In 1963, motion pictures were in the midst of seismic change. The Hollywood western serial had lost their appeal. This left Hollywood stuck with props, real estate, and personnel under contract who knew only cowboys and six-shooters. Meanwhile, horror movies from Great Britain gained in appeal during the ‘50’s. This began the movie genre now called “The Weird Western” and perhaps the strangest production almost undertaken by a major studio.
The movies “Curse of the Undead” (1959, Universal), “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” (1966, Embassy), and “Billy The Kid Vs Dracula” (1966, Embassy) used the talent and properties ready-made for the western, and featured the familiar chills found in the new wave of horror. The box-office grosses made these experiments worthwhile.
So much so, British horror house Hammer Films sat up and took notice. In 1966, they set newly-minted producer Nigel Braithwaith to work developing their own western production. It was to be Braithwaith’s first production and according to his production notes, he wanted to set “Hammer on its blooming ear, wot!” The project was at first titled “Fangs of the Gunslinger”. Braithwaith traveled to Hollywood to assemble the talent.
Braithwaith went straight to the top. He met with Walter Brennan, who was on hiatus from shooting a season of “The Real McCoys.” Few people knew that the man known for playing fusty old ranch hands had started in New York legitimate theatre and yearned to try something new. Braithwaith had further good luck when Hollywood scribe Eric Taylor sent in a treatment. Taylor had broad experience with genre movies including westerns and crime noir. Braithwaith accepted the treatment and Taylor set to work.
At first, the writer was excited. A town named Tombstone seemed ripe for horror. Many of the Hammer tropes could be easily adapted to the Old West. However, the differences became cause for furious battling between Taylor and Braithwaith. Taylor wanted the vampire to be raised by a Comanche curse. Braithwaith needed for the movie to tie in with existing Hammer properties. Taylor wanted the lair to be the deserted Clanton ranch. Braithwaith had seen picture books of Arizona and wanted the lair to be in a Pueblo cliff dwelling. Using the character of Old Man Clanton did not sit well with Hammer, as the character lacked name recognition in Great Britain. The studio heads wanted the vampire to be Buffalo Bill Cody, then Wyatt Earp. Finally, all settled on Ike Clanton with suitable backstory.
The production was further complicated when Hammer reduced Braithwaith’s budget. The shoot location was to be moved from balmy California to Spain. Not an insurmountable obstacle as many European westerns used Spanish locations. But this set the tone for further complication.
The script suffered dozens of revisions as it passed back and forth from California to Hammer Studios.
The plot became a hodgepodge: The night after the gunfight at the OK Corral, a distraught Ike Clanton travels to Transylvania. “If the Almighty let mah brother git filled with holes, I renounce Him! I will settle up with Tombstone and those Earps!” A deep voice says, “I shall help you.” Ike looks up. Standing before him is Count Dracula. Ike shrieks as a bat flies past the full moon. The next night, the town of Tombstone is struck with a series of murders where the victims are drained of blood. Wyatt Earp and his brothers search for the killer. It’s only when noted lecturer Professor Van Helsing arrives by stagecoach that the killer’s nature is revealed.
In the midst of scripting, Hammer decided the title lacked impact. “The Fangs of Old Man Clanton” seemed more a title for a Rin Tin Tin feature starring Lionel Barrymore. The new title punched up the OK Coral connection.
Brennan could not travel to Spain and keep his schedule for his TV series. Not wanting to lose their star, Hammer compromised again and shooting was set in Arizona. Brennan had read about Stanislavki and threw himself into Method acting.
“I want a cape!” Brennan demanded. “Long, long fangs! The longer the better!” Capes were procured and special fangs fashioned. Screen tests of Brennan as Vampire Ike disappointed. Braithwaith noted “WB looks like walrus at the bleeding opera.” The fangs were shortened without Brennan’s knowledge.
Taylor hadn’t been paid in weeks and filed a complaint with the Screenwriters’ Guild. Braithwaith had to draw on his limited knowledge of the old west to adapt an ever-changing production.
John Carradine had somehow sighed a contract with Braithwaith, despite being in a sanitarium recuperating from alcoholism. The only footage extant from this entire production, ironically, is the cutaway shot of Carradine in a cape, shot day-for-night, against a wall painted institutional green.
Hammer player Peter Cushing was cast to play Van Helsing. However, British-born-and-bred Peter Cushing hadn’t worked in direct sunshine in all of his then thirty-five years of life. Within hours of arriving in Arizona, Cushing succumbed a hideous case of sun poisoning. Braithwaith noted “Overripe tomato from bleeding Surrey”. The bandages Cushing wore had to be worked into the script as a rash contracted while battling the undead.
Hammer followed the production updates with mounting concern. They demanded Braithwaith return to Great Britain to begin a new Mummy movie with Christopher Lee. Braithwaith pretended to not receive the orders and went rogue.
“Bleeding fight scene will clench convince the bleeding lot of them!” wrote Braithwaith. He was positive that footage of the climactic fight would convince Hammer to continue financing. The troupe had to sneak into Pueblo National Park in the dead of night to shoot a long take fight between the tusked Vampire Ike, the swaddled Van Helsing, and a visibly-distressed newcomer James Garner cast as Wyatt Earp.
The scene hinged on Vampire Ike lunging for the heroes as he shrieked “I’ll drink your blood, you varmints!” Take after take was ruined by the chopstick length fangs popping off Brennan’s teeth at the crucial line. When the line was delivered with the assistance of binding twine, the fight commenced. The fight was joined on camera by several Park Rangers and the entire crew was arrested.
If it had been completed, the production would have included other recognizable names. A young Billy Mumy was to play Wyatt’s son “Fauntleroy”. Tony Franciosa was reading for “Deputy St. John Talbert”. The seemingly ageless extra Jackie Spratlin would reprise an uncredited role as “Barfly” for a record breaking 22nd time in a career.
Hammer abandoned the crossed-genre movie for their reliable horror fare. Despite this, the production had some behind the scenes impact on future horror hits. Hammer used the plot of a traveller appealing to Dracula for revenge in “The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires” (1974). Vampire Ike’s fangs had been adapted and shortened for the vampire Barlow in Tobe Hooper “Salem’s Lot” (Warner Bros. Television, 1979).
What of Nigel Braithwaith? He disappeared soon after doing thirty days for trespass. He did not return to Hammer Studios and his scheduled production “The Witches” with Joan Fontaine. It is said that on nights of the new moon, where light is at its least optimal for filming, a voice can be heard echoing around the Pueblo cliffs: “Bleeding walrus saying bleeding varmint to a bleeding to-mah-to…”