John Carradine loved to act.
Well, of course he did. Actors do, generally. However, John Carradine really loved to act. Born Richmond Reed Carradine, he redubbed his own name in homage to his friend and idol John Barrymore. Mr. Barrymore was both the greatest actor of his day and remains one of Hollywood’s most legendary drunks. And the latter is saying something. The youthful John Carradine sought to emulate him in both regards.
Mr. Carradine’s career spanned 6 decades and hundreds and hundreds of movies, radio and TV shows and stage productions. He was a member of John Ford’s stock company, and also worked on several occasions for William “One Shot” Beaudine. There were no small parts for John Carradine, only small actors. And Mr. Carradine was never small.
In his off-hours he developed a reputation of the “Bard of the Boulevard,” accosting strolling tourists and passersby with stentorian declamations of Shakespearean soliloquies. In the 1940s he alternated appearances in prestige pictures like The Grapes of Wrath with those skid row productions like Voodoo Man. He was second billed in the latter, after Bela Lugosi but before George Zucco. That sounds about right to me.
Mr. Carradine continued to act nearly until the day he died. Death’s victory was fleeting, however, for he had successfully passed on his thespian passion to his progeny. Four of his sons because actors; David, Keith, Robert and Bruce. The former two especially had successful careers. Several of Mr. Carradine’s grandchildren became actors as well, including Robert’s daughter Margaret Plimpton.
During his long career, John Carradine worked for John Ford, Edgar G. Ulmer, Victor Fleming, Fritz Lang, Henry Hathaway, Rouben Mamoulian, Edward Dmytryk, Douglas Sirk, Rowland Lee, Nicholas Ray, Michael Curtiz, Cecil B. DeMille, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Dan Curtis, Don Siegel, Elia Kazan, Walter Hill, Francis Ford Coppola, (of course) Joe Dante and Jerry Lewis.
He also worked for William Beaudine, Jerry Warren, Coleman Francis, Al Adamson, Ted V. Mikels, Russ Meyer, Irwin Allen, Albert Zugsmith, Greydon Clark, Charles Band, Ulli Lummel, (of course) Fred Olen Ray and Jerry Lewis.
Mr. Carradine appeared in movies, including DTV releases, between 1930 and 1990. When he made his first film, Herbert Hoover was President. When he made his last, it was George H.W. Bush. He continued to act until he was over eighty years of age. This despite the fact that as he grew older he became afflicted with arthritis, crippling his once elegant but now painfully gnarled hands. By the end of his career he had accumulated nearly 350 IMDB credits, covering just his film and TV work.
I’m sure money was a motivation, but like any old trooper, Mr. Carradine purely loved his craft. One reason that in his heyday he bounced from prestige ‘A’ pictures to grade ‘Z’ fare with Monogram and PRC is that he was using the money to fund his own Shakespearean repertory company. A fascinating chapter on this is included in Greg Mank’s latest book, The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema.
The troop staged alternating performances of Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and Othello. In the latter, Carradine would first play Othello, the next time Iago. I can imagine few things I would rather see than one or more of these performances. Mr. Carradine drew rave reviews for them, including his Hamlet. For a man mostly associated these days for the worst level of schlock, it’s nearly tragic that no recording of these survived.
Mr. Carradine’s association with horror was inevitable. His tall, imposing frame, cadaverously gaunt face, that remarkable boomingly deep baritone voice and the sheer intensity of his presence all made him a natural heavy. Although later he would also turn his hand occasionally to comedy—as his features ages he eventually gained a marked resemblance to Shemp Howard—he still mostly played sinister, creepy or at the least disreputable characters.
Ensuring his destiny with horror was the fact that Mr. Carradine did a lot of his early work at Universal. Among his earliest roles were bit parts in The Invisible Man and, more famously, The Bride of Frankenstein. Universal’s horror hiatus of the late 1930s, driven by Britain’s banning of such films, slowed his participation in such movies down.
If his genre work stalled, however, Mr. Carradine did not. He moved on and performed some of his most famous character roles in several John Ford movies. These included the shifty gambler in Stage Coach, the sadistic guard in The Prisoner of Shark Island and most notably, the Preacher in The Grapes of Wrath.
His next more or less genre appearance was in 1939’s horror-ish The Hound of the Baskervilles, the 20th Century Fox film which introduced Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. Mr. Carradine and Mr. Rathbone would be frequent costars in their sadly less glorious elder years. Mr. Rathbone always seemed more visibly displeased by this than Mr. Carradine, who plainly considered work to be work.
Universal’s horror hiatus saw Mr. Carradine performing in westerns, historicals and, increasingly, films where he played villainous Nazis. However, by the early 1940s, Universal was back in the horror game. Mr. Carradine was cast in his first mad scientist role in 1943’s Captive Wild Woman. After that, there was no stopping him, and he became increasingly associated with the genre.
That role opened the flood gates. 1943 also saw Mr. Carradine toplining Monogram’s Revenge of the Zombies. Of the 11 films he appeared in in 1944, six were horror pictures; Voodoo Man and Return of the Ape Man for Monogram, Bluebeard for PRC (an all too rare starring role), and The Invisible Man’s Revenge, The Mummy’s Ghost and House of Frankenstein for Universal. The die was cast.
Following World War II, the horror genre cooled down again. Following 1946’s obscure Face of Marble, another William Beaudine picture, it would be 10 years before his next horror picture. This was the star-studded (by our standards, anyway) but otherwise dreary The Black Sleep. It was a year that summed up Mr. Carradine’s career, which although fading still saw him playing small rolls in blockbusters like The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days.
In the meanwhile, Mr. Carradine had been mixing in a lot of TV work with his film appearances. 1957, however, presented a sad milestone. It was here he started appearing in ultra-cheapie fare for people like Jerry Warren. It was work, and it never stopped coming. Still, after this juncture Mr. Carradine would be increasingly more associated with bargain basement crap than the good stuff.
About the only prestige films he still appeared in were for his long-time employer John Ford. By now it must have been weird for him to appear opposite people like John Wayne and James Stewart, even for a single scene. Still, he never gave any project, no matter how awful, less than his best.
