Thursday, March 27, 2014

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula

The Z Files

By Ed Garea

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (story & s/p). Cast: John Carradine, Chuck Courtney, Melinda Plowman, Virginia Christine, Harry Carey Jr., Walter Janovitz, Hannie Landman, Bing Russell, Olive Carey, Roy Barcroft, Marjorie Bennett, William Forrest, George Cisar, & Charlita. Color, 73 minutes.

Wow. A vampire Western! Now there’s a genre. And yet, it’s not the first. Universal’s Curse of the Undead beat it to movie screens by eight years (and it’s a better film to boot). But the producers of this can take some comfort in the fact that this film is worse. Much worse.

In fact, for a film dependent on action, out of its 73-minute running time, only about two, or three at most, of those minutes contain any action. The rest of the time is spent building up to the action with some great establishing scenes that fall flat on their face, really crummy dialogue, a leading man with all the appeal of imitation lime Jello, and a villain who appears clearly swacked in most of his scenes.

The film was reputedly shot in about 5 days and looks like it. It was filmed at Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s spread in Simi Valley, the scene of many a B Western. In fact, look closely and you’ll notice the ranch house was the same house used in the Buster Crabbe/Al “Fuzzy” St. John Westerns for PRC. For those who like their acting bad and their vampire bats fake, this is one to see. Those who like their movies at least making a little sense would be wise to skip this one, if for no other reason than taste.

Our film opens with a really terrible day-for-night shot of a rubber bat, compete with wires, flying around. Cut to an obvious German immigrant family camping out for the night. By the look of their covered wagon we can tell this is the Old West. Mom and Dad Oster (Christine and Janovitz) are sleeping on one side of the camp while daughter Lisa (Landman) is asleep on the other. Suddenly, Lisa is awakened by the chirp of the bat (Chirp??) and proclaims, “It’s here!” Father reassures her that she’s only having a nightmare, but Mother places a cross in her hand for safety and they go back to sleep.

The bat ducks behind the wagon and out comes Drac (Carradine). Although the film never mentions Dracula by name (probably for legal reasons), since it’s used in the title, we’ll refer to him as such. Obviously famished from all that flying about, Drac decides to stop at Lisa’s for a quick meal. He puts the bite on her, but her hand opens, revealing the cross, which scares Drac off. Looking at her neck later we can see that Drac left four bite marks. Must’ve been using his bottom fangs as well.

Cut to a stagecoach, which has stopped to take on Drac as a passenger. He’s traveling light – just himself and no luggage. The other passengers are Mary Ann Bentley (Bennett), her brother James Underhill (Forrest), and an aptly-named liquor salesman Joe Flake (Cisar). Making conversation, Mary explains that her husband has passed and she went to Boston to bring back her brother to help her run the ranch, the Double Bar B. She shows Drac a picture of her daughter, Elizabeth (Plowman). Drac is quite taken with the photo, telling from his hammy expression. (He also seems inebriated as well; perhaps he’s been into Joe’s sample case.) My favorite quote in this scene is when Mary Ann mentions to Drac that she shouldn’t be traveling at night. Night? Hell, it looks like late afternoon out there, that’s just how bad the optical filter is. (Later on Beaudine just decides to dispense with it altogether rather than continue the farce. So we’re treated to the sight of Drac walking around in broad daylight. Oh well, perhaps he’s using industrial strength sunscreen.) The stage stops for a rest at an Indian village where Drac departs and later that night puts the bite on a lovely and stacked Indian maiden (Charlita), who’s fetching water from the village’s well. All through the film when Drac is about to do something really diabolical, his eyes bug out and a red light shines on his face. He also has the power to disappear and reappear at will. Backstage, most of his disappearing came at lunchtime, when he hauled himself down the street each day in full costume to a bar where he would enjoy a hearty liquid lunch. Afterward he would return well-roasted, and it shows in his performance at several points in the picture.

When the group is about to leave the next day, neither hide nor hair of Drac can be found. So they decide to go on without him. Bad move, for the other Indians have found the body of the maiden and conclude it was the passengers in the stage what done it. (Watch closely and you’ll see they get a cue to rise up and ride off after the stage.) They hunt it down and kill everyone abroad. Soon after, Drac appears in his bat disguise (complete with strings), ducks behind the stage and reappears in human form. He searches the deceased, taking James’ identity papers and the photo of Elizabeth. We can easily guess where he's going.

