bonney the ranch foreman, even though everyone in town seems to know about his past. He's sweet on Betty Bentley (Melinda Plowman), the gal who's inherited the ranch he works on, and he has a rival so we can have a fistfight every few reels. Betty is expecting an uncle to arrive and act as her guardian, but she's never seen the man before -- no photo, no painting, no lithograph. Unfortunately, the uncle and his wife divulge this fact to their fellow stagecoach passenger in black and red, who boards not long after draining but not killing the blonde daughter of an immigrant couple. At the next stop, the vampire bites an Indian girl, inciting the nearby tribe to massacre the stagecoach while he flaps to town to introduce himself as the uncle arriving early. The immigrants reach the same town and recognize "Mr. Underhill" as the vampire. If you're a vampire trying to maintain an imposture, what do you do at this point?

A. Kill the entire immigrant family.
B. Kill the daughter while leaving the mother, sleeping beside her, alone, and allowing the immigrant elders to live even after Betty has hired them as your household servants who constantly interfere with your plans, from spouting vampire lore to lining Betty's window with wolfsbane.

Underhill apparently prefers to rant at the hapless foreigners and occasionally shove them, because that way he gets more lines. That's the only motivation that makes sense. But the vampire's lack of self-preservation instincts is partly understandable: the poor man's in love. From the first time he saw Betty's face in a black and white miniature, he had decided that she would be his immortal mate. Underhill has set up a challenge for himself: seduce a woman while passing himself off as her uncle. But never underestimate an old man's stare and the seductive power of Raoul Kraushaar's generic spooky music. All that's left is to consummate the unholy marriage in an abandoned silver mine -- who knows how he got the big bed in there? But it's Billy to the rescue, having overcome everyone's skepticism about "bats and vampires" (both being equally mythical, I guess) and armed himself with Doc's book-learning -- admittedly incomplete since her German isn't so hot -- and the metal spike necessary to kill a vampire. Of course, Billy being Billy, he leads with his revolver, but bullets can't hurt the undead! Bullets can't, but the gun itself can as Underhill takes a vicious blow to the face that sets him up for the deathblow. Apparently a vampire can not only transform into a bat, but can also project a bat from his body, as one takes flight as Underhill squirms in Billy's grip. The bat flops to earth as the vampire dissolves into nothingness. But we don't see the bat dissolve, so is this truly the end??? Gott in Himmel, let's hope so.

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