As a horror star Mr. Carradine tends today to be lumped in more with the George Zuccos and Lionel Atwills than the Big Five, or even standing in the second tier alongside Lon Chaney Jr. (Chaney Sr. was in a class of his own, by dint of appearing only in silent films.) Still, he’s probably the one you’re most likely to run across while watching crappy old movies, or even a few really good or great ones. Here’s to you, John Carradine. Long may your work live on.
There’s not a lot of joy to be had knocking Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Although Mr. Carradine would, sadly, appear in even worse films in the decades ahead, it’s a perfunctory, hapless affair. Presumably Mr. Carradine himself enjoyed being the topliner for a change, not to mention having the opportunity to once more assume perhaps his most famous role. No one else involved in the production, however, seems to have cared much about it.
And really, why should they have? Calling the picture lackluster makes it sound entirely more vivid than it is. Billy the Kid vs Dracula is a relentlessly cheap and formulaic entry. You’d think if nothing else that the sheer goofiness of the premise would give it some juice. Sadly, you’d be wrong.
The movie seems to have to have been shot in a week, if that. Given that it was helmed by William Beaudine, it probably was. It was produced solely to fill out a kiddie double bill with what I can only hope was the more entertaining Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.
Indeed, while the latter has at least been given a nifty DVD release with a nice presentation, Billy the Kid vs Dracula seems to have all but fallen off the Earth. There’s a typically disreputable Cheezy Flix burned DVD release, but it’s taken from an old VHS tape and looks as bad as…well, as the stills I’ve included here.
On the other hand, the film is available via streaming on Amazon. There you have the option of paying to watch a pretty decent widescreen Lionsgate version you can pay to watch. Sadly, they haven’t deemed the film worthy of a DVD release. The more economically inclined, however, can stream the Cheezy Flix version for free if you have an Amazon Prime membership.
While the horrible presentation afforded the film by Cheezy Flix makes the picture seem even worse than it is, even with a stellar print it would still be pretty bad. William Beaudine was the sort of director who aspired to mediocrity.
The two leads, meanwhile, are quite bloodless even before Dracula gets his mitts on them. They are both fairly attractive in a generic blonde fashion and able to read their lines and not much more. Not that the script gives them anything to work with. It’s written with the élan of the 27th episode of the fourth season of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.
That said, the cast isn’t bad in a technical sense. Mr. Beaudine was nearing the end of a career in which he shot nearly 400 movies, along with a couple of hundred TV episodes. He was famously awarded the sobriquet “One Shot” for his relentless tendency to print most anything he shot. Maybe that ‘corpse’ twitched or blinked, or that actor flubbed his line. Never mind, it was good enough.
However, even taking into account Mr. Beaudine’s level of quality, this sort of film-making required actors who could quickly learn their lines and hit their marks. That meant veteran actors. And while again nobody save Mr. Carradine seems overly invested here, everyone knew their business. Heck, Mr. Carradine wasn’t even the film’s only famous character actor. Harry Carrey Jr. was also briefly on hand, a long way from some of his other films like The Searchers.
If anything, some of the film’s cast is perhaps a bit too veteran. Our female lead Betty is played by Melinda Plowman, a TV actress whose entire persona can be summed up as “pretty.” She was inevitably 26 at the time of shooting, despite playing a role that we are explicitly told is 18. Of course, that’s business as usual for Hollywood, and remains so today.
The real life William “Billy the Kid” Bonney, meanwhile, died when he was about 20. Actor/stuntman Chuck Courtney was 36 (!) at the time the film was shot, making “the Kid” part sort of laughable. This is especially true when he assumes an expression of concern or bewilderment, which is rather often. Then his forehead wrinkles in a way that utterly fails to suggest any 20 year-old.
In a nutshell, the film makes me sad. Mr. Carradine made a quite fine Dracula in his day. However, he basically only got extended cameo appearances in his two Universal movies. This includes the one where he’s the title character. His actions in both films are largely discrete from those of his fellow fiends, Larry Talbot the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster.
Still, when his Dracula is in the screen, he’s great. The 40 year-old John Carradine was perfectly suited to play the Count. He was tall, elegant and aristocratic, gauntly slender and hypnotically charismatic. Needless to say, that voice was quite the asset as well. They even whitened his hair and mustache a little, the better to match descriptions from Bram Stoker’s novel.
Sadly, those were the only shots Mr. Carradine got at the role, at least in terms of appearing in good movies at the right age. The woefully miscast Lon Chaney Jr. played the role in the otherwise nifty Son of Dracula. Oh, if only Carradine had gotten that one. Then Bela Lugosi returned to the tux in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Mr. Carradine didn’t really get another crack at the role until here, and then as a more comically antiquated vampire in 1979’s Nocturna.
Given the short 73 minute running time and that the target audience was the kiddie matinee crowd, the film wisely wastes little time getting to it. We open on a covered wagon parked for the night next to some trees. The occupants are a middle aged couple from the Old Country, Eva* and Franz. We will soon glean their heritage from their amazingly subtle Germanic accents. These suggest that Franz’s friend Hans must be somewhere nearby.[*Eva is played by Virginia Kristine, a genre pro from back in the day when she played the reincarnated Princess Ananka in Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand. Despite a busy career lasting several decades, she is best remembered as Mrs. Olson, the commercial spokesperson for Folgers Coffee. She played the Mary Worth-esque Mrs. Olson for over 20 years, ultimately appearing in over a hundred commercials for Folgers.]
Papa Franz sleeps peacefully, but Mama Eva is spooked. Hearing a chattering squeak, she rouses Franz. She fears for their pretty young daughter Lisa, who slumbers nearby. Franz tries to calm her, but Eva remains vexed. Finally she rises and places her crucifix in their sleeping daughter’s hand. Then she returns to Franz’s side and goes to sleep.
Her fears are well justified, however. Unbeknownst to them the bat soon glides down—in a suspiciously straight line, if you know what I mean—before disappearing behind their wagon. Its arrival is heralded by spooky Theremin music, for which 1966 seems a bit late in the game. Still, it’s not like the picture is known for breaking a lot of ground.
The bat is pretty great, but then there are few things I love more than a rubber bat on a string. I’m not sure why Dracula is constantly chattering while in bat form, though. It seems kind of counterproductive. The weirdest thing about this particular bat prop is that it appears to have a squared-off head. I swear they were trying to suggest the top hat Carradine generally wore when he played Dracula. (Although one oddity is that the name “Dracula” is never actually spoken in the movie.)
