One of the few westerns to feature horror icon Vincent Price, MGM’s terrific HD transfer of MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE sees Blu-ray release thanks to Kino Lorber.
In 1891, after serving 18 years in the Arizona Territory penitentiary, model prisoner Cain (Clint Walker, NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY) is released, looking to start a new life. Due to the 12 men he supposedly shot (and the 12 notches in his revolver), prior to his imprisonment he was a notorious outlaw known as “Killer Cain”. Traveling showman Dan Ruffalo (Vincent Price, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) wants to hire Cain as an exhibition sharpshooter, as his name will bring paying spectators to his “Shooting Show and Death Display”, but Cain turns down the offer, not wanting to be in contact with any kind of gunplay. Cain finds it very tough for an ex con to find work, and using the name “Justin”, he lands a gig as a bouncer at a gambling saloon. When his identity is discovered, he is fired, and decides it’s time to take Dan up on his offer. After some target practice with his old revolver (which Dan proudly had on display) and fancy black gunslinger attire, Cain’s new act is a success.
Opposition comes in the form of Billy Valence (Paul Hampton, THEY CAME FROM WITHIN), a young punk sharpshooter who Cain is now displacing and totally overshadowing in the act (Billy also revealed Cain’s true identity, getting him to lose his bouncer job). Cain also has formed a romance with painter Monica Alton (Anne Francis, FORBIDDEN PLANET), an independent woman who purchased a nearby ranch house. Cain’s plan is to stay in Dan’s traveling act long enough to raise the money to build up Monica’s ranch and make an honest woman out of her. But not only does Cain have to be concerned about trigger-happy and grudging Billy, but also several men with old settles to score in spite of Cain paying for his crimes in prison.
MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE starts off with a bang: ruthless outlaw Luke Santee (Mike Henry, TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD) and his men (hiding in wooden coffins with slots for gunfire) ambush the prison fort where Cain is imprisoned. After the hangings of a quartet of criminals, Luke and company open fire and raid the place to bust his brother out, with Cain uprightly intervening and refusing to make an escape (Luke and his cohorts later beat up and rob Cain in a mine). Most of the film though is standard Western stuff, but the plot is engaging enough as is the characterization (played by a great cast). Walker plays the “gentle giant” with a notorious background who now finds freedom in a much-changed old West (his wandering into town alerts him to the new inventions of the telephone and the bicycle), and despite his polite, gracious and hard-working persona, he’s constantly faced with hostility. Although the title and the presence of Price probably confused a few moviegoers of the time into thinking this was a horror film, it’s of course not, and it’s great to see him in this genre (the only other major western feature in Price’s long career was THE JACKALS, made a few years earlier than this). Second-billed Price seems to be having fun as an old scalawag, and knowing of all the sinister characters he’s played before, he seems right at home ballyhooing a show which showcases various weapons used in well-publicized Wild West demises. Songwriter/actor Hampton is properly hammy as “the kid” who has perfect aim but none of the experience of his rival (there’s warning lectures about getting shot in the back) as his character gets more psychotic as the film progresses (though it’s hard to accept the character, as Hampton was in his early 30s at the time, as under-aged when he’s turned down a drink at a saloon). Francis is a fitting leading lady for Walker, and her classy and cultish presence makes the obligatory romance portion of the film tolerable.
Directed by a man who mostly did episodic drama and action on television, MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE has typical western town sets, but it’s actually a nice looking film with some very scenic locations. The music on the other hand is pretty sappy and pedestrian, especially when compared to the likes of what Ennio Morricone and other composers were doing at the time. Released in 1969, the film was overshadowed that year not only by higher profile western hits like THE WILD BUNCH and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, but also the glut of spaghetti gunslinger flicks coming over from Italy. In an attempt to compete and change with the times, unlike older films of this type, the gunshots here are far more explicit (using squib explosions representing the bloody bullet hits to the body) and one very well known actor here has his death scene played out in slow motion for full effect (the film was originally given the “M” rating by the MPAA but re-rated “R” when first issued on DVD in 2005). Supporting cast members include 1960s B movie starlet Beverly Powers (aka BRIDES OF BLOOD’s Beverly Hills) who starred with Price a few years earlier in THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, busy character actor Harry Lauter (ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES) and voice artist William Woodson as a warden in the opening scenes (if Woodson’s voice sounds familiar, it’s because he narrated “The Odd Couple”, “The Super Friends” and countess other programs). Executive producer Aubrey Schenck was responsible for a number of 1950s monster movies, including THE BLACK SLEEP, VOODOO ISLAND, PHARAOH'S CURSE and FRANKENSTEIN 1970.
Kino presents MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE in 1080p HD, preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The elements utilized here are in quite good condition, with no noticeable defects or imperfections marring the image. This is a nice improvement over MGM’s standard def DVD release, and the film-like qualities are present with the picture being sharp in detail. Colors are stable and natural looking, and textures are satisfactory throughout, with what little grain there is here managed superbly. The English language audio is provided in a DTS-HD 2.0 mono track, containing clear dialogue and distinct music and sound effects, with no distortion or hiss. The back covers states that English subtitles are included, but no such option is present on the disc.
The main extra on this Blu-ray is a featurette entitled, “The Infamous Killer Cain” (10:18) which is a sit-down chat with retired actor Walker. He talks about how MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE came to him when his contract with Warner Bros. was up and that he was looking to do more features rather than television. He describes Price as “one of the nicest human beings you could hope to meet” and loved working with him, as well as his co-stars. An interesting story here is that Walker was supposed to do another Western for Sparr, but due to his dislike of the script, he turned it down: Sparr died in a plane crash scouting locations for that very film, and Walker says he would have been on that plane had he accepted the offer. He goes on to talk about how he grew more disenchanted with Hollywood after the time he made the film, but he still remains fond of MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE. Also included is the original United Artists theatrical trailer. (George R. Reis)
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