Like Marge Simpson, Appellate Judge Tom Becker believes that a stranger's just a fiend you haven't met.
He breaks a neck…and LAUGHS!
A remake of Kiss of Death (1947) set in the old west, The Fiend Who Walked the West is an uneven, effective horror/western hybrid.
Baby-faced psycho Felix Griffin (Robert Evans, who became famous as a producer in the '70s) is arrested after a bungled bank robbery. For some reason, though, he gets a 90-day sentence. Into his cell walks Dan Hardy (Hugh O'Brian, The Shootist). Dan has also been arrested for taking part in a robbery, but his sentence is much more severe: 10 years. Since Dan has a wife (Linda Cristal, The High Chaparral) who's pregnant, plus a young daughter, he's devastated. He's also an otherwise decent guy who'd apparently just ended up with the wrong crowd.
Through some bits of small talk, Felix discovers that one of Dan's fellow robbers was supposed to help Dan's wife out with some of the ill-got cash, but hasn't. Felix surmises that the robber has kept the loot all to himself.
The day he's scheduled to leave, Felix makes a crack to Dan about his wife, causing Dan to pummel him. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Felix. In fact, just before this, another inmate pummeled Felix—Dan actually saved him by breaking up the fight; but Felix got his revenge against the other inmate in a grim, ghastly—and efficient—way.
And now that he's a free man, Felix can get back at Dan—on the outside.
The Fiend Who Walked the West is made memorable by two things: its high-for-a-'50s-film level of sordidness, and the bizarre performance of Robert Evans. I don't know if you'd call his overwrought, giggling, eye-bulging turn as a psychopath a "good" performance, but it's certainly fun to watch.
Less memorable, though perfectly acceptable, is the stalwart O'Brian, saddled—as usual—with an unflashy "hero" role. Cristal is fine, if underused, as O'Brian's wife, and Dolores Michaels (Warlock) is sympathetic as a floozy who falls under Griffin's spell and suffers dire consequences. A ridiculously young Ron Ely (TV's Tarzan) turns up as a deputy, and character actors like Edward Andrews, Georgia Simmons, and Stephen McNally round out the cast.
There are some fairly gruesome killings; one is particularly memorable, this film's attempt to one-up the famous Kiss of Death scene with Richard Widmark dispatching Mildred Dunnock. In addition, a pregnant woman is threatened with rape, there's a suggestion of pedophilia, someone is fed ground glass, there are plenty of shootings, and lots of talk of various atrocities committed by the insane Griffin. All this lunacy offsets somewhat the softer, more mundane scenes of…well, of anything not involving the over-emoting Evans. While the midsection is a bit slack, the final third is really pretty tense and well done.
I have to wonder about the marketing on this one. On the one hand, there's enough perversion here that it might have been considered a fairly adult (for the time) psychological thriller; but the taglines sound like they were meant for a William Castle "gimmick" film. Check out these examples:
• The kooky killer is on the loose! Don't dare turn your back on him!
("Kooky?" What is he, a cowboy outlaw beatnik?)
• He breaks a neck and laughs…watch out for yours!!
(Actually, this is one atrocity he doesn't commit; and "watch out for yours"? Is this 3-D?)
• "DON'T BE ASHAMED TO SCREAM! Everyone in the theater will be screaming with you!"
(Yes, especially if Felix releases THE TINGLER into the theater!)
The Fiend Who Walked the West is one of those films that would likely have never gotten a DVD release were it not for the on-demand market. This disc, from Fox Cinema Archives, offers a full-frame transfer of the black-and-white Cinemascope film, which was originally presented in 2.35; needless to say, the pan-and-scan does no favors to director Gordon Douglas's compositions. Audio is a fairly clean mono track.
The lone supplement is a trailer that seems to have been put together by the same people who thought up the taglines. It's histrionic, features music from The Day the Earth Stood Still, and scenes that aren't in the movie, plus funky narration about the "kooky killer" (again with that word). Like the film, it's a bit silly and overwrought.
A slightly silly but watchable film that works well in the midnight movie vein, The Fiend Who Walked the West is worth checking out for its valiant attempt to marry genres and its…well, "kooky"…central performance from the guy who rescued Paramount in the '70s. The disc might not be the best way to see it, but it's the only way.
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