Cut to his next destination, the Double Bar B ranch, where Elizabeth (or “Betty”) is being taught to shoot by a handsome young man, who we shortly learn is Billy the Kid (Courtney). It seems Billy has reformed by turning himself into a Casper Milquetoast type. He wants to marry Betty, but is worried people will find out he’s really Billy the Kid. “But that’s all behind you,” Betty reassures him. Oh sure, everyone will forget all the murders he committed because he’s now a nice guy. But as the scene ends we see that Billy and Betty are being spied upon. The voyeur is Dan Thorpe (Russell), along with a couple of toadies, who fill in the missing plot hole with just one line – very economical: “That guy Bonney sure moved in on you. First your foreman’s job, then your girlfriend.” So we now know two things: Thorpe will be out for revenge, and Billy will eventually kill him. Later we’re treated to a little tension, Beaudine style, when Billy tells Betty he’s found a lamb with its throat neatly sliced open. Billy tells her that Indian Jim said he saw a large bat kill the lamb. Cue the eerie theremin music.

Drac, meanwhile, is now in town posing as Betty’s dead uncle. He’s taken a room at the hotel, begging the question of why he just doesn’t go out to the ranch, since he’s now the dead uncle. Drac informs anyone who’ll listen that he came on ahead of the stage. About a minute after this the townsfolk are informed of the stage’s fate. Cut to the threesome sitting at a table in the hotel. Why, it’s the immigrants! And they quickly point out that Drac is a vampire. Drac feigns ignorance; just because he’s running around in that silly looking costume with a pointed goatee doesn’t mean he’s one of the undead. The townsfolk, having never seen a vampire before, tend to agree.

Drac graciously gives his room at the hotel to the immigrants and goes out to the ranch. Later that night he visits the hotel to finish the job on their daughter, but when he returns to the ranch he finds he has company. Yes, it’s those pesky immigrants, who Billy has hired as household help. Frau Oster is determined to protect Betty from Drac’s evil designs. (Several times throughout the film, Mrs. Oster is referred to as “Mrs. Olson,” as Virginia Christine was famous for playing the character in Folgers ads. I guess Beaudine thought it was a natural mistake by the townsfolk or just didn’t want to do another take to get things right. Would it have mattered, anyway?)

Frau Olsen now decides to decorate Betty’s bedroom in various shades of wolfsbane, the equivalent of a cold shower to an amorous vampire. (If she had all this to start, then why did her daughter get killed? Just asking.) Billy, meanwhile, brings his concerns about Uncle James to the wrong fellow – Uncle James. Carradine tactfully tells to him stop prying and believing those German immigrants, or get the pink slip. Later, Billy is conducting a meeting about good employee relations with Thorpe, the outcome of which sends Billy running to Doc Hull (Carey). While getting patched up, he tells her his suspicions about the newly arrived Uncle, and discovers that the doc just happens to have a couple of books on the subject. I’m sure that part of every good country doctor’s library has a book or two on vampirism. One never knows when it’ll be needed. Billy pours out his suspicions, “You know that lamb I told you about? Its throat was ripped wide open. At least that's what the boys told me." When the doc asks him if he thinks it could be the work of a vampire, Billy turns thoughtful: "I hate to think it could be true but, well, I . . . I don't know about things like that. You know, I . . . I ain't had too much schoolin’."

It’s at this point the doc whips out her book and opens it right in the middle, miraculously landing on the right passage to answer the question. She begins to read: “According to an old European superstition, a vampire is a ghost which leaves its resting place at night to suck the blood of living victims; humans, when possible. Sometimes it kills its victims, other times it keeps them alive. Sometimes a vampire takes one of his victims as a mate and eventually turns her into a vampire . . . Now you know as much about it as I do, Billy.” Billy is dumbfounded. “Gosh . . . Well, how do you know of a person is a vampire? How can you tell?” Yes, how can you tell? Not to worry, for the doc says, “Well, there’s some footnotes here in German. My German's pretty bad. But one thing I can make out: A vampire . . . does not cast . . . a reflection . . . in a mirror." (Vampires fur Dummkopfs)

When Billy tells the sheriff (Barcroft) about his newly obtained knowledge, it sets off a light bulb in the sheriff’s empty head. Earlier he dismissed Frau Oster’s explanation for her daughter’s death. Now he a fount of wisdom: “Ah yeah, vampires. Seems to me I recollect that she said that’s who done the killin’!”

