Friday, December 12, 2008

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)

With such an appealing genre hybrid, it’s a shame that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) is so disappointing. It hardly explores the mythology of Billy the Kid, or the American West, at all—instead, the famed gunslinger is turned into yet another member of the disbelieving choir that makes up the traditional vampire story. Making his way westward, Dracula (John Carradine, expectedly hammy but surprisingly humorless) shares a stagecoach with a woman who shares a picture of her young, beautiful niece. After Indians conveniently attack the stagecoach, killing the mother, Dracula pretends to be the young girl’s uncle and assumes custody of her. Her boyfriend, it turns out, is a reformed Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney, utterly charm-less). Meanwhile, animals and people keep winding up dead, invariably with punctured neck wounds. Rumors about vampires spread, but who actually believes them? And then one morning, the daughter is found with those trademark holes in her neck. Something must be done—and of course the sheriff won’t do anything about (did we expect anything less?), so it is up to Billy the Kid to fight the legendary Dracula.

Their confrontation, however, is anti-climactic. It’s over with in less than a minute, and the most exciting part is when Billy throws his gun at the vampire—which actually stuns him! From the moment we read the title, we’ve been building up expectations for a big showdown, and what we get is a cheap conclusion lacking in creativity and excitement. The rest of the film is similarly lazy and uninteresting: even for a B-feature, the acting is particularly bad, the pacing deathly slow. It’s as if the entire cast and crew have no enthusiasm for the movie they are working on. And it not only shows, but it is also contagious: as a viewer, I wasn’t the least bit interested in what was happening on-screen, either.

Here is a clip courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

And, for those interested in watching the unspectacular finale, here it is via YouTube.

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

For my inaugural post I will write about what is, in some ways, both a highly conventional and unconventional Western, and which shows the breadth of the genre. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) is an all-midget Western about a cattle rustler who plays two feuding ranch families against each other. Like Romeo and Juliet, the son of one family and niece of the other fall in love and must arrange secret rendezvous. When their relationship threatens to end the feud and bring the families together, thus exposing the real cattle thief, the rustler resorts to desperate measures—murder.

It’s a predictable, pulpy plot, yet the filmmakers and actors take it incredibly seriously. The actors might be midgets, but they play the drama no differently than any actor (of any size) would. In the film’s bizarre prologue, an MC stands before a curtain addressing an off-screen audience. After he calls the film “a novelty” and warns the audience “not to take it too seriously,” a midget cowboy walks up to the MC to correct him: “Sure it’s serious! I’m the hero! After this picture’s out I’ll be the biggest cowboy star in Hollywood.” Following him comes the film’s villain, who claims that he will be the biggest star. An on-stage rumble ensues, and then the credits begin to roll.

While the stage setting reminds of Vaudeville and the side-show like nature of the film, the prologue servers to inform us that The Terror of Tiny Town is not just a joke. True, it is absolutely bizarre and, at parts, certainly funny, but if it were a mere gimmick the story would get old fast. Instead, the movie plays everything straight. The drama only features two gags that refer to the actors’ height (in one, two musicians are required to play a large double-bass, and in the other the cook actually enters a pantry in search of a pan). The familiar normalcy of the story and its settings (the ranch, the saloon, and the prairie), paired with the unorthodox casting, only serves to make the film all the more bizarre.

With a couple of love songs, some fist fights, an explosion, and more than a few horse chases, The Terror of Tiny Town packs a lot into its 62-minute runtime. It’s no John Ford movie, that’s for sure, but that’s also why the film is so important. It’s not like any other Western out there. Or, really, any other movie. The only comparison that comes to mind is Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970). The Terror of Tiny Town is truly a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, cinematic experience: a sort of strange poetry rarely encountered that leaves one speechless.

Here's the first part of the film, available on YouTube.