Seconds after the bat disappears from sight a rather aged looking John Carradine—he was 60 at the time he made this—steps into sight. Movie magic, folks. How do they do it?
Mr. Carradine has chosen to adorn his trademark Dracula tux, tails and top hat with a rather dandified ruffled shirt and a ludicrously huge red loop tie. Meanwhile, his hair, eyebrows and pointy Satan beard are died an alarming shade of black. In close-up he pops his eyes for a hypnotic Dracula stare, his face lit up with a bright red gel for….I don’t know. Generally eeriness, I guess.
His victim pacified, he stoops over Lisa and bites her for a second or two. Gasping, Lisa’s hand pops open, revealing the cross her mother had secreted there. Dracula backs away and disappears through the highly technical “turn off the camera, move the actor, turn on the camera” method. Hey, you don’t direct nearly 400 movies without learning some incredibly complicated tricks.
Lisa gasps, calls for her mother and faints (I thought she died, actually, until she popped up again later in the picture). Eva and Franz run over and see the bite marks on her neck. For some reason, the film goes with the four bites marks thing, which always seems strange, but anyway. “Mein Gott!” Franz says, “It was a vampire!” I should note that Franz is utterly useless for the entire film. He basically just stands around, wringing his hands and moaning about how Eva will get them into trouble.
The credits are goofy fun, with the cards separated by a cartoon bat that swishes across the screen. Mr. Carradine gets top billing. Despite working for another 20 plus years, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the last time he was so credited. It’s almost certainly one of the last times it was warranted.
The next shot in the film proper is a close-up of Dracula yawning. I can’t say I’ve seen that too often. He’s in a stagecoach with three stereotypes. There’s the overly chatty and foolish matron, Mrs. Bentley, her wealthy, just-arrived-from-Boston banker brother, James Underhill,* and Joe Flake, a (what else?) odious comic relief whiskey drummer. He’s an overly jovial drunk, go figure.[*It’s not the best thing ever, but given that Dracula will soon be assuming Underhill’s identity, the latter’s name is marginally droll.]
Playing to type, Mrs. Bentley starts nattering at their new fellow passenger. She admits she was frightened at first, as the Count was just recently picked up from the side of the road, out in the wild. At this point there’s no stopping her gush of verbiage. She handily explicates both her brother’s new-to-the-west situation and preens about her beautiful *cough* 18 year old daughter, Betty.
“Would you like to see [her picture]?” she asks. “Eighteen and beautiful?” Dracula leers, “yes, I would like to see her.” Mrs. Bentley hands the picture over. We then get a terrific, really exaggerated pop-eyed expression from Mr. Carradine as he stares at the picture. “She is very beautiful,” he says, staring a hole into the photo.
I mean, he’s seated like two feet in front of the woman’s mom, you might think he’d play it a bit cooler. The oblivious Mrs. Bentley is pleased as punch, however, as Betty draws the approbation of this obviously distinguished gentleman. Mrs. Bentley even happily passes the photo back when the Count when out of the blue he asks to see it again a few minutes later. Smooth.
Mrs. Bentley then starts talking about their cattle ranch. Her deceased husband also owned a silver mine, but now it’s played out. At this point it’s but a huge, abandoned cave. “A cave?!!” Dracula booms, a full John Carradine boom, while once again googling his eyes. As if he wasn’t acting suspiciously enough. How did this guy ever survive through the centuries?
We also get some, er, comedy from Joe Flake, the whiskey drummer. “How about you, Senator?” he says, offering a bottle of hooch to Dracula. The Count naturally refuses. At least they don’t have him reply, “I never drink…whiskey.” Hmm, maybe they should have at that. If you’re making a film called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, you might as well run with it.
With the necessary exposition out of the way, the coach now arrives at a trading post. Joe Flake is excited to see a “wandering band of Indians” camping nearby. “Maybe I can sell them some firewater!” he enthuses. Needless to say, this idea isn’t extremely popular with his fellows.
The others enter the post, but Dracula stays outside. He stares at an Indian squaw drawing water from a well. He’s probably struck by her exact resemblance to the Land O Lakes Butter maiden. Or maybe he’s hoping she’ll do the “butter trick.” Anyway, she doesn’t, so he *cough* dematerializes and reappears over by her. Dude, seriously? She was like 20 feet away from you! Anyway, they reuse the red gel shot from before and then he dematerializes again. End scene.
In the morning, the coach is preparing to leave. Dracula is missing, though, because, you know, the daylight thing. They basically assume he’s just eccentric and shrug it off. Being an easterner, meanwhile, Underhill casts a jaundiced eye at the camping “savages.” The owner of the trading post assures him the natives have been peaceful for many years, now.
Sadly, though, this peaceful state of affairs comes to a rapid close after the braves discover the exsanguinated corpse of the Land O Lakes maiden. They are pretty pissed, probably realizing that now they only have that Crying Indian guy. They mount up and go after the stage coach, allowing for a stock footage chase sequence from a more expensive movie.
We economically cut to the aftermath of an unseen massacre. The brutal murder of the comic relief characters seems tough but fair. After a few seconds Dracula in bat form flies over to the bodies scattered around the upturned coach. I guess it’s night, despite all the evident shadows. I mean, Dracula’s out, and if it were daytime he’d be destroyed, so it be night. QED. He rifles through Mrs. Bentley’s purse and steals the locket with the picture of Betty. One more eye-popping leer and…
…we transition to the ‘real’ Betty. How artistically cunning of a segue! This is not only our introduction to Betty, but to Billy. The music, meanwhile, is exactly the sort of cheerful tune music you’d get in a short subject from the 1940s featuring wholesome teens going to a carnival.
Betty is tossing cans in the air and Billy is shooting them. Because he’s Billy the Kid and good with a gun, you see. (Not that this skill will come into play, much.) We also learn that the reformed Billy is now the foreman of Mrs. Bentley’s ranch, and moreover that Billy and Betty are secretly engaged. Presumably they plan to have a passel of neutrally pretty and extraordinarily dull children. None of whom would be Einstein, if you know what I mean.
