Directed by Del Tenney
Roy Scheider as Philip Sinclair
Helen Warren as Abigail Sinclair
Robert Milli as Bruce Sinclair
Margot Hartman as Vivian Sinclair
Dino Narizzano as Robert Harrington
Candace Hilligoss as Deborah Harrington
Hugh Franklin as James Benson
“There is no calamity greater than lavish desires
There is no greater guilt than discontentment
There is no greater disaster than greed.” - The Way of Lao-tzuDel Tenney’s Curse of the Living Corpse is all about sin, most pointedly the 3rd deadly sin, greed. Nearly every principal is devoured by greed before the final curtain falls, so much so that greed becomes Greed during the course of the movie, luring all into the steel gears of its bloody machinations; grinding up the gentle and wicked alike.Curse, along with Horror of Party Beach, composed a powerhouse double feature that ran roughshod through America’s drive-ins through 1964 and 1965. For a detailed history of this low-budget success story, see my post Horror of Party Beach, but the brief low-down is that the production team of Alan Iselin, who owned a chain of theaters in Long Island, and Del Tenney, who had just made a successful B slasher film called Violent Midnight (Psychomania in U.S. release), combined forces and kicked the living crap of every film their modest double bill ran against, included movies with multi-million dollar budgets (the budget for Curse ran about $40,000 to $60,000).45 years after its initial release, Curse of the Living Corpse stands as Tenney’s most accomplished film as well as a virtual template for any aspiring film maker who is short of cash but long on artistic ambition. Curse does so many things right, on so little money, it remains a character driven, humble wonder and an immensely enjoyable piece of committed film making. Tenney builds his house of sin on an excellent foundation.Curse tells a story that begins with death and ends with decay – death of the physical body and hope for the living, and eventual decay of sanity, of mind, and sanctity of soul - all shrouded in the black ornate shadows of the gothic.The movie begins with a soundless, overhead shot – looking straight down onto a body, arms neatly folded, laying in a coffin. Four pallbearers in black topcoats and hats take their positions, their footsteps echoing on a stone floor. The men turn to face the coffin, and a white glove closes the coffin lid as a single cello begins to thrum a funeral dirge. The coffin is loaded into a horse drawn hearse, and the meager funeral procession of perhaps a bleak baker’s dozen makes its way over the autumnal countryside of 19th century (1892) New England. The land is modestly hilly and sparse, and we see our mourners walking along the spine of a dead hill, a series of black silhouettes following the long, black carriage like the faceless disciples of some forgotten cult of Azrael. The way is lined with leafless trees, stripped to ugly nakedness for the coming winter, looking horrid and ossified. It appears that our death parade is marching solemnly through the skeletal remains of a grotesque race of beings, their backened, tendril bones hissing faintly in the wind.We watch as the pallbearers ceremoniously place the coffin of family patriarch, Rufus Sinclair, on his final cold slab in the weed-encrusted family mausoleum. Mourners file Inside around the coffin, hats are removed and held in gloved hands, and heads are bowed in the grim light of the tomb. A minister (William Blood) holds a Bible in both hands at this waist. He will not need to quote the Text for this sermon. The words read are brutally sparse and without promise of a wondrous Heaven:“Whatever a man’s role in life, it is not for mortals to judge. Rufus Sinclair is now laid to rest. Let us pray for an eternal, sound sleep.”After these meager, blunt offerings; sans any mention of joining the Heavenly Father in blissful reward, the minister straightens his back and offers the family his deepest sympathies, especially the widow, Abigail Sinclair (Helen Warren). There is something in the minister’s voice and manner that suggests his stern sympathies are not for the loss of a beloved father and husband, but more for the life endured before the passing. We are treated to a close up of Abigail, all white hair and black veil, and her downcast eyes are indeed those of a religious icon or martyr; suffering selflessly instead of mourning urgently.It takes no time at all for our suspensions to be confirmed. The minster shakes the hand of the eldest son, Bruce Sinclair (Robert Milli), bids him luck, and takes his leave. The family collectively relaxes their attitude once the church emissary has left, their bodies slumping as though released from some dry, hard grip. “Well,” says the Bruce, immediately taking the reins as head of family, “it’s over and done with. I thought we’d never see the end.”The mother, Abigail, makes a weak protestation, but Bruce asserts his dominance: Oh, really, Mother. Piety doesn’t become you. Of all of us, you have suffered the most.” His voice becomes mocking – snide. “Of all of us it is you who should breathe a sigh of relief.”“in the name of sanity, leave her alone,” says the younger son, Philip (Roy Scheider) weakly, covering his mouth and beginning to cough furiously. Philip, we will learn later, is asthmatic – a symptom of his profound weakness. “Let’s get out of here. I can’t breath!”The family lawyer, Benson (Hugh Franklin); clearly disgusted with the entire ordeal, orders the family back to the main house so that he can read the last will and testament. The clan, smelling money amid the stench of their decaying father, agree and leave the tomb without another word.Upon leaving, the widow lingers behind for a final goodbye. Abigail returns alone into the crypt, closing the door behind her for privacy. She moves to stand at the head of the coffin, staring down at the lid as though able to see her husband’s face beneath the rough, wooden surface. She produces an ornate, large, glittering piece of jewelry from underneath the pitch-black shadows of her shawl. As Abigail speaks to her dead husband, telling the story of the diamond studded pin, she tells the tale of her blighted love for Rufus Sinclair, and his horrid, crushing dominance."Once, too long ago to remember, you gave me this diamond pin . . .” she begins, holding the pin in her hand, it’s brilliance set against her black glove.
