CURSE OF THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN – Category – Laughably bad with an enjoyably weird premise but not fun-bad enough for my highest rating This film could easily be reviewed as part of my segment called The Bad, The Weird And The Freaky, which examines weird westerns, especially with the Frontierado Holiday coming up the first Friday in August.
However, this film is set in the 1970’s, so to me that outweighs its western features and makes it deserving of my Bad Movie Page instead. Curse of the Headless Horseman twists a classic horror story in a way that even Paul Naschy himself must have stood in awe of.
The Washington Irving tale set in Sleepy Hollow gets transplanted to the American West, and instead of a Hessian soldier beheaded by a cannonball this Headless Horseman is the ghost of an old west gunfighter who was hanged and beheaded in a way that isn’t really made clear in the film. (Details, shmeetails) Or maybe it is. The sound work in this flick is very poor and there are a few stretches where the dialogue is incredibly muffled and/or has several characters speaking at once, trampling all over each other’s lines with giddy abandon.
I’d say the movie could use subtitles for those portions except for the fact that it also seems like the players are ad-libbing much of the time, too, so even they probably wouldn’t have remembered what gibberish they were spouting. Anyway, we’re told the phantasmal horseman beheads anyone who gets in the way of his moonlit searches for the ghosts of the eight gunfighters who … did something to him. (See above)
Our story begins with the type of over-the-top, campy narration that makes the best Bad Movies stand out from the pack. In this case the narration warns us about the dangers of the Calahan Dude Ranch, hints at the Headless Horseman’s origin and frantically informs us “It will begin again!”
Next we meet medical student Mark, who is informed that he will inherit his late uncle’s dude ranch/Wild West theme park if he can make it profitable in six months’ time. If not, the property goes to the creepy, horribly disfigured caretaker named Solomon.
For some reason the characters frequently refer to Solomon as “that old guy” even though he doesn’t look any older than Mark and his hippie friends. I was actually puzzled by the first few vague references to “that old guy” before I realized the characters meant the caretaker. Referring to him by his profession or, say his hideous facial disfigurement (“that ugly guy”) might have helped the audience follow some early exchanges, but what the hell?
Mark, his lady Brenda, and their aforementioned hippie friends all decide to pitch in (in the best Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney spirit) and help make the fairly shabby ranch/park a success. Solomon, meanwhile, stands lurking on the sidelines muttering ominous remarks every so often.
Soon, the Headless Horseman begins making appearances, riding along on his black stallion, holding a blood-dripping sword (they should have made him an undead cavalry officer then, not a standard gunfighter) in one hand and his own severed head (or a hilariously lame facsimile thereof) in the other. Not a spectre to be trifled with, the horseman swoops in on his victims in the dead of night and … splashes blood from his disembodied head on them.
No, really, that’s what he does. Our filmmakers are crafting a horror film, they give the lead menace a sword and a half-assed reason to behead people, but he never does it. He never even stabs them or shoots them. I’m guessing budgetary limitations meant they couldn’t afford to actually show any gore effects so that’s what we’re stuck with.
One of my favorite blunders in a movie filled with them is when one of the characters, the actor obviously aware he’s taking part in a horror film, mistakenly refers to “that thing that’s going around killing people”, then has to awkwardly backtrack and point out that actually the Headless Horseman is just “scaring people half to death”. (And ruining their laundry) And it’s all left in the film in that wonderful bad movie tradition of not doing retakes!
We finally start to get a body count when one hippie chick flees from the horseman and gets run over by an oncoming vehicle (yep, it’s one of THOSE cliched scenes). Another hippie buys it when they’re on a bad acid trip while overacting to a degree that “the Freakout Girl” herself, Regina Carroll, might have envied.
Other things to love in this near-classic include: a) the way that the hippie characters act so weird it’s like they’re all “made-for-tv” hippie menaces from old Dragnet episodes,
b) the tie-died pants on the first character to encounter the Headless Horseman,
c) the overall ambience of incompetence and disorganization, like in The Mummy And The Curse Of The Jackals and any H.G. Lewis movie,
d) the overuse of the usual low-budget “headless rider” speical effect – namely a normal-sized man with a cloak going up over his head ending in a presumed “stump”. This technique only ever succeeds at making the allegedly headless person seem reaaaallly tall and like they’re wearing a sheet over their head instead,
e) Andy Warhol actress Ultra Violet’s brief appearance as a “millionaire burlesque dancer” (sort of like a “millionaire accordian player” or a “millionaire mime” I’m guessing) who is contemplating buying the ranch. Ultra Violet carries around her things in a Superman lunchbox instead of a purse. No, I’m not kidding,
f) the hilariously bad songs during which all action comes to a halt while the actors just sort of half-heartedly frolic. They don’t even use the songs to do a montage of the hippies getting the ranch customer-ready,
g) the very, very strange “comedy skits” the hippies enact on a stage in one of the saloons,
h) the fact that such a tiny little ranch/ park has, by my count, no less than FIVE saloons,
i) the way our players desperately try to convince us that the romantic leads have just gotten married in the ranch/park’s “church” which is just barely the size of two port-a-potties. (Insert your own “clown car” joke here)
and j) the hilariously bad day-for-night filming, typical of many low-budget bombs from back then, complete with crickets chirping in broad daylight, etc.
In the final few minutes of the film we get an orgy of deaths (from the “Bang- you’re dead” little kid school of acting, with no blood squibs used), VERY poor fight choreography and continuity (characters seem to be teleporting all over the set) and no less than TWO Scooby-Doo endings until we learn that, yes, Virginia, there really is a Headless Horseman after all .
The narrator reprises their rambling, pseudo-sinister schpiel from the movie’s beginning, at length telling the viewers “It will begin again!” Not just once, but over and over, louder and louder, in what I guess was supposed to seem like an eerie cry that sounded more and more demented with each repetition (like the manic voice of the announcer at the end of the DeNiro film The King Of Comedy), but instead seems like we’re just listening to multiple sound takes from the narrator.
He sounds silly, not scary, and he might just as well have been shifting the emphasis from word to word: “It will begin AGAIN!” … “IT will begin again!” … “It WILL begin again!” … “It will BEGIN again!” Three words: “Plunge works fast”. (Robert Ludlum fans will get it) Anyway, this thing is very, very funny,and if you could edit out the “comedy skits” and the two songs from the Joan Baez wannabe this turkey would be tight enough to have deserved my highest rating. (Sort of how the monotonous length of the kung-fu fight scenes in The Clones of Bruce Lee kept it from achieving Bad Movie Classic status)
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