Decades before Cowboys & Aliens moviegoers watched Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Haunted Gold, before they saw Daniel Craig take on the Martians, cowboys have fought dinosaurs, ghosts, demons, vampires and even Frankenstein’s daughter.
Since the advent of sound, Western movie producers have been looking for ways to goose their cowboy sagas, and they have often looked to Horror and Science Fiction plot twists to do it.
The history of these odd films stretches from early sound serials to “B” films (
Haunted Gold, starring John Wayne), Fantasies ( The Ghost Goes West) to the full-out Western Horrors of the 1950s, like Curse of the Undead and Beast of Hollow Mountain, while 20th Century Fox stuck its boots in the trough with the bizarre The Fiend Who Walked the West, starring future mogul Robert Evans. And did a greater kiddie matinee double-feature exist than Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, both directed by the legendary William Beaudine?
Upping the budgets in the 1960s, special effects icon Ray Harryhausen made the ultimate “cowboys vs. dinos” flick with
The Valley of Gwangi, while the world of Euro-Westerns was introducing Horror elements in any number of Spaghetti Westerns ( Cut-Throats Nine, Django Kill!), culminating in Clint Eastwood’s ghostly saga, High Plains Drifter.
The modern West has been plagued with demon knights (
The Thing That Wouldn’t Die) and Kathryn Bigelow’s genre-shaping vampires in Near Dark. The direct-to-dvd world has given us Grim Prairie Tales and the quite good Eye of the Devil among others.
In showcasing some of these films, we present you a “new” genre that was actually born 80 years before Mr. Spielberg gave us his blockbuster.
BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA John Carradine declared, “Of all the pictures I made,
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula has to be the worst!” Actually, Carradine made worse films during his down years, but this infamous title is one of Hollywood’s legendary turkeys and a movie everyone seems to have seen. Made for the kiddie matinee crowd by “B” legend William Beaudine, the 1966 film is odd, dull, hilarious and jaw dropping. Add to this the many familiar faces from John Ford’s stock company, and Billy/Dracula takes on a truly bizarre quality. Carradine really hams it up, bless him, which actually makes Billy a better film than its co-feature, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein.
THE WHITE BUFFALO
Moby Dick Goes West: Director J. Lee Thompson (in long white jacket) and star Charles Bronson (wearing a hat) are shown on set, waiting for the cameras to roll on their monster movie, with Bronson as Wild Bill Hickok tracking the white buffalo that haunts his dreams. Thompson ( Cape Fear) ran with Richard Sale’s script, turning Hickok into Ahab, and created a slick, snowbound hallucination in The White Buffalo, with Bronson as tortured hero. This odd, off-center 1977 film features a good cast (Will Sampson, Jack Warden) and a thundering score, courtesy of John Barry. Carlo Rambaldi constructed the beast (see the monster without his skin, top left), as he did the alien in Steven Spielberg’s ET. Strange fun if you’re in the mood; others, beware.
CURSE OF THE UNDEAD During the 1950s Sci-Fi boom, Universal resurrected its gothic horrors in the Old West and pitted a vampire against a preacher in a showdown for the rancher’s daughter. Old stuff indeed, but this 1959 film was heightened by
Hondo’s Michael Pate as a Lugosi-like vampire. Pate’s deadly figure is more charismatic than stalwart Eric Fleming, fresh from his Rawhide cattle drive, but Fleming is on the side of the angels; when he carves a cross into the bullets of his gun—well, you know who’s going to bite the dust. Western artist Reynold Brown painted the iconic poster.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER Starting with the liquid visuals of its opening credits, and the stark, hellish imagery of its setting and characters, the 1973 movie has Clint Eastwood transforming Ernest Tidyman’s revenge Western into a multi-layered ghost story. Eastwood’s gunslinger is now a true avenging spirit, brought to the town of Lago by the cowardice of its people who let their sheriff be whipped to death by outlaws. The influences of
Dirty Harry director Don Siegel (whose name is on the grave in the film poster) and Spaghetti Westerns icon Sergio Leone (also a headstone) are enormous on Eastwood’s second film as director, as he pushes the boundaries of the Western to Horror extremes. The fiery climax and ambiguous ending have become classic moments of the new Western.
Ernest Tidyman had just won the Oscar for the screenplay of 1971’s
The French Connection when he sold his Western novel, High Plains Drifter, to Universal. The script went through rewrites, including a draft by Eastwood collaborator Dean Riesner (1971’s Dirty Harry). Tidyman’s novel is a combination of his original treatment, as well as the rewrites on the screenplay, emphasizing the mystical aspects of the story.
