Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)

From Out of the Grave Stalks the Creature that Undrapes the Passions of the Living!

Theatrical poster image from Curse of the Living Corpse

Rufus Sinclair, a wealthy family man in 1892 New England fears nothing so much as being buried alive. A wise man, he has the wherewithal to put certain stipulations into his last will and testament to ensure that such a thing will not happen. When Rufus does kick the bucket, his family is quick to do nearly everything that they were specifically requested not to do. At the reading of the will, Rufus’s lawyer Benson (Hugh Franklin) recites the titular curse of the living corpse—or as close to an actual curse as this movie has to offer: anyone who does not adhere to his wishes will be killed in a means related to their deepest fear.

Sure enough, one-by-one the family members (and their closest servants) are murdered for their transgressions, exactly as Rufus said they would be.

Funeral scene from Curse of the Living Corpse

It’s a little light on story and logic occasionally goes by the wayside, but it’s actually quite entertaining and it looks damn good. There are some interesting camera angles, beautiful use of shadows, and atmosphere to spare. The direction is pretty solid and the performances, while sometimes lapsing into floridity, are mostly quite good, too. It has the feel of a lost William Castle film, which I mean in the best possible way. For me, the only major misstep is the introduction of the comic relief constables in the last third of the movie, who usually just get in the way. It’s supposed to take place in the 1800s, but it’s busting at the seams with 1960s sexuality—which is always pretty impressive considering how many layers of clothes people wear in these period pieces.

There are quite a few characters to keep track of throughout the proceedings, but most of them possess a single quality that defines them and are otherwise pretty flat. Mother Abigail (Helen Waren) is weak and easily manipulated; sons Bruce (Robert Milli) and Philip (Roy Scheider) are a shallow womanizer and a rotten drunk, respectively; and Philip’s wife Vivian (Margot Hartman) is greedy and money-hungry. Only nephew Robert (Dino Narizzano) and his girlfriend Deborah (Candace Hilligoss) seem to be decent people, and servants Seth (J. Frank Lucas) and Letty (the beautiful Linda Donovan), at worst, are simply not very good at their job. But the phantom that is the living corpse kills indiscriminately, because that’s what living corpses do.

If you’re going into this expecting anything akin to a zombie movie, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Our killer here is not some rotting-fleshed ghoul, but rather a well-dressed Man of Mystery, complete with wide-brimmed hat, sword-cane, and a scarf wrapped oh-so-carefully around his face. He’s much closer in appearance to pulp hero the Shadow than anything dreamt up by Fulci or Romero. Structurally speaking, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE plays out like an update of the Old Dark House pseudo-horrors of the 1930s and 40s with a proto-slasher twist. A human head even gets served on a platter!

Writer-producer-director Del Tenney was the “Living Corpse” in the majority of the scenes, a means to obscure the true killer’s identity. He (along with associate producer Alan Iselin) also gave us the wildly different HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, with which this film was double-billed and released by Twentieth Century-Fox. For a bit more information about the man, please check out my piece on that movie. As with PARTY BEACH, CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE was shot over a period of about two weeks at the Gutzon Borglum estate in Stamford, CT. If you ever get the chance, watch both films back-to-back, the way that God intended.

The living corpse, from Curse of the Living Corpse

A good deal of the cast were stage actors of varying success that Tenney was aware of due to his theater ties, and some of them went on to moderate careers in TV and movies. For our purposes here, though, we’ll only concentrate on a select few. Roy Scheider is obviously the big name in the film today, though that wasn’t the case at the time. Prior to this, he had only appeared on a few television shows, and CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE was his first movie role. He went onto many bigger projects including THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), JAWS (1975) and JAWS 2 (1978), MARATHON MAN (1976), and NAKED LUNCH (1991), before passing away in 2008.

Candace Hilligoss is a name familiar to genre fans though she only starred in one other film—1962’s surrealistic masterpiece CARNIVAL OF SOULS. She already knew Tenney prior to this film, and in fact he had wanted her to appear in the first movie that he produced, VIOLENT MIDNIGHT (1963), but it didn’t work out. She was able to accept this role, though, despite the fact that she was 5 ½ months pregnant during filming. In order to obscure her growing stomach, they padded her chest even further—true movie magic. Hilligoss and Scheider were acquainted because they had acted onstage together in Washington, D.C., and in fact she was subletting her Hell’s Kitchen apartment to Scheider and his new family at this time—and she was responsible for getting him cast in the role as Philip. After her two film roles, she virtually retired from the screen but continued acting on stage for a bit, before giving it up all together to raise her family. She has since turned to writing, and has completed a novel entitled Dakota Ashes, which she is seeking to get published, and her memoir, The Odyssey and the Idiocy, which is available for purchase at her official website.

The steamy bath scene, from Curse of the Living Corpse

Margot Hartman, she of the steamy bath scene here, was actually Del Tenney’s wife. She can also be found in VIOLENT MIDNIGHT (1963), VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1968), CLEAN AND NARROW (1999), DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET (2001), and DESCENDANT (2003)—the last three of which were produced by Del Mar Productions, a partnership between Tenney, Hartman and filmmaker Kevin Christman. Tenney passed away in 2013, and Hartman is currently the Chairman of the Board of the First Stamford Corporation, a major commercial real estate company in Stamford, CT. She also published a novel, Dark Dreams, Sweet Songs: A Journal of Sorts in 1995.

Helen Warren, who played the matriarch of the family, only has one further credit to her name according to the IMDb: the short-lived medical soap opera THE GREATEST GIFT, which ran from 1954-1955. She also had five featured roles on Broadway, but apart from all of that, her story still remains the most fascinating. In 1944 she went overseas with the USO to entertain the troops who were serving in WWII. While in Rome, she came into contact with many displaced Jews who were just wandering the land without any real place to go. She joined forces with the Haganah—the equivalent of the army that Israel had before becoming a state. She worked undercover for them while in the USO, as well as after the war while her cover job was working as a correspondent for the New York Star. She helped smuggle immigrants across the border to Israel, eventually getting herself arrested by British officials. After her release, she returned home and wrote the book The Buried Are Screaming, which she used to earn money for the state of Israel. This book detailed portions of her experiences and encounters, but much of them were required to remain secret. In public, she went on lecture tours to raise awareness and dedicated a decade of her life to establishing the state of Israel. She later returned to stage life, founding and directing the Double Image Theater and the Seasoned Citizens Theatre Workshop in New York. She was married to successful real estate broker Jules Mayer for 45 years until his death in 1997, and together they had a son, Max. Helen passed away in 2012 at the age of 96.

Continuing the showbiz bloodline, Max Mayer founded New York Stage and Film in 1985 with friends Leslie Urdang and Mark Linn-Baker (Cousin Larry Appleton from the sitcom PERFECT STRANGERS)—a “not-for-profit company dedicated to the development and production of exciting new works for theater and film.” He has also done some television work—directing episodes of ALIAS and THE WEST WING—as well as some films. His 2009 movie ADAM starred Hugh Dancy as a young man with Asperger’s having an unorthodox romance with Rose Byrne and earned him the Alfred P. Sloane Feature Film Prize at 2009’s Sundance Film Festival. His 2013 coming-of-age film AS COOL AS I AM didn’t fare quite as well, but it was really his debut feature, 1998’s BETTER LIVING that brings everything full circle for us, as it featured Roy Scheider in a prominent role.

Mother must’ve been proud.

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