The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964) poster

The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)


USA. 1964.


Director/Screenplay/Producer – Del Tenney, Dialogue – Alan Naidob, Photography (b&w) – Richard L. Hilliard, Music – George Burt & Bill Holcomb, Art Direction – Robert Verberkmoes. Production Company – Iselin-Tenney Productions/Deal Productions, Inc.


Roy R. Scheider (Philip Sinclair), Robert Milli (Bruce Sinclair), Helen Warren (Abigail Sinclair), Margot Hartman (Vivian Sinclair), Hugh Franklin (James Benson), Linda Donovan (Letty), J. Frank Lucas (Seth), George Cotten (Constable Winters), Dino Narizzano (Robert Harrington), Candace Hilligoss (Deborah Benson), Paul Haney (Chief Constable Barnes)


New England, 1892. The patriarch Rufus Sinclair dies and is buried in the family vault. At the reading of the will, his widow, his two sons and their respective spouses, learn that Sinclair was afraid of premature burial and has insisted that they wait one year before the estate is divided between them. If any of them break the stipulations in the will, he will return to kill them according to their greatest fear. Soon after, as the bickering family members ignore the conditions of the will, a caped figure in black appears and begins killing them off.

In the 1980s, Del Tenney was rediscovered and received recognition for a handful of mostly forgotten low-budget films, including Psychomania/Violent Midnight (1963), I Eat Your Skin (1964) and The Curse of the Living Corpse. Although the film that Tenney is most famous for is the Z-movie classic The Horror of Party Beach (1964). Indeed, The Horror of Party Beach and The Curse of the Living Corpse were originally released together on a double-bill. After 1964, Del Tenney appears to have vanished altogether, although did reappear about 40 years later with Do You Want to Know a Secret? (2001) and Descendant (2003) before his death in 2013.

The Curse of the Living Corpse is usually dismissed as a cheap Z film, along with most of Del Tenney’s output. Indeed Roy Scheider (billed as Roy R. Scheider), later the star of hits like Jaws (1975), Marathon Man (1976), Blue Thunder (1983) and 2010 (1984) and in his first ever screen role here, was reported to refuse to acknowledge The Curse of the Living Corpse on his resume. In truth, this is mostly a case of Del Tenney’s bad movie director reputation preceding him. The Curse of the Living Corpse is not a bad film at all. It is by no means a great film either, strictly average, but not too different from any of the other genre films being made around the time.

It is fairly clear that The Curse of the Living Corpse has been made in an attempt to copy Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that were all the vogue at the time, beginning with The House of Usher (1960). Tenney borrows the same gloomy 19th Century settings that Corman favoured, showing various members of a well-to-do family in a state of aristocratic decay. The initial reading of the will makes reference to premature burial (even though this is an element that has little to do with the film) that features in much of Poe’s fiction and the Corman films – Corman even made one entitled Premature Burial (1962). Moreover, Roy Scheider gives what is really a Vincent Price performance – close your eyes and you would swear that it is Price going through all the tortured self-loathing dialogue in one of his roles for Corman.

Linda Donovan's severed head on a platter in The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)
Linda Donovan’s severed head on a platter

However, where Roger Corman’s films concentrated on a brooding mood, Tenney has created The Curse of the Living Corpse around a series of sensationalistic deaths. Indeed, rather than a Corman Poe film, what The Curse of the Living Corpse resembles is something like Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), which was based around serving up a series of lurid novelty despatches. These often prove rather entertaining. Tenney gets a big fun jolt with the first of these when Robert Milli opens a silver tray that supposedly contains his breakfast and finds Linda Donovan’s severed head there.

There are other effective scenes like where the killer drowns Margot Hartman (Tenney’s real-life wife) in the bath, where Tenney makes maximum effort to get Hartman as near-naked as censorship of the time allowed him to; Helen Warren set afire in her bed; Robert Milli being dragged along behind his horse; and a graphic shot where J. Frank Lucas is stabbed in the face with the sword cane. Certainly, you have to commend Del Tenney for going for broke in these scenes and not holding much back.

The plot itself is routine. It bears much in common with a 1960s psycho-thriller or indeed an Old Dark House thriller like The Cat and the Canary (1927) about relatives being bumped off in an elaborately contrived scam by what at first seems like something supernatural. There are quite a few similarities between The Curse of the Living Corpse and the Old Dark House film The Ghoul (1933) that featured Boris Karloff seemingly revived from the dead and hunting his greedy relatives through a big gloomy mansion. The end mundane revelation is contrived.

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