When a family member passes it is usually an occasion for grief and, hopefully, meaningful reflections upon a loved one’s life well lived. In the 1964 Del Tenney film The Curse of the Living Corpse the family of Rufus Sinclair has quite a different reaction.
Set in a small New England town in 1892, the film opens with the funeral of the wealthy Mr. Sinclair. The family appears to be mournful as they follow the horse-drawn hearse to the nearby family cemetery where the body is placed inside a mausoleum.
As the family prepares to leave the crypt it becomes quickly apparent that none of them really cared for the man. Rufus was controlling, abusive, and manipulative, tormenting his wife and sons with the possibility that they would be written out of his will. Even as they prepare to exit the tomb, the family attorney Mr. Harrington (Dino Narizzano) warns them that they are disregarding some of his wishes in instructing their servant Seth (J. Frank Lucas) to extinguish the torches lighting the crypt and then to lock it behind them. Of course, the family ignores this warning.
The mother, Abigail (Helen Warren) lingers behind briefly in what at first appears to be a moment of genuine grief. It isn’t. She only wishes to leave a diamond brooch he’d given her on his casket. It seems the brooch, though expensive and beautiful, served as a way for him to control his wife, making her wear it at his command and then reminding her constantly of how grateful she should be for such an expensive gift.
Once they’ve all returned home, Mr. Harrington proceeds to read the will. It states that they will all, including faithful servant Seth, receive a share of Rufus’s significant fortune. However, they must subside on only a basic allowance for one year after his death and they must follow certain conditions regarding his burial and entombment. Perhaps he should have laid out the conditions more clearly before the funeral, but who’s counting? Rufus is, that’s who. His will states that he curses each family member that violates his wishes with a death chosen to match their worst fears. These are fire for his wife Abigail; disfigurement for his vain son Bruce (Robert Milli); suffocation for his weak, asthmatic son Phillip (Roy Scheider in one of his earliest roles), drowning for Phillip’s conniving wife Vivian (Margot Hartman); and entombment with his master’s body for Seth. Finally, the loss of what he holds most precious, his wife Deborah (Carnival of Souls’ own Candace Hilligoss) for loyal nephew James (Hugh Franklin).
Rufus Sinclair suffered from a strange ailment that would on occasion leave him completely paralyzed and lower his bodily functions to the point that he could be mistaken for dead. This condition made him develop a terror of being buried alive. Hence his requests for an unlocked, torchlit tomb, among other eccentric demands. That the family did not abide by those demands, the attorney warns, may mean the curse will come true!
None pay this curse much heed… until the servants and family members begin dying in ways exactly as Rufus described in his will. Now the question becomes has Rufus Sinclair returned from the grave to seek revenge for possibly having been buried alive? Or is there a more sinister plot afoot courtesy of one of his many scheming heirs?
The Curse of the Living Corpse was written, directed and produced by Del Tenney. Known for his low budget, exploitation films, this one stands out. Unlike his other works such as The Horror at Party Beach, The Curse of the Living Corpse is more of a mystery/ghost story or mystery than anything else. Though a fairly standard inheritance themed whodunnit, the setting gives it a nice gothic feel with enough twists and turns that one can be surprised by where the film goes. Perhaps it is most notable for the presence of Roy Scheider. Years before the actor would go on to fame as Chief Brody in Jaws, we see him here as a weak, alcoholic cuckold who seems to lack any ambition or moral compass.
So if you’re in the mood for a bit of mystery mixed with a good dose of overdone theatrics, check out Del Tenney’s The Curse of the Living Corpse. It’s a pretty good flick, but remember, if you hire an estate planning attorney, get them to tell you the deceased’s conditions for the funeral before you make the arrangements. It cuts down on the number of curses you’re likely to receive in the long run.