Two scientists take a streetwalker deeper into past life regression that anyone has ever attempted before. Unfortunately, it transpires that her past self was accused of witchcraft and is awaiting the headman’s axe. But the very action of regression seems to change the past…
If Roger Corman is remembered these days as a film director at all, it’s for the series of excellent low-budget Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made with Vincent Price in the 1960s. More usually, he’s regarded as the head of his ‘New World’ empire; a producer quick to recognise a current trend and cash in with cheap films of usually dubious quality. He came up through the ‘drive-in’ circuit in the late 1950s, and always focused on how to cuts costs and maximise revenue. His autobiography (an excellent read) is called ‘How I Made A Hundred Films in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.’
All of which pretty much goes out of the window when you watch ‘The Undead’ (1957). Sure, it was shot for a reported $75,000 in about a week on sets that used to be an abandoned supermarket. Also it was inspired by the brief public fascination with past-life regression that apparently was over almost before it had begun. But, for all that, it’s an unusual and undeniably effective picture.
The story opens with scientist Maurice Manson getting a visit from errant student Val Dufour, who has joined up with jaded streetwalker Pamela Duncan. Dufour is the movie’s first ace in the hole, a strange, slightly off centre presence that helps to sell the story’s fairly ridiculous premise. Once Duncan is under the influence of his hypnotic talents, we’re back in a medieval past where characters speak in old fashioned English and witchcraft is an accepted part of life.
If a group of 1950s B-Movie actors attempting some kind of Shakespearean drama sounds like your idea of movie hell, then fear not! Scriptwriter and longtime Corman collaborator Charles Griffith displays a surprising skill with the language, managing to capture the essence of archaic speech without blurring the meaning, and the cast seem perfectly comfortable with the dialogue. Actually, Griffith originally wrote the film in iambic pentameter like a Shakespeare play but had to rewrite when it was agreed that audiences would never understand it.
Story development is limited by the available sets, however, and frequent misunderstandings and misinformation force Duncan and hapless hero Richard Garland into a lot of ‘to and fro’ between the local tavern, the good witch’s cottage, the prison and the graveyard. The fact that there’s only so much a fog machine can obscure means the ‘outside’ settings never convince, but that adds to the theatricality of the piece and somehow allows more audience investment, even if the chemical mix on set apparently left most of the cast with breathing problems!
Despite those difficulties, it’s several key performances that sell the drama. As well as Dafour’s arrogant, obsessive hypnotist, there’s Dorothy Neumann as the good witch and Mel Welles as gravedigger Smolkin, a typical Shakespearean fool. Duncan also delivers as the heroine, particularly at the climax and in her modern incarnation. Best of all, though, there’s another powerhouse turn by Allison Hayes as wicked witch Livia, who has set her cap at the hero and won’t take no for an answer. She’s so deliciously evil and sexy that it’s a puzzle why he would fancy Duncan instead, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste. It’s a shame Hayes never made the transition into major pictures as she had real range, and was undoubtedly a considerable talent. Probably her origins in the world of low-budget films like this was a hurdle too high to overcome.
There are many reasons why this film shouldn’t work; it’s undeniably cheap, the science is wonky, and the plot unbelievable. In fact, it should be a total disaster. But work it does, even with the appearance of a cackling Satan towards the end.
Corman may have more a reputation more as a mogul these days, but a production like this shows his real substance as a filmmaker and a sense of style that foreshadows his work with Price on those Poe pictures.
A quiet little triumph.