It’s October, which means that as the leaves change colors and there is a chill in the air, we here at the Picture Show conjure a chill up our spines. Join us as we take fresh looks at a series of spooky films from the past. This week, Adam and Rodney turn the focus on The Thing That Couldn’t Die.
ADAM WILLIAMS: A sensitive girl with water divining powers discovers a 16th century treasure chest. What—or whom—has been excavated and how can a thing that cannot die be stopped? This week we’re looking at this neglected chiller from Universal to find out.
To appreciate The Thing That Couldn’t Die, it’s helpful to identify its place in horror tradition. The movie belongs to two distinct categories. First, it’s a Gothic romance. This may come out of left field based on the garish marketing campaign, but I think it fits the bill. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural offers the following definition of the genre:
Gothic romance began to take the shape of a double plot—tragedy and romance interwoven—enacted in or around some form of Gothic architecture: a distant tale of elder, obdurate villainy punished and of young, sensitive love rewarded, both usually by means of supernatural intervention.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Well, I can safely say that I wouldn’t have thought of that, typically thinking of Gothic romances as being so “veddy veddy” British, but, after reading your description, I can’t say that I disagree with your statement. This is a lesser-known Universal horror film, as you pointed out, and I wouldn’t say that anyone involved had any intentions of attempting to recapture any past glories here.
AW: The film takes one massive detour from the traditional Gothic tale: the remote location employed is the furthest thing from a dark, decaying, arch-laden estate. Instead, it’s an airy California ranch (presumably on a Universal backlot). Otherwise, all the genre fundamentals are present. The “obdurate” villain is Gideon Drew, “the foulest and wickedest man who ever set feet upon earth,” whose head was lopped off in 1579 by order of Sir Francis Drake. Our young and sensitive lovers are Jessica, the water witch, and Gordon, the handsome and protective summer guest. Although a pragmatist, Gordon gifts Jessica a fleur-de-lis amulet that allegedly wards off evil. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by identifying that object as playing a role in the supernatural intervention.
RB: I know you and I had both spoken about trying to identify other films that had taken place on the same backlot location as this, and like you, I came up empty. If any of our readers have any ideas or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Unfortunately, it’s probably assured that wherever this was, it no longer exists as so many of the older locations at Universal were destroyed by fire not too terribly long ago.
AW: The other tradition that The Thing That Couldn’t Die belongs is what could be called the living head film. These are movies about decapitated heads that, through science or sorcery, remain alive. Major works in the conscious cranium genre include The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962), Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973), Re-Animator (1985), and my personal favorite, Die Nackte und der Satan (1959) a.k.a. The Head.
Robin Hughes steals the show as the disembodied head. While he’s the main attraction, I want to highlight the second-best villain: James Anderson as the creepy and greedy ranch hand Boyd. He peeps into Jessica’s bedroom window and, if that wasn’t unpleasant enough, tiptoes into Jessica’s mother’s bedroom while she is sleeping. Ostensibly, all this sneaking around is to steal the treasure chest—surely, it’s full of treasure—but Anderson brings a detached menace to these moments. He seems to be getting a naughty thrill spying on the women. Ultimately, this character is a diversion tactic until the audience is confronted with The Head, but this character lingered in my mind as the bigger threat (I ended up feeling fondness for the old, detached dome). I may have subconsciously remembered Anderson’s face from his most famous role as the nasty Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.
RB: There was a real leap in logic regarding what was actually in the chest. It’s as if someone suggested it, and therefore it was believed to be so. I agree with you about Robin Hughes being so, so great in this. For the short running time, this is not a film that is without lulls, but you can always be snapped back to attention as soon as you see Boyd wandering around holding that head. There really aren’t many notable cast members here to speak of. Carolyn Kearney is lovely to look at and is capable enough in the film, which is one of her only theatrical appearances. She had a minor career on TV, but, again, recurring roles seemed to elude her. She eventually retired in 1970, which by all accounts and purposes is just as well.
AW: I loved her little outbursts. “I hope a tree falls on you!” “I hate you all!”
In the rare instances when the media acknowledged this film’s existence, it was to crack a joke. As a footnote to their review of the film and its frequent billing companion The Horror of Dracula, Charles Stinson of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “For a while I was afraid it was going to be the thing that wouldn’t end.” Howard Thompson’s brief review in The New York Times starts with, “In about fifteen minutes, “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” does.” R.H. Gardner of The Sun opted out of the Dracula/Thing double-bill, claiming to have had upsetting experiences with horror in the past, “That sort of thing is all right for kids, but when you’re middleaged you need plenty of sleep.” In its second issue, Famous Monsters of Filmland commented in their patented cornball manner, “All it needed was a revival of the old pop tune, “I Ain’t Got No Body!”
Of course, in 1997 Mystery Science Theater 3000 applied their schtick to the movie.
RB: Nobody is going to think that this is a great movie, but it’s no worse than the average creep show from the time period, and I would wager that the frequent co-billing of this with Horror of Dracula would make for a pretty fun evening. The movie never got the respect it deserved, bouncing around drive-ins for a few years and being dumped onto TV when it was just a few years old (I found TV listings dating as far back as 1965 for it). A 1971 college campus screening billed the 13-year-old film as an example of an “old-time chiller,” which doesn’t seem particularly flattering. As a final insult, Universal released the film on DVD using an ancient pan and scan transfer, that’s only recently been remedied by Shout! for a Blu-ray release. No matter what puns, I went into this with reasonable expectations and had a pleasant three-star hour.
AW: This movie is pure pleasure, no jokes needed to wash it down. Its core conflict is between good and evil. It pits Gideon, the godless heathen with a beatnik goatee and the ability to spellbind girls, against stiff "good guy," as represented by the uncannily tidy Gordon. Being the late 50s, this movie was made to be shown at a drive-in, so to reach through the steamed-up windshields to the distracted teens, the filmmakers indulged in heightened weirdness and revulsion. A decapitation, a head in a hatbox, and several moments of sexual tension—including the Sapphic variety—are punctuated by an eerie score that would sound best on a staticky drive-in speaker. The filmmakers weren’t aiming for anything beyond profits, but the movie generates an unholy atmosphere with its mixture of studio-sterility and leering decapitated heads. If Ken Russell was hired to direct a Tammy film, it might look something like this. Good, solid fun—three stars.