We now cut to Thorpe, who’s trying to score some brownie points with Uncle James. He comes into the office and says he want to see Uncle James. Carradine rises from his chair. Now, this scene must have been shot after lunch, because Carradine weaves his way over to see Thorpe, who proceeds to dime out Billy over his accusations about Unk. That’s it – Billy is out and Thorpe is in. In addition, Drac tells his new foreman that he wants Billy clean out of town. Being a conscientious brown-noser, Thorpe runs into Billy at the hotel bar and informs Billy that he (Thorpe) has come to make sure Billy leaves town. A fight breaks out and Thorpe draws, but Billy is faster and Thorpe has played his last scene.

While this is going on, Betty is sharing doubts about Billy’s recent behavior with Eva: “Oh, it’s Billy. He's been acting so strangely lately. Now he wants me to try some, some experiment on Uncle James.” Eva asks what sort of experiment it is, to which Betty replies that it’s done with a mirror. “Oh God, the vampire test!” Eva exclaims. No, not that! Cue the organ.

As Betty by this time has foolishly removed the wolfsbane from her room (something about it clashing with the wallpaper, I believe), Drac now makes his move. He mesmerizes Betty through a combination of bugging his eyes out and having the red light shining in his face. (Though, honestly, that red light makes it seem as if he’s standing behind a rotisserie chicken cooker.) The next day Billy arrives at the ranch to find Betty zonked on the bed with two large hickeys on her neck. Eva tells him to take Betty to the doctor. Although the doc can’t make heads or tails about what’s wrong, she is sure that it’s the work of vampires. At this point the sheriff waltzes in to tell Billy that he has to drag him off to the hoosegow until the matter of Thorpe’s killing can be put to rest.

Now that Billy’s cooling his heels in the cooler, Drac makes his big move. He comes to the doc’s office to take Betty home. In one of the great nonsensical scenes in film history, the doc decides to put the vampire test to the test. She takes down the wall mirror, places it behind the vampire, and then calmly stares into the thing. Drac’s reaction is to turn around and stare at her until he can remember his next cue. (At this point Drac is clearly feeling no pain.) He then walks out carrying Betty, looks back at the doc and makes a noise not unlike that of a poodle in heat. The great thing is that the entire scene is done in such a relaxed manner that it almost seems like a rehearsal for the real scene yet to be shot.

As if that wasn’t enough, here comes another great scene. (In fact, the entire film now becomes one laughable scene after another, as if all seeming pretense to make a decent picture has been tossed out the window.) As Drac has come for Betty, the doc is in a panic. What to do? I know – I’ll get Billy. He’ll know what to do! She goes to the jail to try and spring Billy, but the sheriff is a party pooper: Billy has to stay put until the trial. At this point, and it’s done so nonchalantly, the doc – a little old aging and overweight lady – completely disarms the sheriff by taking his pistol from its holster with little effort and giving it to Billy, whereupon the sheriff reluctantly releases Billy on his own recognizance.

Before Billy leaves to have it out with Drac we are treated to some of the most inane dialogue in the picture. The doc offers her scapel to Billy to do Drac in: “Billy!” she says. “Take this! That gun will do you no good against him!” Billy, as stone-headed as ever, simply replies that he’s never see a man yet that a bullet won’t stop. “But he’s not a man!” replies the doc. Billy shrugs, fingers his gun and simply says, “This’ll do.”

