The Bad Movie Report

The Curse of the Living Corpse

Now that I have opened up the floodgates by reviewing Roger Corman twice, let us return to the works of Connecticut auteur Del Tenney, the man responsible for Horror of Party Beach and I Eat Your Skin. The latter, you will recall, had to wait until 1971 to be released, along with I Drink Your Blood. This one, however, was released, as intended, in 1964 on a double bill with Party Beach.

In "New England 1892", cruel family patriarch Rufus Sinclair is laid to rest in the family crypt. Bickering begins immediately amongst the surviving family members, and continues into the Reading "Frankly, Roy, I don't give a damn!"of the Will. The Will pretty much gives us the plot of the entire movie: Rufus had catalepsy, the central crux of many a Poe story, and thus feared being buried alive. His many last requests to prevent such an occurrence have already been ignored - the widow didn't wait five days before the funeral, eldest son Bruce didn't consult another physician, etc. - so the second part of the will comes into play, in which Rufus swears to Come Back And Make Each Person Die In The Manner He or She Fears Most (that is some Will! I especially like the fact that it unfolds like a road map).

Handsome cad Bruce (Robert Milli, looking and acting like an evil Clark Gable), will have his face disfigured. The widow Abigail (Helen Warren) will die by fire; asthmatic and alcoholic son Philip (Roy Scheider, in his screen debut) will suffocate; Philip's frustrated wife Vivian (Margot Hartman) will drown; faithful manservant Seth (J. Frank Lucas) will "join me in my tomb"; and nephew- and-all-around-nice-guy James (Robert Benson) will lose that which is most dear to him - obviously, his pretty and equally tepid wife, Deborah (Candace Hilligoss of Carnival of Souls, absolutely wasted here).

It isn't long before a cowled figure is sneaking around, making use of secret passageways and "I need a new head waitress.  Get it?  Head? Oh, never mind."yes, even a portrait with the eyes cut out so he can spy on people. Bruce takes maid-and- girltoy Letty (Linda Donovan) to the crypt to steal a diamond pin with which he hopes to stave off his gambling debts. After an ill-advised shag in the crypt, Bruce callously insists Letty stay behind so they can return to the house separately. This, of course, means Letty (though not mentioned in the will) shall be first on the menu. Literally, as her hat-and-cowl bedecked assailant makes sure her head crops up the next morning on the breakfast platter. (Readers in the same age strata as myself will recall this as the picture that kept cropping up in Famous Monsters of Filmland - was it in "You Axed For It"? or ... what was the Mystery Photo feature called?)

Bruce forces Vivian (whom he has more-or-less successfully been Huh?  What?  Behind me?trying to seduce) to help him get rid of the body - it's Bruce's intention to find Daddy and put him down permanently this time, and the piecemeal corpse of a serving wench would lead to far too many questions - and they drop the various pieces into the nearby bog. All very well and good, except Oh my God!  Look at all that black paint!Mr. Hat-and-Cowl shows up and proceeds to turn Bruce's face into julienne fries with his sword cane. He then tops that off by dragging the cad a few miles behind his own horse, insuring a closed-casket ceremony.

The cops arrive, and they are predictably a dull and bumbling lot (George Cotton and Paul Haney). Winters (Cotton) our Odious Comic Relief Cop for this picture, stays behind to stand guard. Standing guard, in this case, seems to mean going into the study to get drunk with Philip while Hat-and Cowl slips into Abigail's room, ties her to the bed, and sets her on fire.

Enough being enough, dogs are brought out and all the menfolk attempt to track Rufus down. Seth makes the mistake of dropping by the crypt to try to apologize to Rufus, ensuring that the slow-talking servant will get a blade through the throat and stuffed into Rufus' coffin.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Deborah convinces Vivian that dressing up for the menfolk will Yeah, yeah.  Eeek.  We know.brighten things up considerably. Viv agrees, and takes a hot bath, a precursor to all those movies where the starlet figures, "Wow, everyone's dead - I'd better get naked and take a shower!" Ms. Hartman and Tenney, it might be mentioned, do show us an astounding amount of skin (without showing us anything) for 1963; still, one must ponder the wisdom of taking a bath when the local homicidal maniac has sworn to kill you by drowning. Surprisingly, though, Hat-and-Cowl winds up strangling her, with a couple of obligatory dunks of the head below water.

Deborah, unfortunately for her, barges in on this watery scene, and Hat-and-Cowl grabs her and "Is this where they're holding auditions for The Shadow?"proceeds to drag her to the bog, with Robert (heretofore largely in the background) in hot pursuit. The cowl comes off, revealing that the murders have all been the work of Philip, who has some serious issues about people making fun of his asthma. Robert arrives, there's a bit of a fight scene, Deborah is rescued from the quicksand, and Philip falls in, thus fulfilling his father's prophecy of his death by suffocation. The end.

Curse of the Living Corpse serves as a sort of bridge between all the Reading of the Will in the Old Dark House movies of the 30's to the Body Count movies of the 80's, with it's surprisingly intense, if fleeting, low-tech gore effects. The sense of period is well-maintained throughout, and if the dialogue gets a little florid, well.... chances are people didn't really talk like that in 1892, but they should have. Unfortunately, the flick doesn't play fair with us in a few instances, especially toward the end, when we keep cutting back to Philip participating in the dog hunt while Seth is being perforated in the tomb. Ah well, only someone like me is going to watch this movie more than once, so the lapse can be forgiven.

The acting is almost universally good. Scheider, though at an embryonic stage of his onscreen career, is rock solid; Milli and Franklin went on to do a lot of soap opera and TV work, but you do tend to wonder what happened to the others, especially Margot Hartman, who carries a hell of a lot of the dramatic weight in this flick, and carries it well - her only other film credit is Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women*.

Well, IO, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! did say almost universal, didn't I? As ever, I found myself wishing the Comic Relief would run afoul of the murderer, and I wished in vain. It is unfortunate that the two cops, the weakest actors in the flick, have the very last scene, but then, all the really good actors are dead by that point. Winters, in particular, seems to be the grandfather of the amazingly unfunny Kelton the Cop in Plan 9. The only truly effective comic relief is supplied by the cook (Jane Bruce) whose running gag involves her attempts to quit... only to have whichever family member she gives notice to turn up dead in two scenes.

Overall, Curse of the Living Corpse is a good, competent (if formulaic) little horror film, with only the occasional piece of less-than-sterling camera work ruining the mood. It's a shame that of all Tenney's films, this one is the hardest to find, as it makes you look at Party Beach and I Eat Your Skin and ponder, "Del.... what happened?"


The missing link between two periods of body count films.

- November 15,1998