1/11/07

805 The Thing That Couldn’t Die

(1958, Horror/Western, b&w)

Evil room, evil sofa, evil rhododendron…

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

A lovely young douser battles a hypnotic severed head for control of a dude ranch.

Summary:

Skellington Jack has taken over Christmas again.It’s been a few years since the handsome young Gordon last came to his favorite dude ranch vacation spot. When he finally returns with his friends Hank and Linda he finds, to his delight, that the ranch owner’s niece Jessica has grown into a curvaceous young woman. To his dismay, however, he finds her dousing (i.e. cruising around a field with a forked stick looking for an underground spring). This offends his scientific sensibilities, and he asks her to stop. This offends her non-scientific sensibilities and she goes ahead anyway, telling the ranch hands to dig at the foot of an old tree. She changes her mind as soon as they begin, however, declaring the thing under the ground to be evil. When they ignore her, she becomes upset and shouts, “I hate you all. I hope a tree falls on you.” A wind arises, and a large branch immediately falls from the old tree to land on Linda.

She apologizes profusely back in the cabin, but they dismiss her protests, declaring it was just the wind. She declares that everything involved—the wind, her wish, and the thing under the ground—is evil and becomes upset again when they don’t believe her. She tells them where Linda’s lost watch has gone and runs into the ranch house. Gordon, Hank, and Linda search a rat’s nest as Jessica instructed and find the watch along with various other shiny objects, including an ancient holy talisman that’s a combined cross/anchor/fleur de lis. Gordon accepts Jessica’s claims of having otherworldly powers and gives her the talisman by way of apology.

A little later, the ranch hands (consisting of the slimy Boyd and the slow-witted Mike) dig up an ancient chest. The ranch owner (Jessica’s poultry-esque Aunt Flavia) wants to bust it open immediatey, but Gordon convinces her that the chest itself is a historical artifact, and might be more valuable than anything it contains. He goes to get a historical chest expert and some chest-opening chemicals. Flavia puts Mike and Boyd in charge of guarding the chest and goes to bed. Jessica declares it “evil” and leaves to spend the night in Linda’s cabin.

During the night, Boyd convinces Mike that there’s no harm in opening it ahead of time to see what’s inside, and maybe steal some of it. The mountainous Mike bends off the steel bands that seal the chest and finds a hypnotic severed head. The head takes over Mike’s mind and compels him to kill Boyd, dragging them both out into the field. The murderous commotion wakes up Flavia, who calls the police. Gordon arrives with a Museum Curator before they arrive. They read an ancient history from the chest’s engravings, while Jessica douses for Boyd’s body. She swoons outside and dreams of a race of conquistador leprechauns (meant, I think, to be the crew of Sir Francis Drake), who once beheaded a man with the Evil Eye and buried the two pieces separately. They protected themselves from him with the very talisman she wears. She wakes to find Boyd’s corpse in the hole they dug to find the chest. The cops arrive and conclude that Mike must have done it.

Meanwhile, the head has Mike drag him around the ranch by the hair, peeking into windows. He glares into one of them to hypnotize Linda as his new slave. He sends Mike to be shot to death while trying to stab one of the visiting policemen. The next day Linda brushes off Hank to spend the day trying to get Jessica to take off her talisman, while the Curator tries to get her to find the other chest mentioned in the engravings. Jessica won’t listen to either of them, declaring the whole situation “evil.” She finally takes off her talisman when Gordon asks to study it further.

The head, of course, immediately hypnotizes her into wearing a black dress, drinking booze, and dousing for his buried body. They dig up a large chest and drag it into the house, stumbling back in fright when the ancient body stumbles out under its own power. Jessica gives it back its head, and the newly restored undead seaman declares his intent to destroy the world. Gordon throws the talisman at him and the leathery-faced antagonist immediately crumbles into a skeleton. Jessica and Linda become unhypnotized, and reconcile with their respective men.

Introduction:

Welcome, and try to comprehend us.Crow has given Tom an artistic grant of $30k to depict him in a series of paintings. Crow views them (the kindest one is a collage proclaiming “Crow is a knob” over and over again) and expresses doubt. Tom asks if its because they “paint a stark portrait of a cruel despot?” “No, I was going to say they’re all kind of negative,” Crow replies. Tom wonders if Crow would have been happier if he’d depicted him playing golf in heaven with clowns. Crow likes the idea and gives him another $60k.

Host Segment One:

Tom has painted Crow tossing kittens into a meat grinder, and tries to convince him it’s what he asked for in the first place. A tractor beam pulls them towards an unknown planet. “Welcome,” says a trio of pale, purple-hooded aliens, “and try to comprehend us.” They have evolved beyond the need for language and bodies, and now they are simply brains in pans. Mike, et al. try to point that their brain pans are carried around by bodies that speak clearly comprehensible English, but the Observers (as they are called) dismiss their claims and declare them to be “as amoebas.” Pearl and Bobo are already on the planet’s surface, watching Dallas and drinking longnecks. The Observers “think” them the movie.