Now it’s time for the final confrontation. After taking Betty home, Drac has now moved her to the abandoned silver mine. Earlier he had been scoping out the mine, and now we know why: it’s a honeymoon hotel. Drac has a double bed set up and ready to go. In a mine, yet. But here comes Billy, yelling out Betty’s name so Drac can hear him. What does Drac do? He hides. Perhaps he intends to jump out and yell “Surprise!” But a few seconds later he comes out of hiding to do battle. Drac is kicking Billy‘s ass, knocking him down. Billy draws and fires, but as the doc said, bullets have no effect. So what does Billy do now? He throws his gun at Drac, of course (as if he’s been paying attention to television episodes of Superman), and from the sound Drac makes Billy has hit his target. In fact, the gun hits Drac right on the schnozz and I think Drac’s cry wasn’t in the script. Drac falls down and out. The sheriff and the doc have been following closely behind, of course, and the doc now hands Billy her scalpel, which Billy uses to drive into Drac’s heart. We now suddenly cut to a shot of the rubber bat flapping around outside on its string. Suddenly, it falls to the ground – dead. Wait, isn’t Drac the bat? Is Beuadine trying to go metaphysical on us with this bit of symbolism, as if Drac’s soul were trying to escape? Why are we even discussing this, anyway? Right before the movie ends, we cut back to Drac, who is nothing more than a pile of bones. Guess he won’t be troubling us anymore.

This film plays rather fast and loose with the vampire legend. Carradine walks around in the daylight, a no-no for a vampire, but considering the almost nonexistent day-for-night shots, it was just as well, anyway. Carradine also carries no coffin around with him. He also sits down to dinner later in the film: vampires aren’t supposed to eat, other than drinking blood for nourishment. As for some who feel that driving a metal stake into Carradine violates the custom of a wooden stake, I would point out that several films in the past have employed metal stakes.

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is truly a laugh riot, but if it has one redeeming feature, it’s the plethora of good character actors that work in it. Besides the top-billed Carradine, we have Harry Carey Jr. as the stage driver and his mother, Olive, in her last film role as the doc. Virginia Christine, who gained undying fame as Mrs. Olsen in the Folger coffee commercials, is Eva Oster, and Walter Janovitz, best remembered by television fans for his turn as dog keeper Oscar Schnitzler in Hogan’s Heroes, is her husband Franz. Ex-foreman Thgrpe is played by Bing Russell, father of Kurt, and the sheriff is B-movie stalwart Roy Barcroft, famous for his appearance if the Republic serials of the ‘40s and early ‘50s. And Indian maiden Charlita Roeder (sometimes billed by just her first name) had previously worked for Beaudine in his 1952 classic, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

If anyone could be said to fail in this film, it’s Chuck Courtney, whose Billy the Kid comes off like bland Marshmallow Fluff instead of a tough guy trying to reform. Perhaps he simply lost interest in the film, because Courtney had a quite a career forbore this as a solid actor. He had previously worked for Beaudine, getting critical plaudits for his role in Born to the Saddle (Astor, 1953). He played Dan Reid, nephew to Clayton Moore on the long-running hit The Lone Ranger. He was also a favorite of both John Wayne and Robert Conrad, who employed him in many of their vehicles. In 1994, he received The Golden Boot award for his contribution to Western films. A series of strokes that left him totally debilitated led him to take his own life in 2000 at the age of 69.

Memorable Dialogue: Billy runs into Betty outside the abandoned silver mine and asks what’s going on.

Billy: Where’s your uncle?
Betty: Inside.
Billy: What’s he doing in an abandoned mine?
Betty: That’s his business.
Billy: Maybe it’s my business, too.
Betty: (Breaks down) Oh, Billy, what’s happening to us? We’ve never quarreled like this before, ever!

Miscellany: This was Carradine’s first attempt at a vampire role since playing Dracula in Universal’s House of Dracula in 1945 . . . Billy the Kid vs. Dracula was originally slated to begin production in 1961 with Joe Breen as director . . . The film was shot in anywhere from 5 to 8 days . . . Interiors for the film were shot at The Producer's Studio in Hollywood and exteriors at Corriganville, Hollywood stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan's ranch in California's Simi Valley. The ranch was also used for King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), and Sam Fuller's The Baron of Arizona (1950) . . . In Universal’s The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), evil high priest Carradine stalks reincarnated Egyptian princess Ananka, played by none other than Virginia Christine.

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