The Undertaker and His Pals (1966) -**½
The tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is one of the more enduringly popular British horror stories, having been in circulation in one form or another since the mid-19th century. It’s been a hit in print, on stage, on the radio, and in the movies, and while it has never enjoyed quite the same level of visibility on the western shore of the Atlantic, it has its share of fans in America, too. Over here, the story is best known through the Broadway musical, but there have been other adaptations making the rounds. Andy Milligan, of all people, filmed the Sweeney Todd legend as The Bloodthirsty Butchers in 1970, and four years before that, the otherwise unheard-of T. L. P. Swicegood put a very loose adaptation onto the nation’s drive-in screens under the title The Undertaker and His Pals.
It should be obvious from that title that the killer in this version isn’t a barber, and won’t be dispatching his victims with a flick of his straight-razor while they sit for a shave. In fact, the movie’s connection to the old story won’t become evident until fairly late in the first act. We begin with a trio of motorcyclists in suspiciously concealing outfits surrounding the apartment of a young woman named Sally Lamb. (The credits don’t list any character names, and I’ve had very little success in figuring out who plays whom here. I don’t even want to guess which low-billed actress might have taken on the role of Sally.) After fanning out to cover both the front door and the outside window to the fire escape, the bikers force their way in, stab Sally to death, and cut off her legs.
Shortly thereafter, Sally’s parents are the only mourners in evidence at the girl’s funeral. Mort the undertaker (Ray Dannis, of The Severed Arm and The Corpse Grinders) bestows the usual comforting platitudes, then unexpectedly presents Mr. Lamb with the bill for his services. He says that being forced to deal with money matters right there in the viewing parlor often helps to jolt his customers out of their grief, and if we can judge accurately by Lamb’s reaction, then it looks like he’s got a point. Of course, a great deal of this customer’s jolt comes from the size of the bill, which is ten times what the Lambs had agreed to in their contract with Shady Rest Funeral Home— evidently Mort felt the circumstances called for a few services above and beyond what had originally been specified. Mr. Lamb wants to fight it out, but his wife overbears him, berating both him and Mort for talking about money at a time like this. Sobbing all the while, she takes the absurdly long amended invoice from the undertaker, stuffs it into her purse, and drags her husband out the door.
Elsewhere, private detective Harry Glass (James Westmoreland, from Don’t Answer the Phone and Siren of Atlantis) is agreeing to take his secretary girlfriend, Anne Poultry (Sally Frei, from Women of the Prehistoric Planet and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine), out to lunch. They stop in at the little café across the street, where they are somewhat nonplussed to hear Doc and Spike, the proprietors (probably Marty Friedman and Rick Cooper), explain that there’s nothing on the menu today except for the daily special— leg of lamb. That isn’t what either prospective customer really wanted, but both grudgingly place an order; while Spike runs back to the kitchen to tell Doc, Anne fills Harry in on some of the rumors she’s heard about this place. Doc reputedly came late to the short-order cooking business, having opened up the restaurant with Spike only after his medical career imploded. If Anne is to be believed, Doc didn’t get very far before having to switch jobs, either; she says he was kicked out of med school for being “weird.” Well, he certainly is that. Our first good look at Doc has him reading aloud from a surgical textbook and obviously enjoying almost sexual thoughts about his scalpel. Then things get considerably worse when Spike brings out Harry’s and Anne’s plates. Glass isn’t sure what the slab of meat in front of him is, but he’s positive it’s no leg of lamb. He and his date storm out in disgust, leaving us to contemplate possible connections between the wannabe surgeon in the kitchen and the girl named Lamb who got her legs cut off in the opening scene. And while we’re at it, we might also contemplate what might come of Anne’s insistence that Spike refer to her as “Miss Poultry,” affording the proper respect to a woman whom he doesn’t know.