Host Segment Two:

While Mike and Crow try to assemble an airplane model, an Observer pops into the Satellite of Love to watch them and take notes. He narrates his notes out loud, moving from the “odd gray marionette” (Crow) to the “ungainly peach-colored creature” (Mike) wondering if he might be an “animated piece of refuse or feces.” They stuff the Observer into a sack, knock him silly with a clown hammer, and push him out the airlock.

Host Segment Three:

As an experiment, the Observers give Mike the power to materialize anyone from his memory. The first person to appear is Finnegan (not from Mike’s memory, but Captain Kirk’s) who immediately socks him in the jaw. The ‘Bots beg him to conjure up Adrienne Barbeau but he mistakenly thinks of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who socks him in the jaw. He finally manages to think of Adrienne, who socks him in the jaw.

Host Segment Four:

Crow introduces his multi-part epic documentary on the Civil War, Crow T. Robot’s Bram Stoker’s The Civil War. The first two-hour episode starts off with a dramatic reading of an innocuous letter, and then the end credits roll. Crow confirms Mike’s guess that they will roll for approximately 118 minutes.

Host Segment Five:

Tom Servo glues hair to his head and removes it from his body so that he can have Mike carry him around and hypnotize Crow into doing something unspeakable. When Crow arrives, Mike lifts Servo’s head, knocking it against the desk and out of its hair. Crow remains unhypnotized. Down on the Observer planet, Bobo snuggles into the single bed and invites Pearl to join him. Pearl stares at him until he cleans up all his ape hair, gives her a mint, and leaves.

Stinger:

The Observers hold up their brains.

Thoughts:

I was going fill this space with a pun about 'getting ahead', but thought better of it.I didn’t mind The Thing That Couldn’t Die so much. It wasn’t a good movie—well, okay, it was a bad movie. But it wasn’t, as Jessica would say, “an evil movie.” The story was clearly presented, and didn’t bog down very often. The more pragmatic characters didn’t waste time disbelieving Jessica’s powers when faced with proof, and despite her vacant stare and whiny fixations (evil wind, evil wish, evil [insert common household item here]), Jessica remains at least a hundred times smarter than most horror film teens by consistently avoiding danger instead of rushing blindly towards it.

The only thing that really sticks in my craw about the movie is its title. It’s The Thing That Couldn’t Die, you see, which is clearly inappropriate when you consider the ending. You know, when, by dying, he clearly demonstrates that he can. It isn’t even very hard; just throw the holy talisman at him and he’s toast. The elvish pilgrims from the flashback could have done it if they’d had half a brain among them. Maybe scurvy rotted that solution out of their minds, or maybe they wanted to irritate future generations, or maybe Sir Francis Drake promised the man’s dear old mother back in Liverpool he wouldn’t kill the evil-eyed jerk, but conveniently forgot to promise her not to curse him to a living death and bury him in pieces. The title Paul Chaplin suggested in his online summary (The Thing That Died) is okay, but I was thinking something more along the lines of The Thing That Hadn’t Died Yet, or The Thing That No One Bothered To Kill Until Now. On the other hand, when I consider such previous titles as Cave Dwellers (which had all of ten minutes worth of caveman footage), Pod People (which had no pods, and therefore no pod people), and Mighty Jack (whatever that is) I probably shouldn’t be complaining.

The host segments introduce us to the next stop on our tour of the universe, the planet of the Observers, whose entire existence is a well-executed joke. I like the idea of an alien race so advanced in power and intelligence that they can’t see the stupid, basic fallacies in their own assertions. In addition to bodies and language, they’ve also apparently evolved beyond the need for introspection. To demonstrate their near-omnipotence they will take over the stinger for each episode that takes place while orbiting their planet. My favorite host segment involves Tom’s unflattering depictions of Crow, and my least favorite is the oddly flat parody of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Finnegan in host segment three is lifted directly from Kirk’s memories in the classic Star Trek episode “Shore Leave,” making this the third episode to directly borrow from that series. (The earlier ones were Swamp Diamonds, which borrowed from “This Side of Paradise,” and Last of the Wild Horses, which borrowed from “Mirror, Mirror”).

The comments in film segments work very well and come out rapid fire all through the movie. When the vacant-eyed Jessica douses beside Flavia and the ranch hands, Tom says, “They’re all rock-stupid, and they home-schooled her.” As she wanders alone through Linda’s cabin, Mike starts naming all the items she passes, “Evil room, evil sofa, evil rhododendron.” When she changes costume after falling under the sinister head’s spell, Crow says, “Looks more like a somewhat racy nun than evil.” It’s a halfway decent movie (for the genre) and it’s well mocked. I’d watch it again.