Arguably best-known to many for directing the Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell cult oddity BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952), William Beaudine (1892-1970) had an extremely prolific career—he directed well over 200 films!—that stretched all the way back to the silent era, spanning just about every commercial genre of film, with a particular emphasis on B-western programmers. Following his role as Count Dracula (alias “Baron Latos”) in Erle C. Kenton’s monster mash-up HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), the equally-prolific John Carradine re-donned the cape yet again for BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA (1966), one of Beaudine’s very last films, a cost-conscious if highly-entertaining ‘horror western’ quickie (shot back-to-back with the same director’s JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER), which has recently made its worldwide Blu-ray debut thanks to the efforts of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
Fluttering through the night as a giant vampire bat, ‘Dracula’ (Carradine) has been quietly terrorizing the wild west, and in the film’s opening, under the cover of night, he sneakily takes a bite out of a young woman whose parents, Eva (Virginia Christine) and Franz Oster (Walter Janovitz), become convinced the perpetrator was a vampire. Following a simplistic-yet-imaginative credit sequence, which perfectly sets the appropriate tone, our titular bloodsucker boards a stagecoach and is immediately smitten by a photo of Mrs. Bentley’s (Marjorie Bennett) daughter Betty (Melinda Plowman), about whom he boldly remarks, “She’s eighteen andso beautiful!” In need of a quick plan, he incenses a group of usually peaceful Indians after he kills one of their own and, as a result, they attack the stage and kill everyone on board, a development which allows the canny vampire to assume the guise of James Underhill (William Forrest), Betty’s long-absent uncle and the owner of the family ranch. Upon his arrival, he is dismayed to learn that Betty is actually engaged to William Bonney (Chuck Courtney), Mrs. Bentley’s ranch-hand, who is better-known to most as Billy the Kid (“Marry a notorious gunslinger! I won’t hear of it!”). After he assumes control of the ranch, the locals begin to cast suspicion on ‘Mr. Underhill’, which is exacerbated by the arrival of Eva and Franz, the immigrant couple from the film’s opening.
In what is much more of a western than a traditional horror film, Carradine’s vampire, contrary to the film’s spirited title, is never actually referred to as Dracula, nor does he ever even sprout the usual fangs, either. In what was most likely a budgetary constraint or a glaring continuity error, he also parades around in complete daylight, but at the same time, the ol’ bloodsucker is always in need of sleep (“I’m very tired. I may sleep all day!”), and occasionally catches some ZZZ’s at an abandoned silver mine on the outskirts of town. In yet another bizarre ‘revisionist’ touch, however, he doesn’t sleep in a coffin, but rather a neatly-made queen-size bed instead (with fittingly blood-red sheets). Perhaps toying with the established vampire lore, Beaudine and scriptwriter Carl Hittleman also further break the ‘rules’ by allowing their eponymous menace to be staked with an iron spike instead of the usual wooden stake, but at the same time, such traditional means as holy crosses and wolfbane seem to repel him as well.
Regardless of its many inconsistencies, Beaudine’s film remains a whole lot of fun just the same, which commentators Lee Gambin and John Harrison lovingly refer to as part of the “weird western” subgenre, a smattering of genre-hopping westerns that includes Edward Nassour’s and Ismael Rodríguez’s THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956), James O’Connelly’s THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969) and Larry G. Spangler’s A KNIFE FOR THE LADIES (1974), latter of which featured a Jack the Ripper-style killer set against a western backdrop. Worn-out and emaciated, John Carradine’s vampire remains exhausted-looking despite putting the bite on a number of women, apparently having a hard time assimilating into the harsh – and barren – landscape of the west as opposed to his usual European stomping grounds. Virginia Christine, who, like Carradine, also starred in a couple of Universal horror films from the ’Forties (including Leslie Goodwins’ THE MUMMY’S CURSE ), adds a nice European touch to the proceedings as she casts her suspicions on this mysterious visitor, while veteran screen actor Olive Carey (also seen in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS  andTWO RODE TOGETHER ) is wonderful as the straightforward, no-nonsense Dr. Henrietta Hull, who, in one of the film’s many rudimentary in-camera effects, discovers Mr. Underhill’s secret when she notices that he casts no reflection in a mirror (yet another traditional aspect of vampire lore that was retained). In an interesting role for Chuck Courtney, the star of yet another “weird western”, Jacques R. Marquette’s TEENAGE MONSTER (1958), Courtney imbues plenty of sympathetic traits into his performance as Billy the Kid, the infamous gunslinger, who is trying to change his trigger-happy ways, but who nonetheless draws his guns during the film’s unique, seemingly almost improvised, finale.
Released onto Beta / VHS videocassettes (“Billy the Kid is down for the “Count”!”) by Embassy Home Entertainment in 1986, BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA seemed to bypass DVD altogether with the exception of a few bootleg editions from the likes of Cheezy Flicks, which were nothing more than VHS-rips. Following their massive licensing deal with StudioCanal, Kino Lorber Studio Classics finally give Beaudine’s little film a much-needed upgrade, which is superior in every way. Looking far more detailed and colourful than ever before (the fun opening credits look especially nice in HD), some scenes do still remain a little on the ‘soft’ side, but this is clearly a by-product of the actual physical film stock itself and not a result of the transfer, which is spot-on. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio also sounds perfect, which really draws attention to Raoul Kraushaar’s wonderful score.
The big – and very welcome – extra is an audio commentary with authors and film historians Lee Gambin and John Harrison, who profess early on that they have a lot to discuss over the film’s short running time of 75 minutes, which they do admirably. They talk a lot about westerns and the (quote) “changing period of the genre”, and how this particular film was a (quote) “throwback to the classic genre”, which also leads into a lengthy discussion about the history of Billy the Kid on screen. Of course, they also go on to discuss both William Beaudine’s and John Carradine’s highly extensive filmographies, which leads to all sorts of delightful tangents as both of them bounce titles around. Lastly, they also discuss Kraushaar’s music and some of the borrowed cues, including stuff from Spencer G. Bennett’s 15-part serial THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES (1945) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL (1957). It’s a jam-packed, entertaining listen from a pair of knowledgeable and enthusiastic film lovers, who cap things off with their personal favourite “weird western” selection.
Unfortunately, no trailer for the film is included on the disc, but Kino has included a number of other horror trailers, including Reginald Le Borg’s THE BLACK SLEEP (1956), Ted V. Mikels’ THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (1968) and Pete Walker’s THE HOUSE OF LONG SHADOWS (1983), which also star the wonderful John Carradine, and all of which are available from Kino. Order it direct from Kino or DiabolikDVD.