In point of fact, writer/director Swicegood doesn’t give us any time to contemplate that last bit, for in the very next scene, the three bikers grab Anne in her backyard and impale her on the spiky wrought-iron fence that surrounds her flower beds. We don’t get to see what the killers take this time, but I think we can guess from the way “breast of chicken” goes up on the daily special board at the café the next morning. Just don’t ask me how Spike and Doc hope to pass off the one thing suggested by that phrase as an example of the other. Glass is present as cops led by one of his detective friends (I believe this is Robert Lowery, from Queen of the Amazons and The Monster and the Ape) investigate the crime scene, and it’s difficult to credit Harry’s promise to the detective that he won’t take matters into his own hands. It is thus not a very smart idea for Mort to pop up and try to sell Harry a funeral for his girlfriend before he has had a chance to leave the premises. Glass is sharp enough to recognize that Mort’s contract makes no mention of the $144.98 price that the undertaker quotes him, and he fills in the figure himself before signing, stipulating further that Mort is to include “no ups or downs, no extras.” When Harry arrives at Shady Rest to see that Mort’s idea of a no-frills funeral amounts to nothing more than stuffing the deceased into a wooden shipping crate, he understandably pays the undertaker in whoop-ass rather than cash. And let me tell you, $144.98 buys a lot of whoop-ass.
Nevertheless, Glass seems to get over the loss of Anne pretty quickly, for he is in fine flirting form when an attractive blonde named Friday (probably Warrene Ott, of Black Zoo and The Phantom Planet) shows up at his office the next morning to interview for the recently vacated secretarial position. In fact, I’m pretty sure Friday is really interviewing for a job as Harry’s new girlfriend. But she makes the mistake of having lunch at Doc and Spike’s café, and she is never seen again except as a succession of hamburger patties. Any further questions about what’s going on here are soon to be resolved, for Mort barges into the kitchen while the boys are grinding Friday up. When he sees what they’re up to, he protests that their wholesale disposal of the body violates the terms of their partnership— how is Mort supposed to make money on the victim’s funeral when there’s no body to be buried? Spike and Doc aren’t in the mood for a sob story right now. They dismiss their partner’s concerns, pointing out that they killed Friday all by themselves. They do, however, appease Mort by promising to do another murder that evening.
This is where the undertaker and his pals begin to lose control of the situation. Their next victim is not alone in the house when they get her, and one of her roommates opens fire on the killers with a pistol while they’re making their getaway. Mort is superficially wounded, but more importantly, the license plate was shot off of his motorcycle. When Glass and his buddy on the police force find that, they’re going to have no trouble identifying at least one of the murderers. Furthermore, Friday had a twin sister (also played by Warrene Ott— or whomever), and Thursday (I’m guessing she was born first) has figured out that the missing woman was last seen going to a job interview at Harry’s office. Thursday seeks Glass out, and offers her assistance in tracking down Mort’s two partners.
The Undertaker and His Pals plays essentially like a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie with less gore and more whimsy. Unlike Blood Feast or She-Devils on Wheels, this movie is supposed to be funny, and it often is— just not generally in the way T. L. P. Swicegood seems to have intended. The vast majority of the gags are unbelievably corny (Roger Corman’s early-60’s horror farces are probably the closest match in terms of overall comedic sensibility, although there are moments that prefigure Lloyd Kaufman as well), and you’re more likely to laugh at the idea that Swicegood thought he could get away with them than you are to laugh at the jokes themselves. As with most of the Lewis canon, acting and scripting are so bad as to be almost beyond analysis, but Swicegood makes little effort to compensate with extreme graphic violence. After that first scene of the killers making off with Sally Lamb’s legs, it’s basically a matter of pouring red paint on the actresses while they scream at the top of their lungs. There is quite a lot of that, however, and I suppose it might have seemed more impressively daring in 1966. All things considered, it is to the film’s advantage that it runs just barely in excess of an hour. The Undertaker and His Pals came to an end at almost the exact moment that it was beginning to get on my nerves.