She begins her tale with hope, explaining how she imagined it a symbol of his love, something she might treasure for the rest of her life. Yet, the wearing of the pin was to quickly become a matter of duty instead of love. “Once every fortnight, you ordered me to wear it,” she says, her voice turning harsh.As time passed, the wearing of the pin took on increased tones of supplication - even ugly oppression - as Sinclair would remind his wife of its worth at every wearing. Her body, then, became simply a handsome place for Sinclair to place symbols of his power; leaving the pin’s glimmering facets devoid of any warmth of love. It’s dazzling and frozen glinting becoming for her touchstones of her husband’s piggish veracity.The pin, thus, became a hateful object, the very symbol not only of Rufus’ greed and oppression, but also a fortnight reminder of her own foolish hope for love.“At last,” says Abigail, looking at the coffin lid, speaking to her dead husband, “unable to touch it, I hid it from sight.” She clutches the pin to her chest, her face becoming blank and frightened in memory. “Oh, that look,” she says, “when I told you it was lost. Like some terrible device clamped to your face; closing, closing! Contorting! Until the last final stroke!”Before leaving the vault, Abigail returns the pin, leaving it on the lid of the coffin. She does so without any sense of bitterness, but rather a grim despair from which, clearly, no reprieve will ever present itself. She has simply missed love in this life, burned up the years of her youth and beauty in false and misguided hope. This scene, while leaning to the melodramatic, never rings false; due largely to some chancy dialogue that just barely works and the complete and utter commitment of actress Helen Warren. The actress simply goes for it, grabbing the scene by the balls and absolutely demanding that it work. An actress even a shade more self conscious would have tumbled the scene, and perhaps the entire production, straight into the dreaded pit of camp.Once all the principals are gathered inside the house, Lawyer Benson reads the last will and testament of Rufus Sinclair to the family. As the family and near-family listen to the provisions of the will, the terrible spring is wound that will propel the remainder of the movie.It is revealed in the reading that Rufus Sinclair suffered from a “strange malady” which often left him in a catatonic state closely resembling death. Because of this condition, he had a terrible fear of being buried alive, so much so that his entire last testament compromises an elaborate contrivance designed to prevent such a fate (shades of Poe). Each principal family member, as a condition of their inheritance, is given a task to prevent a living burial. Abigail is to wait three days before arranging for the entombment. Eldest son, Bruce, is to seek multiple medical opinions before burial. Youngest son, Philip and his wife, Vivian, are to make sure the door to the mausoleum is always kept unlocked and professions kept inside, respectively; etc, etc.As he reads the will, Lawyer Benson glares over the top of the large document and gathers himself for the testament’s brutal kicker. “If you do not follow my wishes,” He quotes carefully, eyes burning in flashes at the members of Sinclair’s wretched family,” I solemnly vow that I shall see that each of you suffer in the manner you most dread.”Via the will, each family member is then paired with a terrible fate befitting their particular fear or phobia should dead father’s wishes not be met: Bruce, the handsome and arrogant eldest, will have his face horribly disfigured. Philip, the youngest and asthmatic son, will perish by strangulation. Philip’s wife, Vivian, will drown like Ophelia. But the most interesting fate is reserved for his widow, Abigail, who (it is revealed) has an unnatural fear of fire (passion?). Rufus, by the reading of this heartless curse, is perhaps telling of his wife’s frigidity or, perhaps, her unwillingness to accommodate his pleasures. It’s very easy to imagine so, watching Abigail’s face blanch as the lawyer reads: “Flames will be your fate.” Abigail’s mouth opens slightly at the words, and she casts her eyes down in shame. What Rufus could not obtain willingly in life - Abigail's complete consumption in the fire of a moment - shall be demanded from the grave. Or, better still, Rufus has promised to return personally to exact his pound of burning flesh.
Thus, we have the curse of the living corpse. Living, because Sinclair has vowed to rise and walk the earth again, leaving his tomb to visit upon each of his family a most specific and horrible fate; and considering his history of living death - his "strange malady" - such a circumstance seems preordained.