It's not a good movie, but nor is it all that terrible. Star John Carradine called it the worst movie he ever made. Of his prolific film career, he said, "I only regret Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Otherwise, I regret nothing." Really? The truth is that Carradine made movies far worse than this, The Astro-Zombies (1968) for one, the trailer for which is included on Kino's sparkling new Blu-ray disc. It's not even Carradine's worst Dracula movie.
The picture exhibits sloppy direction and writing, with many obvious goofs and narrative inconsistencies. That said, it is a professional, if low-budget film, populated with good actors who'd appeared in Universal's classic horror films of the 1940s and, more significantly, classic Westerns. A surprisingly number of cast members regularly worked with director John Ford, for instance, including Carradine himself. Unquestionably the movie's biggest surprise is the sizable role given to actress Olive Carey, whose screen career dates back to 1913 and who by all rights could be regarded as the "mother hen" of the American Western. Startlingly, she plays what is essentially the Professor Van Helsing role in the picture.
William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney), depicted here as a reformed outlaw, is the foreman at a cattle ranch owned by Betty Bentley (Melinda Plowman), to whom Billy is engaged. Meanwhile, Betty's mother (Marjorie Bennett) and uncle, James Underhill (William Forrest) are among the stagecoach passengers traveling to Betty's unnamed western town. En route, they pick up a mysterious passenger (John Carradine), a vampire who earlier had sunk his teeth into the neck of Lisa Oster (Hannie Landman), the daughter of German immigrants Eva (Virginia Christine) and Franz (Walter Joanovitz). The man, obviously Count Dracula but never called that once in the film, just as mysteriously vanishes at a stagecoach stop, and soon after the stage is ambushed and all aboard are massacred by Indians.
Dracula turns up in town, assuming the identity of Uncle James, part of a plot to make virginal Betty his undead bride. Eva and Franz, now working for Betty, quickly become aware of "Uncle James's" true nature, with Eva pleading with Betty to follow her seemingly superstitious instructions to place wolfbane about her bedroom's window frame, and to keep a cross at her bedside. Betty doesn't believe her, nor does Billy, but folksy town doctor Henrietta Hull (Olive Carey) isn't so sure.
Prolific director (350 known films) William Beaudine began his career in 1909 under the tutelage of D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett, but even by the late silent era became known as the go-to guy for the fast and cheap. He spent most of the sound era toiling away on Poverty Row, churning out crummy horror movies starring the likes of Bela Lugosi (and John Carradine), and comedies with the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys. He was nearly 75 when he directed Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and the even more absurd Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (also 1966), his last theatrical features. He did some TV work after that before retiring in 1968, two years before his death.
Beaudine's direction is mostly competent but occasionally very sloppy. In the prologue, for instance, ill-fated Lisa Oster clearly has bite marks on her neck before Dracula ever shows up. In one shot of the stagecoach, one can clearly see a man in modern dress, a member of the film crew, through its windows. A major plot point revolves around Henrietta's assertion that vampires cast no reflection in mirrors, but in an earlier scene in a saloon, Carradine's reflection is plainly visible in mirrors behind the bar.
The biggest plot hole dug by Beaudine is that while vampires are famously allergic to daylight, Dracula is seen riding buggies and the stagecoach at the beginning in broad daylight. Some of these scenes may have been shot day-for-night, the director intending to have the footage optically darkened during postproduction. Or maybe not: Betty and Dracula's visit to a lost silver mine sure seems to be taking place during the middle of the day.
The dialogue by screenwriter Carl K. Hittleman has its share of howlers:
Betty: "A vampire? How stupid!"
(after finding blood and bite marks on a dead sheep) Billy: "The sheep shows no signs of struggle."
Henrietta: "I've been reading up on the subject. It's pretty spooky!"
And, yet, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula isn't totally awful. The professionalism of the cast helps. Carradine had previously played Count Dracula in two Universal films, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). In those pictures he played the character as a kind of dandy, smartly-attired and well-groomed with courtly manners, but eager to mesmerize the story's ingenue and carry her off as his bride. By the mid-1960s, alcoholism and crippling arthritis had aged Carradine considerably, his stringy hair and bulging eyes somehow making this Dracula more menacing than those ‘40s appearances. However, Carradine's performance is uncaring, less theatrically hammy than usual, merely contemptuous of the material, and it shows.
But Courtney and Plowman are fine as the story's hero and heroine. Virginia Christine, who'd memorably played the resurrected Princess Ananka in The Mummy's Curse (1944), gives her all as the ranch cook desperately trying to save Betty from the vampire's clutches. Amusingly, she went straight from this to Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, acting opposite Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn. One can only imagine: Christine: "My last picture? Something called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula." Hepburn: "That's nice, dear."
Olive Carey was married to the great silent star Harry Carey, and the mother of character actor Harry Carey Jr., who has a small role in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Both Olive and Jr. had major parts in John Ford's masterpiece The Searchers (1956), and each appeared in many other important films. With her Marjorie Main-like, no-nonsense screen persona, it's more than a little weird to see Olive Carey's sawbones teaching Billy the Kid the art of vampire slaying, but she kind of pulls it off. This was her last film. Other genre favorites like Roy Barcroft and Richard Reeves appear also, and Kurt Russell's actor father, Bing, plays a rival for Betty hand.
Video & Audio
? Filmed in Pathécolor for 1.85:1 widescreen, Kino's new Blu-ray of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula looks pretty darn good, considering, light years ahead of previous gray-market editions. The image is sharp and the color probably more true and vivid than its limited original theatrical run. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is fine, and optional English subtitles are included on this Region "A" disc.
Supplements are pretty much limited to a lively, enthusiastic commentary track by Lee Gambin and John Harrison, who don't hate the movie, either.
No masterpiece but certainly more watchable than one might have imagined, for genre fans Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is good for a few laughs. Recommended.