MOON ZERO TWO James Olson is ready for a showdown in the Space Western
Moon Zero Two, produced by the British genre giants Hammer Films. Before Outland’s claim to be “High Noon in Space,” Moon Zero Two got there first, in 1969, with its miners vs. lunar-land barons story, starring Olson as the moonslinger for hire. Westerns references abound, and the film features a pre- Star Wars saloon, complete with batwing doors and dancing girls. Betrayed by its modest budget, Moon is still colorful and silly, with funky animated credits and a hideous theme song. Roy Ward Baker ( The Vampire Lovers, Asylum) directed.
JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER Wow. From the sublime to the ridiculous,
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter actually beats its co-feature Billy the Kid vs. Dracula for inane story and dialogue, which is no small feat. While Billy had John Carradine, Jesse has Narda Onyx as Dr. Maria Frankenstein, rolling her eyes and lusting for her new monster. Narda gives it her all to scare the front row kids, and John Lupton is a better Jesse than Chuck Courtney was Billy the Kid, but this one needed a Carradine transfusion! Jim Davis and other vets try their best, wishing they were someplace else. Beaudine directs again for producer Carroll Case ( Two Mules for Sister Sara) in this 1966 film.
HAUNTED GOLD John Wayne ventures into a haunted mine and takes on the mysterious Phantom in one of his most watchable early “B” flicks. All the spooky clichés are here—eyes peering from secret panels, clutching hands, ghostly screams—until that last 20 minutes of amazing stunt work and surprising violence. That Wayne’s horse “Duke” fights the bad guys alone makes us cheer, but his comedy sidekick, Blue Washington, now makes us wince. Producer Leon Schlesinger, of Looney Tunes fame, supplied the bat-filled animated titles. The 1932 movie is a Horror Mystery disguised as a poverty row Horse Opera, and it’s a true time capsule of the period.
NEAR DARK Evil’s face in the New West: Lance Henriksen as the vampire leader in Kathryn Bigelow’s
Near Dark. Bigelow’s vision of the undead scouring the desert for victims replaces cape and coffins with bloody rags and four-wheel drive. But the New West is not far from the Old—the vampires are a war party, attacking everything in their path and kidnapping a teenage boy. In classic tradition, the father (Tim Thomerson) must take matters into his own hands and rescue his son. This 1987 film is a cult flick from the Academy Award-winning director of 2008’s The Hurt Locker.
THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST Fox’s decision to remake
Kiss of Death as a Western resulted in this sadistic, horror-laden, period thriller. Future mogul Robert Evans’s giggling performance as the psychopath is creepier than Richard Widmark’s original, thanks to his teen idol looks and shrill voice. This 1958 flick is pure studio product, slickly directed by veteran Gordon Douglas, whose Westerns ranged from good (1964’s Rio Conchos, 1951’s Only the Valiant), to indifferent (1957’s The Big Land, 1967’s Chuka), to poor (1966’s Stagecoach). Hugh O’Brian is just fine as the hero, but it’s Evans who makes our skin crawl and the movie tick.
THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE Universal was winding down its “B” Horror unit when it unleashed this unpleasant tale of a disembodied head controlling the mind of a young girl and her family on their ranch. A Chiller Theatre staple, the 1958 classic offered up the sight of the headless corpse emerging from its coffin that was the stuff of 10 year olds’ nightmares. Directed by veteran serial producer Will Cowan,
The Thing That Couldn’t Die still delivers bottom-rung chills and reminds us of those bloodless horrors that terrified us years ago.
THE VALLEY OF GWANGI The idea of cowboys fighting dinosaurs sprung from the mind of
King Kong creator Willis O’Brien in the early 1940s, but his protégé, Ray Harryhausen, turned it into a reality in 1969. Harryhausen saw the project as a family entertainment, which it surely is. What kid could resist the sight of dinosaurs rampaging through old Mexico City or a pterodactyl being lassoed, all to Jerome Moross’s iconic music? Actually, many resisted; the film did poorly when released. Now, it is recognized as a mini-classic, and it is a personal favorite of directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
WESTWORLD An iconic image for Western and Sci-Fi fans: the disconnected face of gunfighter Yul Brynner in Michael Crichton’s genre-bending
Westworld. This 1973 tale of robots-gone-berserk has been a major influence on filmmakers from Steven Spielberg to Ridley Scott, and it paved the way for Cowboys & Aliens. This is all the more amazing when you consider the film’s modest budget, first-time film director and a studio that was literally selling off the sets as soon as shooting wrapped. Despite its Sci-Fi trappings, Westworld is a true Western, with one of the baddest bad guys ever, and that’s what makes it work.