We also meet, looking on from a distance, Dan Thorpe. He’s the guy who Billy displaced as foreman, and with Betty. Since Betty is only 18, I can’t imagine they really had anything going, but that’s the story. The idea being that Thorpe is not Billy’s biggest fan. He’s kind of disgruntled, you see, because of the things with the job and Betty. Just so you understand his motivations here.
Cut to town, where Dracula in his bat form comes gliding in on an impressively straight line, almost like he was attached to a wire, to the door of the local saloon. Man, they sure get a lot of bright moonlight in these parts. I mean, like really bright.
Seconds later he enters the saloon in his human form. Since the film requires it, this is the only such establishment in the history of the Hollywood Western not to have a long mirror behind the bar. Dracula announces himself to be bum bum bum James Underhill. For convenience’s sake, I’ll call him Underhill from now on, to avoid switching back and forth.
Underhill rents a room from Pete the bartender and leaves instructions not to disturb him until the coach with his sister Mrs. Bentley arrives. Soon Billy comes riding up, expecting to meet the stage. He pops into the saloon and Pete tells him about his guest. “There’s a gent upstairs, calls himself James Underhill,” he says. Pete must be the most ill-informed Western bartender ever if he hadn’t heard a wealthy Boston millionaire was due to arrive in town.
Billy, knowing Underhill was due to arrive on the stage with his boss, goes up to check things out. He knocks on Underhill’s door. Despite having left word he wanted no interruptions, ‘Underhill’ immediately invites this stranger in. Billy enters and introduces himself as the ranch foreman.
For his part, Underhill explains that he decided to ride in ahead of the stage, since he finds such a conveyance too slow. Billy accepts this story, proving rather trusting for a former murderous outlaw. Underhill is vocally displeased, however, at the informality with which Billy talks about Betty.
Before they can get into it, though, Pete enters and announces that the stage was attacked. Billy leaves with Pete to gather information, while Underhill just stays in his room. Yes, why would he be interested in the news that the stage his sister was on was attacked? I mean, go all the way downstairs to hear the news?
Downstairs, Billy gets the fact from Ben (a slumming Harry Carey Jr.). The news has been brought by none other of the Osters, including Lisa, who are sitting at a nearby table. They babble about vampires. Well, Eva does. Franz is all, “Oh, no, Mama!”
Weirdly, everyone in town seems at least somewhat conversant with the idea of vampires. Let’s see. Billy died in 1881. Let’s say that he actually lived and is at the outside now 30 (I mean, he’s planning to marry the 18 year old Betty). This would set the picture about 1891. Bram Stoker didn’t publish his novel until 1897. Even then, surely it would have taken several more years for even that seminal event to spread vampire folklore as far as the American west.
Thorpe stops Billy to sneer at the fact that Mrs. Bentley is dead now. Perhaps Billy’s job won’t be as secure as he thinks, he says. Thorpe goes too far, though, and actually insults the freshly murdered Mrs. Bentley. What a dick. The much smaller Billy naturally punches him and knocks him to the floor. When it looks like his rival might go for his gun, Billy quick draws his. The belligerent Thorpe is forced to back down.
This is the only time we see Billy actually draw his pistol like that, and even now he returns it to his holster unfired. Again, this is sort of weird given that they’ve made their hero a real-life, legendary quick draw artist. Of course, his final confrontation with Thorpe has merely been deferred. I think we all know how slim the odds of the latter getting out of the movie alive.
Billy goes to report to Underhill. However, the villain had been listening in from the stairwell, hearing Eva warning the others of vampires. Obviously this is counterproductive to him. However, he wisely plays it smooth. In a fairly neat bit, he makes his presence known and acts all meek and mild. Think Dr. Smith from Lost in Space when he was kissing up to someone, and you’ll be in the right ballpark.
Even Lisa, terrified when she first sees him, is thrown off by his nice guy act. “I? A vampire?” he scoffs in exaggerated amazement when Lisa stutters out her accusation. He then presents the real Underhill’s pilfered wallet to the Sheriff as proof of his identity. He is instantly accepted as such, with only wise Eva keeping her suspicions. More important for Underhill, however, he manages to make the townsfolk even more dismissive of Eva’s rants.
Playing the nice guy, Underhill gives the Osters the key to his room. He can’t sleep after all the excitement, he explains. He notes that perhaps it’s best that he just head out to the ranch.
Riding back to the ranch during one of the brightest nights you’ll ever see, Billy comes across Betty. She’s driving a buckboard to town to meet up with her mother and uncle. Billy breaks the bad news, and she’s sad, blah blah blah. As you can imagine, this film falters badly whenever it focuses on its two callow leads.
Luckily, we quickly cut away to the Osters, who are preparing for sleep. Lisa and Eva will sleep together in the room’s bed, while Franz stations himself outside the door. Sadly, Underhill is, you know, a vampire. As soon as the ladies are asleep he flies outside their window in bat form.
Materializing instantly (and economically) in the room in human form, he does the hypnotic red face thing again. Lisa is mesmerized and he bites her. I have to say, this is a poor part for this young actress, who mostly is seen gaping in an open-mouthed fashion. And man, Eva sure is a sound sleeper. Good job there, Pinkerton.
Lisa gasps as she’s bit, rousing Franz out in the hallway. But again, not Eva, who is sleeping the same bed with her. Franz enters the room, finally waking his wife. They are too late, though. Their daughter is dead. That was quick work, since Underhill had been biting her for like five seconds. Also, what happened to Eva’s cross? Why didn’t she drape it around Lisa’s neck? I don’t know, Eva’s not very good at this fighting vampires stuff.
Things quickly take an ominous turn when we cut to Billy and Betty out at the ranch. Luckily, Underhill comes riding to the rescue—well, flying to the rescue—and knocks at the door. Betty is distraught over her mom’s death, of course, and instantly falls for Underhill’s (literally) avuncular act.
Billy is starting to get suspicious, however. First, he doesn’t get how Underhill arrived without them hearing a horse. Underhill tosses off a lame excuse about being driven to the ranch and then sending the driver back to town. More consternating to Billy is Underhill’s weirdly intense habit of remarking about how beautiful Betty is.
In town the next day, Billy learns of Lisa’s death. He talks to Eva and Franz, and Eva panics at the news that Underhill is now with Betty at the ranch. She tries to convince Billy that Underhill is a vampire, and implores him to keep Betty away from her supposed uncle. Even Franz admits that Underhill is a vampire, but he wants to flee the danger. Eva refuses; she will fight Underhill to avenge her daughter and protect others from him.
