Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)
Welcome to a new annual feature we're calling "Turkey Leftovers". The Friday after Thanksgiving every year, we'll post a review of a film generally considered to be trash or just plain bad. Whether we share the opinion-at-large will be another matter entirely.
Were a film with a strangely discordant title like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula to be made today, we might expect a sublime and clever comedy with reverent nods to horse operas and horror alike – or at least an honest attempt at such. Unfortunately, the movie that really does bear this title comes from 1966, well before irony had become an established tool in the horror filmmaker arsenal. The genres involved don’t so much mix as poke at each other warily. What laughs there are come unintentionally; what laughs are intended come unintelligibly.
Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney), retired from his life of crime, works as a foreman at the Double Bar-B Ranch and romances Betty (Melinda Plowman), the pretty young thing that, when she comes of age, will one day own the place. Into their quiet life sweeps Count Dracula (John Carradine) who poses as Betty’s uncle and guardian in an attempt to turn her into his undead bride. A kooky immigrant gives Billy the skinny on the feeding habits of “Uncle James”, so the reformed gunslinger gets set for a showdown with the vampire menace.
I’ll say this in the film’s favor: it has the courtesy to outline the two major points of critical discussion right there in the title: Billy the Kid and Dracula. Aside from that, there's not too much to talk about.
One wonders about the point of featuring Billy the Kid, one of the most notorious outlaws of the Old West, if he’s just going to be a lunkheaded ranch hand, far removed from his life of crime. Screenwriter Carl K. Hittleman appears to be using the name purely for recognition value – the character himself is unerringly noble, with a side of dim and dull to boot. We are also given to believe he is possessed of a quick temper, but in this aspect of the character, it is uninspiring leading man Courtney who fails us; his soggy performance seems to discount the descriptor “quick” from Billy’s personality entirely, be it in regard to his temper or his wit.
Up against this defanged rabble-rouser is a very much fanged Count Dracula1. Carradine’s performance is a head-scratcher – he may be playing for laughs (he certainly has enough over-the-top moments to sell that argument), but if that’s the case, he’s not very good at it. It’s not entirely his fault – everyone else in the film plays it entirely straight, eager to give a believable performance despite some serious limitations, such as talent. Carradine, however, sashays into the scene, booming with just a little too much authority or staring with a little too much wanton lust at Betty. He’s playing to the hilt and nobody is responding in kind, leading to a perplexing dissonance. Director William Beaudine (veteran of over two dozen “East Side Kids”/“Bowery Boys” films) just adds to Dracula's camp factor, but his touches are actually funny (although they appear to be done in earnest). When Dracula is hypnotizing a victim, Beaudine bathes Carradine’s face in a bright red light. Richard Harland Smith notes in his review on the TCM Underground’s website that the light “makes Carradine look like he’s mesmerizing a rotisserie chicken”2. I can’t think of a more appropriate description.
As for the mixture of these two elements… well, it’s crap, and it's the horror elements that really suffer. Dracula certainly doesn’t belong in the Old West, and no effort is really made to accommodate him. Too often he just comes off as a menacing codger with a staring problem and an evil scheme, until, suddenly, he turns into a bat (an unconvincing rubber toy on a string which is given to hovering exactly as bats don’t) or goes all crimson-faced. The film also goes out of its way to make Billy the Kid is faced almost exclusively with Western-type dilemmas. Billy’s given a second antagonist in the form of a boorish ex-flame of Betty’s, allowing him to get into the requisite cowboy hijinks like bar brawls and gunfights. When the supernatural rears its head, the “aw-shucks” hero is completely at a loss (poignantly summed up by his frequent repetition of “Vampire?”). When it comes down to the final showdown with the undead menace, his solution is a gun – first shooting Dracula (which doesn’t work, of course) and then just beaning him with the pistol, which knocks the nigh-invincible fiend out cold. It’s as if the screenwriter just gave up after realizing that he couldn’t properly resolve a battle with a vampire in a Western-y way. Maybe he should’ve thought of that before he started the script in the first place.
A warning to the curious – the title of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is about the most enjoyable thing in it. Although a watchable film, it ultimately suffers for being completely unable to properly mesh its two promised combatants. The result is an uninspired Western with some silliness about a vampire stuck in. The exciting possibilities raised by the esoteric titling remain just that… possibilities.
- We have to assume he’s Dracula, anyway. For a film that is so keen to constantly remind the audience that the upstanding hero is Billy the Kid (and historical accuracy be damned), it is curious that the name “Dracula” only appears in the title. Carradine could be playing a generic vampire, but the actor’s previous association with the character (he played him in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula) leads me to believe that he’s portraying the genuine article
- Smith, Richard Harland. “TCM Underground: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” TCM Underground. Publication date unknown. Retrieved 22 November 2007. <http://www.tcm.com/underground/movies/index.jsp?cid=152716>