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Mondays with Roy Scheider: The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)

This week, we begin a new month and with that, a new tribute series. I’ll admit, I went through a few different ideas and changed it up at the very last minute for a birthday celebration I’m surprised I think of sooner… a deep dive into the career of Roy Scheider. I mean, with his role in this little movie…

I’m sure many are at least tangentially aware Scheider, who hit movie screens like a force throughout the 1970s. Speaking for myself, I’ve always been a fan, but I’ve yet to dive head first into his work, so a celebration of what would have been his 89th birthday feels like a perfect opportunity to learn more about this talented and understated performer. Unlike last month’s look at The Marx Brothers, this time out I’m starting right at the beginning with an examination of Scheider’s screen debut: The Curse of the Living Corpse (who would have thunk he’d be in a movie with that name!). 

The Curse of the Living Corpse drops viewers into a quiet country estate as a family gathers for the funeral of their unseen patriarch. However, it quickly becomes clear (in classic horror movie fashion) these are terrible people. It doesn’t take long for the bratty young adults to ignore the provisions in their father’s will. One would think they would listen, as one of the many clauses threatens they will die in the way they most fear if they do not obey his wishes. And wouldn’t you know it, people start dying? Roy Schieder, Candice Hilligoss (of Carnival of Souls fame), Robert Mill and Helen Warren costar in the picture. Del Tenney directs the movie from a script he co-wrote with Margot Hartman. 

Coming in 1964, The Curse of the Living Corpse is Roy Scheider’s first feature film debut as Phillip Sinclair, the family’s asthmatic and alcoholic middle son. Isn’t there always one in movies like this? At this point in his career, while Scheider had started landing some television roles, most of his work came on stage. His 2008 obituary in the Hollywood Reporter credits his professional debut as coming in a 1961 performance of Romeo and Juliet (as Mercutio) during the New York Shakespeare Festival. 

Throughout the 1960s, Scheider was primarily known as a stage actor. At this point in his career, his true big screen breakout in 1971s The French Connection was still more than six years away. According to his Television Academy obituary, he wouldn’t make his Broadway debut until 1965 in the play Tartuffe. He would go on to be recognized with an Off-Broadway Theater Award (Obie) in 1967. 

Scheider’s screen debut in The Curse of the Living Corpse feels instantly familiar. A look over mentions of the film in his press clippings shows it cited as everything from a B movie to a Z movie (a little harsh, by the way). 

The movie is definitely a small picture, there’s no hiding that. At the same time thought, it’s not an incompetent effort. Hollywood culture is incredibly mean to movies which fall outside of the mainstream establishment. Some of the films belittled as schlock-ey or ‘Z movies’ come to life with just as much—if not more— love than their higher budget contemporaries. They just struggle under the pressure of their flimsy budgets.  

Truthfully, The Curse of the Living Corpse feels closer to something like The Shadow of the Cat or some of Roger Corman‘s later ventures. Many of the problems we snicker at in other works of low-budget horror don’t rear their ugly heads here. The cast is far from inexperienced; rather, most of the players (including Hilligoss and Scheider) were seasoned stage performers at the time of the film’s release. 

It is interesting to sit down for The Curse of the Living Corpse as a first-time-watch , especially when taking into account the star persona Scheider would go on to establish throughout the 1970s. While Scheider is visibly younger here, he still looks like Chief Brody. Scheider spent most of the 1970s playing rough, but ultimately likable heroes. And it is this I believe which is responsible for some of the complexity in Phillip as a character. While most of the characters in The Curse of the Living Corpse are either fully “good” or entirely “bad”, I found it difficult to peg just how to read Phillip. Sure, he’s an entitled jerk, but I couldn’t help but want to read something beneath the surface. Could he be redeemable?

Sure, I’m not the best judge of narratives, but I had a heck of a time trying to guess where this story was going. I tried a few times and to be honest, I was wrong. Kids, I’m trying my hardest to keep this spoiler free since this is such a rarely seen movie. Is the story paranormal? Is this about a psycho killer? The was a tricky one for me to gauge and I certainly was surprised.

Tenney is only credited as director on four films and The Curse of the Living Corpse was his debut effort; however, he easily finds the terror in the environment and at the same time, in the unknown. The moments are relatively few where viewers are pulled back from the narrative due to the budget really showing itself. Tenney makes a smart decision to leave many of the potential effect shots off-camera. It’s perfectly played. Unfortunately, it is the films which try to do this on-camera which earn a reputation as schlocky thanks to monsters like this…

With that being said… It Conquered the World (1956) is still a delightful picture.

Is The Curse of the Living Corpse a diamond in the rough among B pictures? That’s a tough one. The movie certainly feels unique. The story is a scary one and there’s some effective production here despite a clear shoe-string budget. However, there’s something to be said (at least from my chair) for the power of star persona and its ability to make a movie. As a fan of Roy Scheider, how much did the persona he developed throughout the 1970s contribute to the success of this portrayal. Would I have liked The Curse of the Living Corpse quite as much with another actor in the role of Phillip? I can’t say for sure. Ultimately though, if your a fan of B-horror, Roger Corman or plain old “good/bad” movies, definitely check this one out.

The Curse of the Living Corpse is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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