Billy naturally can’t believe their wild assertions. He does, however, remain suspicious of Underhill. Billy says he can get Eva and Franz work at the ranch house. Betty will need the help now that Mrs. Bentley is gone. Actually, Mrs. Bentley didn’t strike me as the sort to do a lot of housework or cooking, so it’s weird that there aren’t already servants. That’s the set-up, though.
Eva gets Billy riled up, and he charges back to the ranch to protect Betty. I was assuming this was the next day, and sure enough, it’s clearly day when he’s seen riding back to the ranch. However, when he bursts into the house, Underhill is casually chatting on the couch with Betty. Why did Billy ride into town the next night? Why not during the day?
Anyway, his rushing in all excited and expecting danger makes him look like a mook. Neatly seizing the opportunity, Underhill sarcastically explains to Betty that Billy must have believed the Osters’ crazy stories about him being a vampire.
Having just lost her mom, Betty is angry that the stuttering Billy is getting all weird about her newly arrived uncle. “I’m sorry. Mr. Underhill,” the wrinkle-browed Billy says. “There’s so much going on that I don’t understand.” You get the feeling this isn’t a new experience for Our Hero. Dracula’s greatest advantage over Billy, it seems, is that the Count isn’t a complete dumbass.
Underhill announces he is tired and will retire now. “I might sleep all day,” he notes. Yes, you’d think. Billy calms Betty down, and tells her about the murder in town. He plays on Betty’s sympathy for Eva and Franz to get them jobs here in the house.
We jump ahead to see the Osters arrive at the house, where they are greeted by Billy. It’s presumably later that night. Eva immediately knocks on Betty’s bedroom door, waking the sleeping girl. This seems more likely to immediately make Betty think Eva is a nut. Instead, she finds comfort in Eva’s motherly nature. I think that’s the idea, anyway. Just go with it.
She even lets Eva festoon the window with Wolf’s Bane, which drives away “bats and vampires.” And a good thing, too. A bit later we see Dracula in his bat form flying aside of it. He’s clearly stymied by the stuff from entering, though. When a prescient Eva enters the room to check on Betty, he flies out into the night unseen.
You know, it’s kind of too bad Eva that didn’t think to line their hotel window with Wolf’s Bane the night before when her own daughter was murdered. Anyhow, the film now introduces about its only wrinkle on vampire lore. Regular victims don’t turn into vampires in this universe, only those a vampire intends to make his “bride.” And clearly Dracula has his fangs set on Betty.
The next day Betty is telling Billy about Eva’s “weird ideas.” She shows Billy some of the Wolf’s Bane, and explains about how it’s supposed to keep bats and vampires out of her room. “You’re kidding!” Billy laughs, “Who told you that?” Good grief, what an idiot. Betty explains that it was Eva who told her that, and then probably reminds Billy not to pet his rabbit so hard.
Presumably because he was fang-blocked the night before, Underhill slaughtered one of the ranch’s sheep. The carcass was found by the seemingly inevitable “Indian Jim,” who reports having seen a big bat at the scene.
This is all reported to Billy by Thorpe. The two trade insults again, and once Billy turns his back, Thorpe sucker punches him. Billy regains his feet and they duke it out. Astoundingly, Thorpe is the one who wins. I mean, yes, in real life he would, as he’s much bigger than Billy. Still, it’s a weird thing in a Western to have the hero lose a fistfight against a single opponent.
Meanwhile, we see Eva sneaking around Underhill’s room. She turns around the room’s mirror to face outwards again, which seems a truly pointless gesture. Then Betty finds her trying to hang a cross over Betty’s bed. Quite exasperated by now, Betty orders both the cross and the Wolf’s Bane removed. “It’s the 19th century, not the middle ages!” she observes. A tearful Eva is forced to comply.
We cut to Billy being patched up in the office of Doc Hull, a tough old broad who looks a lot like Barbara Bush during the White House years. They discuss the whole vampire, and Billy admits he doesn’t know that much about them. “I ain’t had too much schooling,” he says, shamefaced. Yes, because schools back then taught one a great deal about vampires, I’m sure. (Again, this had to be nearly a decade at least before Bram Stoker’s novel was even published.)
In a weird and clunky bit of exposition, ‘Doc’ Hull explains she isn’t all that educated either. She expounds a bit of a monologue explaining how she followed husband, an actual doctor, out west. She helped him out and picked up some things, and then stayed in practice after he died to help out the townsfolk as she could. Still, I guess the screenwriter was trying out that there newfangled characterization thing.
In any case, this means Dracula left Transylvania and ended up coming to the American west. Once there he decides to settle down in a town so small it can’t even attract a real doctor. Yes, that makes sense. Especially since this version of Dracula seem to be one of those vampires that has to feed every night.
In a really hilarious moment, Doc crosses over to her husband’s small collection of maybe 10 books. Rather handily—I’ll say!—one of them just happens to explicate vampire folklore. Sure, why not? “Gosh!” Billy says. Again, the guy playing Billy is 36, and if anything looks 40. So he just seems kind of slow when he says things like gosh.
Billy asks how you identify a vampire. “There’s some footnotes here in German,” Doc replies, stumbling through them. Yes, many books have the main text in one language and the footnotes in another. It was a popular trend of the day. The author’s introduction was probably in Farsi.
Anyway, she explains that vampires don’t cast reflections in mirrors. That seems like a pretty easy test. In fact, it must have been a real pain for vampires to avoid mirrors all the time. They can never ride in the back seats of car, for instance. Doc jokes, “Don’t you go trying that on Mr. Underhill. You’ll be losing your job!” Yes, it’s a great cultural taboo to try to look at people in a mirror.
Back to the ranch. To Eva’s horror, Betty agrees to show her uncle the old abandoned mine. Here Underhill finally shows some spleen at Eva’s interference. However, this actually seems reasonable, all things considered. Betty just blandly defends Eva as “trying to help” and hurries to get ready for the trip.
