The Curse of the Living Corpse was Del Tenney’s second movie as a director, and was shot back-to-back with his best-known production, The Horror of Party Beach. The two movies are very different animals, with The Curse of the Living Corpse being a period gothic chiller in a style radically different from the joyously tongue-in-cheek camp of The Horror of Party Beach.
The two most surprising things about Del Tenney’s career as a film-maker are firstly, that he made so few films, and secondly that the ones he did make are so good. Corpse and Party Beach were both picked up by Fox and became major box-office hits. Fox were delighted with them, so it’s something of a mystery that his career as a director virtually ended at that point.
While The Horror of Party Beach is often mistakenly described as a so-bad-it’s-good movie it was in fact intended from the outset as an exercise in camp and as a fun spoof movie, and it succeeds brilliantly in what it sets out to do. The Curse of the Living Corpse is much more of a conventional gothic horror movie, and for a low-budget movie it’s quite impressive.
When the formidable patriarch of the Sinclair clan dies in 1892, he leaves a rather strange will. He had always been obsessed by the fear of being buried live, so the will specifies that his tomb must not be locked, that torches must be kept burning there, and that he should not even be placed in the tomb for at least five days, to make absolutely certain that he really is dead. And the will threatens that if these provisions are ignored, he will return from the grave to exact a terrible vengeance - each member of the family will meet the fate they most fear.
In fact the family are so relieved that he’s finally dead that they can’t wait to place him in his mausoleum. Their relief turns to horror when it appears that he has carried out his threat to return from the dead and is starting to carry out his plans to revenge himself.
The murders that inevitably follow are quite imaginatively staged. They’re also moderately gruesome for a movie made in 1962, especially when the eldest son meets his fate by having his handsome face completely destroyed. There are plenty of spooky scenes of a mysterious caped and masked figure. There are secret passage-ways, empty coffins, and just about everything you expect in a gothic horror film.
It has, as Tenney admits, a very stagey feel to it. His background was in the theatre, so that’s not surprising, but for a gothic horror movie this is no great disadvantage. In fact for a movie that is intentionally melodramatic it can even be an asset.
The acting is quite competent. Unusually for a low-budget drive-in movie Tenney rehearsed his actors for a couple of weeks before he started shooting, and the extra trouble this involved does pay off. It gives the movie less of the amateur hour feel that you generally associate with drive-in fodder. Roy Scheider made his film debut in this one, as the weak-willed alcoholic younger son of the family. And Candace Hilligloss (best-known from the superb Carnival of Souls made the same year) makes one of her very few film appearances.
The movie is visually fairly impressive, with some very well thought-out and well-executed scenes. The sets and costumes are also extremely good, giving the movie a professional and rather slick (and even at times quite classy) appearance.
This is not a movie in the same league as, for example, Bava’s Black Sunday. Tenney was aiming for the drive-in market, and his intention was to make a fun fast-paced movie with plenty of atmosphere and plenty of chills, but he was not trying to make Citizen Kane. You’re not expected to take it too seriously. It’s deliberately and consciously melodramatic, and that’s part of its charm. It’s light entertainment, but it’s done with quite a bit of flair. If you approach it with realistic expectations it’s all thoroughly enjoyable.
Dark Sky released this film in a double-movie set along with The Horror of Party Beach. Both movies look absolutely magnificent, and both include commentary tracks done by Tenney himself. It’s a great value DVD that I can’t recommend too highly for lovers of drive-in movies.