We cut to them in the buckboard. Underhill tries to get Betty to show him inside, but she demurs. He’s disappointed, but doesn’t yet have enough control over her to force the issue. Frankly, she doesn’t seem that smart, so I’m not sure why he has so much trouble hypnotizing her. I guess because it’s not the time in the plot for that yet.
Billy suddenly comes riding up. This right after he’s found another lamb with a gashed throat, which is quite apparently an actual animal they killed for the sequence. Betty is again annoyed that Billy has this bug up his butt about her uncle. Meanwhile, Underhill eavesdrops from the mine entrance. He overhears Billy talking about getting him in front of a mirror.
Billy goes to town to question the Sheriff about an unidentified man found among the massacre victims. He explains his suspicions that the might have been the real James Underhill. The Sheriff remains highly dubious, but Thorpe overhears the conversation. (Man, there’s a lot of eavesdropping in this film.) Seeing the main chance, he leaves to inform Underhill about Billy’s snooping.
At the ranch he does just that. Underhill sees an opportunity to get rid of the meddlesome Billy, and promises to give Thorpe his foreman job back. He confronts Billy later, but Billy says it’s Betty’s decision who the foreman is. Underhill calls Betty in, and smugly informs her that Billy is none other than the notorious Billy the Kid.
He’s nonplussed by her blasé reaction to this intelligence. He is astounded to be informed that Betty intends to marry Billy. Betty even stands up to Underhill when he refuses to permit such a thing. However, her uncle has another card to play. He’s her legal guardian until the age of 21.
So saying, he locks her in her bedroom and tells Billy to get off the ranch. Thorpe and the other men will have orders to shoot him on sight if he ever comes back. Underhill also consigns Eva and Franz to sleep in the bunkhouse during the night. Betty will now be alone in the house and at his mercy.
A mordant Billy is found drinking beer at the saloon. It’s late enough the business is closed, and Pete offers Billy a room upstairs. Suddenly someone starts pounding on the door. Pete opens it to investigate, and Thorpe pushes his way inside. Underhill has decided he wants Billy out of town altogether. Thorpe gets the drop on Billy, but is distracted by Pete. A brief shootout occurs, and of course Billy emerges the victor. And so that subplot is wrapped up.
Billy goes to Doc’s for advice. Unfortunately, Underhill now has free access to Betty, and he utilizes it. He finally succeeds in mesmerizing her, and she is soon bitten. Mr. Carradine actually turns down the camp here, and we see what a more serious film might have been like.
The next day (I guess, although half the ‘nights’ in this picture look like the day) Billy rides up to the ranch house. I guess we’re to forget that thing where all of the hands have orders to shoot him. The script probably just forgot about this. I guess it’s possible that with Thorpe dead there’s nobody around who would actually shoot him. Really, though, that’s me doing the film’s thinking for it.
Eva has just found the comatose Betty, with obvious bite marks on her neck. Cut to Doc Hull’s, where Betty is being examined. After looking over Betty’s unresponsive, inert form, Doc makes her professional call. “I don’t like it,” she harrumphs. “I don’t like it a bit.”
Wow, thanks, Doc! You’re a life saver. Still, compared to Billy she remains a genius. “What are those bites on her neck?” our perplexed hero inquires. Good grief, man. Just go sit in a chair and try not to fall out of it.
Apparently the film needed to be a little longer, so the Sheriff comes and asks Billy to surrender himself. Although there is a witness to the fact that Thorpe’s shooting was in self-defense, there still needs to be a trial. Since Billy’s a good guy now he complies, although on the way out he asks Doc to look after Betty for him.
That night, the Count is surprised at finding Betty’s bleeding, comatose form missing from her bedroom. OK, so he’s no genius either. Dracula—time to let the Underhill thing go, I think—rushes into the kitchen to interrogate the Osters. (WHY ARE THEY STILL THERE??) “Where’s my niece!” he barks. I would have paid five bucks if Franz had answered, “Right dere, in der middle of your legs!” Sadly, he doesn’t.
Learning that Billy took Betty away, Dracula runs out. He eventually ends up in the Sheriff’s office, demanding to know where Betty is. “Don’t tell him, Sheriff!” the jailed Billy shouts, sounding exactly like a petulant teenager.
The Sheriff still thinks Dracula is Betty’s uncle, and tells him. “Where do I find this backwoods female pill-slinger?” he asks. This might be the greatest Dracula line ever. After learning where she lives, he takes his leave. “You shouldn’t have told him, Sheriff!” Billy says. Seriously, despite being played by a nearly 40 year-old actor, Billy sounds like a moping 15 year-old.
Cut to Doc Hull’s. Sadly, even a stout sixty-something year old woman is no match for the King of the Vampires. The Doc is dutifully stationed by the sleeping Betty, but googles in amazement when Dracula literally pops into the room before her eyes. Amusingly, Dracula still tries to play it innocent, despite just materializing before her eyes.
Needless to say, it’s no go. In a funny bit, the snarling Dracula goes to push Doc aside. The actress barely cooperates, and presumably Mr. Carradine was too much of a gentleman to actually shove. The result is that it looks like Dracula can barely move her. Still, he barely manages the feat, and then bends over to lift up Betty. Again, Mr. Carradine was 60 years old at the time, so good for him that he can manage this.
Doc takes advantage of the situation to grab up a wall mirror. Sure enough, in the reflection only Betty’s floating body can be seen. This is a process shot, matting the image of the actress playing Betty hanging on strings onto the mirror, and thus the only proper special effect in the entire picture. Anyway, Dracula snarls in a rather Frankenstein’s Monster-ish fashion at being so revealed, and stalks out with Betty.
Doc goes to the tell Billy and the Sheriff about this, with the latter being sort of incredulous. Realizing that there’s only one thing to be done, Doc snatches the Sheriff’s revolver and tosses it to Billy. Billy orders the Sheriff to unlock the cell. The Sheriff tries to talk him out of it, more in sorrow than anger, but needless to say Billy is adamant.
Before he leaves the Doc tries to hand him a large scalpel. A spike through the heart is the only way to kill a vampire, she explained earlier. Billy is confident in his gun, however, and ignores her advice. He then runs outside and steals the Sheriff’s horse. Doc announces she will join the Sheriff in tracking after Billy. He seems weirdly OK with the idea considered she just helped an accused killer escape from jail at gunpoint.
Billy figures out that Dracula has taken Betty to the abandoned mine and follows after them. He confronts Dracula, who is rather unconcerned. Billy opens fire and is amazed when the bullets have no effect. Again, what a dumbass. Dracula attacks him and after a brief fight Billy is soon knocked out. Dracula is breathing hard after their struggle, but again, Mr. Carradine was 60 years of age at the time.
Billy is momentarily saved when Doc Hull and the Sheriff arrive. However, the Sheriff’s gun is no more effective than Billy’s. Our Hero has recovered, though. He finally saves the day by—AND I SWEAR THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS—grabbing the Sheriff’s gun and whipping it at the vampire’s face. This knocks Dracula unconscious. (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) Now we finally know why George Reeve’s Superman always ducked when crooks threw guns at him.
With Dracula knocked out, we get the most exciting vampire movie climax ever. Billy takes the scalpel from the Doc, stoops over the insentient Dracula and pounds it into his chest. Take that, Michael Bay! There’s a weird brief bit where we cut outside to see Dracula’s bat form flying from the cave (??). However, it quickly falls to earth, quivers and stops moving.
Billy mourns the apparently dead Betty. Oh, but she isn’t dead, and happy ending.
As is often the case with this sort of thing, the most frustrating aspect about the film is that there are hints of a better movie lurking here and there. Admittedly, the central premise, baldly stated in the title, is ludicrous and patently risible. And given the director, there clearly wasn’t going to be time to refine the plot or mull over character motivations. Indeed, the picture is literally a White Hat / Black Hat affair, even if Dracula’s chapeau is better suited to attending the opera than traveling the Old West.
Still, there are hints of a better version of Dracula here. The film as presented is very much “and then this happened, and then that happened” sort of deal. When the Count targets the squaw outside the trading post, the incident comes across as merely his latest attack of opportunity on another pretty young victim.
Still, her bloodless corpse precipitates the Indian massacre that allows Dracula to assume Underhill’s identity. It’s certainly possible the screenwriter meant to suggest this was his aim all along. If so, however, Beaudine seems to have missed the implication. While I don’t need things like this spelled out in too much detail, surely they could have slyly implied such a motivation. In any case, a Count so Machiavellian and ruthless would be far more interesting than the one we get here.
Dracula’s presentation of himself to the terrified Lisa is also a nice stroke, a basic conman trick to cast her fears to onlookers as irrational. More certainly could have been made of the Osters’ outsider status. There’s a touch of it, but their isolation from a community prone to dismissing them even before their allegations are aired could have been played more deftly.
Mr. Carradine, for his part, often overplays the role, sneering and winking and shouting to the cheap seats. He comes across, rather fittingly, as another Western stereotype; the aging, down on his heels Shakespearian actor reduced to theatrically declaiming Art to the frontier’s goggling, uncivilized yokels. Admittedly, we’re a long way from the Bard of Avon here. Still, one can only assume that Mr. Carradine was in on the joke, since in a very real sense he was playing a stereotype that he himself embodied.
There’s really only one moment that calls to mind his better days as Dracula. At one point he mesmerizes Betty, informing her that she will soon be his undead bride. This strongly resembles a better written and more elaborate scene in House of Frankenstein in which he hypnotically seduces that film’s heroine.
The scene with Betty is rather too short. However, it’s really the only point in the proceedings where Mr. Carradine rouses himself to play his role seriously. In a better film he might have played the entire picture more in this, er, vein. This is not that movie, though.
Mr. Carradine’s version of the Count was the most tragic Universal offered, even to the extent of his seeking to be cured of his affliction. Such nuance would not have been well received here, however, certainly not by Mr. Beaudine. This Dracula is meant to inspire hisses from the kiddie crowd and nothing else.
Indeed, the film is often such a generic oater that you could easily drop the vampire angle, make the fake Underhill an on the lam bank robber, and events would proceed in about the same fashion. More accurately, this version of Dracula is not all that far the mean old banker trying to force the virginal young heroine to marry him with threats of foreclosing on the family farm. It’s not so much that you could rewrite the film to take the vampire stuff out, so much as it’s a generic Western plot with some vampire stuff put in.
Probably the most mysterious aspect of the character is why the hell he’s in the Old West to start with. It seems an odd location. Bram Stoker’s Count left a desiccated Transylvania to batten upon the teeming multitudes of London. His status as a member of the upper classes, royalty nonetheless, would afford him protection as he preyed upon the poor.
Settling in a burg with, presumably, a few hundred people in it, seems…quixotic. It’s possible the town is meant to be bigger than is suggested by the small dingy sets and paltry number of extras they could afford. More likely, it’s a boom town that has seen a marked decrease in population since the silver mine closed down. In any case, even if it were a fairly big town by the standards of the day, surely Dracula’s deprivations would quickly draw attention.
While his banker’s identity, affording him wealth and social standing, would afford him a certain amount of respect, his dandified ways would surely also earn him a reputation as the town weirdo. That alone in this milieu might well draw suspicion his way, especially from the yokels. And Old West yokels were more prone to action than their European serf cousins.
Let’s say his plan was to bleed the area and then move on, although there is no indication this is so. Think of how easily described he is, his manner of dress, his height and thinness, the beard and jet black hair, that deep voice, etc. You have to wonder where he thinks he can travel the territories while avoiding the wanted posters. And that’s even before he vamps a pretty blonde to travel with him. Meaning they would need double the number of victims, too.
The Dracula presented here is a pretty standard vampire. His fealty to the rules was no doubt pleasing to kiddies raised on Famous Monsters of Filmland, who were, after all, the picture’s most likely audience. He drinks the blood of pretty young women, turns into a bat, is impervious to everything but crosses and revolvers chucked at his head, doesn’t cast a reflection in a mirror, sleeps during the day (despite the fact that Beaudine often didn’t even try to shoot day-for-night, meaning the Count is oft seen clearly strolling around in broad daylight), etc.
About the only derivation from the tropes is that he lacks a coffin. I can only guess they couldn’t figure out a way to explain how he traveled with it since he often flies great distances as a bat. He also teleports, presumably because it’s cheaper to turn off the camera and turn it back on then to have him turning into mist or whatever.
The only other mildly different twist is that only the women Dracula intends to make his “bride” become vampires. So we don’t have to worry about Lisa or Land O Lakes Woman from becoming vamps.
If the film’s chief fictional character is poorly served, however, its historical one is ludicrously coddled. Admittedly, as played by Chuck Courtney Billy comes across as a placid dullard. Still, Hollywood seemed committed to portraying Bonney as a handsome, generally heroic misfit. Played by actors like Rod Taylor and Paul Newman (!), the murderous Billy was generally required far more whitewashing than other Western icons like Jesse James or Wyatt Earp.
This isn’t to say that Bonney wasn’t fun to be around, at least if he wasn’t killing you. Fellow Lincoln County Regulator Frank Coe described him as follows: “I never enjoyed better company. He was humorous and told me many amusing stories. He always found a touch of humor in everything, being naturally full of fun and jollity.” This Bonney, a highly charismatic wit, is very far indeed from the exceedingly bland, even lunkheaded Billy the film provides.
This reality’s William Bonney clearly was never gunned down by Pat Garrett. Instead, he reformed and went on to become a law-abiding citizen. (Not that his is ever explicated in any way.) Rather farfetched, but OK, fair enough. The problem again is that Chuck Courtney’s Billy is so stolid and dull that it’s impossible to imagine him ever having the energy to be an infamous gunfighter.
A more realistically homicidal Billy squaring off against a more sharply etched Dracula, well, then you might have had something. Even if you kept the idea of Billy of being a reformed version, surely he could have retained a bit more of a killer instinct. Imaging a William Bonney chafing at society’s restrictions, one who recognizes a kindred but far more monstrous rival in Betty’s supposed uncle. Then you might have had something.
Better yet would be a faceoff with the outlaw Billy, one out to eliminate another predator muscling in on his turf. Perhaps Dracula kills one of Billy’s gang, or they tussle over a woman, or maybe the silver mine isn’t played out and both want the wealth. A ruthless outlaw fighting an even more ruthless Dracula surely sounds far more interesting.
More fancifully, perhaps the Indians, less constrained by the white man’s rejection of the supernatural, would recognize more readily what the corpse of their squaw represents. Perhaps, being at war with the larger society, they would join the infamous Billy the Kid to end Dracula’s menace.
However, what we get is this picture’s version of Billy. He’s pretty inept for a Western hero, especially one based on a (mythical version of a) real life gun hand. Weirdly, he loses both of the fist fights he gets into. Admittedly, he gets sucker punched in one instance and is fighting a vampire in the other, but still. And although he manages to gun down Thorpe in the saloon, he does so while hunched behind a table. It’s an oddity that he never quick draws on anybody in an actual fight. It’s like casting Bruce Lee in a movie where he doesn’t kick anyone.
Even when Billy finally kills Dracula, it’s via the farcical contrivance of having the vampire rendered hors de combat by a pistol to the face. They couldn’t even have the two antagonists fighting until the end. I mean, Billy can’t beat Dracula in a strength contest. However, he has the super-fast reflexes and hands of a gunfighter. Surely he could have planted the scalpel in his enemy’s chest while they were tussling.
Instead, the Count lies inert on the ground while Billy pounds the scalpel home with a rock. Whew, the excitement. Also, when you get down to it Dracula’s death itself is more properly credited to Doc Hull. She did the research, hands Billy the scalpel he refused to bring and instructs him on what to do with it. Our putative hero follows her orders, and then gets all the credit.
Indeed, one of the central aspects of the film’s protagonist, such as he is, is that Billy is clearly no great brain trust. I wouldn’t call him a dunce, but he’s clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer. This would be less important were his man o’ action credentials a bit more credibly established. Over all, his genial ineptitude more greatly suggests a hero’s sidekick than the hero himself.
Doc Hull remains the only other character who doesn’t seem to have been employed, unsanded and unpainted, directly from a rather inexpensive box kit. Even there the film isn’t really breaking any ground. Tough old birds or even female doctors certainly aren’t unknown in Westerns.
In this particular case Doc Hull is clearly meant to be the film’s Van Helsing analogue. I’m not quite sure why they didn’t have Eva fill this role, given that she already knew all the vampire folklore. I guess they just felt the “Doctor” part of Dr. Van Helsing was important. (Even if they then go to some lengths to explain that she’s not really a doctor.)
Surely using Eva perform this function would have made more sense. She’s already on hand in the movie’s first scene, after all, while the doctor doesn’t pop up until after the halfway mark. And Eva having a direct hand in destroying Dracula would be more dramatically satisfying, granting her revenge on her daughter’s killer. There’s really no reason for Billy to finally do the deed other than to justify the title.
Even if you weren’t going this route, surely it would have made more sense for Doc Hull to consult with Eva on vampire folklore. The idea that there happened to have a reference book on vampires in her deceased husband’s handful of tomes is just dumb. This is the kind of thing that often happens when people are writing for kids. They think, “Eh, so it doesn’t make sense. Who cares?”
And with Franz just standing around, wringing his hands and moaning, “Oh, Eva!”, the latter is basically is the only one actually trying to stymy Dracula though most of the picture. I would hardly declare the film feminist in intent. Even so, it’s Eva and Doc Hull who actually play the greatest roles in defeating Dracula and saving Betty.
The screenplay was written by Carl Hittleman, who’d been writing and directing Westerns since the late 1940s. His script is uninspired, generally, but not awful given how much he was presumably paid, how much time he had to write it (and its companion film, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter) and the age of the audience it was aimed at.
Still, think of how fun and crazy this film would have been if it had been a Roger Corman production. It would have been as cheap, but it would probably have been written by Charles Griffith or even Robert Towne. What a different movie it might have been.
Fans of Weird Westerns, which in these days of genre-bending is a whole thing, will find older examples of the breed sparse pickings. (Strange they haven’t made a Western zombie movie, actually.) Aside from this and its bill mate, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, I can only think of 1959’s Curse of the Undead. This revolves around a vampire gunslinger who takes rather unsporting advantage of his immunity to bullets.
In the end, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is pretty weak tea. Yes, it does provide a few laughs. More importantly, though, it’s an all too rare opportunity to watch John Carradine ham it up as the central character of a movie. And you can’t not like that.
Thanks to Nit-Picker Extraordinaire Carl Fink for copious notes on all the boners I’d left in the review. Your brain should thank him, believe me.