Review of “The Thing that Couldn’t Die” (1958)

from YouTube

This was our Saturday bad movie and pizza offering. The pizza was good, and the pinot noir helped. However, before the credits ran, the dearly beloved and I were discussing several different—and better—endings to the movie. We watched it with Svengoolie.


On her California ranch, Flavia McIntyre (Peggy Converse) has her niece, Jessica Burns, (Carolyn Kearney) dowsing for water for a new well. Jessica uses a long stick that looks like a peace sign. She has always had a gift for finding things in addition to water. As she’s dowsing, three visitors on horseback stop by: Gordon Hawthorne (William Reynolds), Linda Madison (Andra Martin), and Hank Huston (Jeffrey Stone). Hank is an artist engaged to Linda. They poke fun at Jessica, annoying her.

She makes face at them and finds a spot near an old tree, indicated by her gift. Ranch hands Boyd Abercrombie (James Anderson) and Mike (Charles Horvath) move in to start digging.

Jessica suddenly changes her mind and tells them to stop. “There’s something down evil there.”

“Maybe it’s gold,” helpful Hank says, “the root of all evil.”

Hoping to find water—or now gold—Flavia tells the men to keep digging.

Jessica screams, “You’re all horrible! I hope you all die! I hope a tree falls on you!” and turns to run off. When she does, a sizable tree limb falls on Linda. Thankfully, she isn’t injured—more frightened than hurt, she says later.

Horrified, Jessica feels responsible and apologizes to Linda.

The men dig past nightfall, making a hole with nice, square edges. They find no water, but Mike’s shovel strikes something. Boyd yells at him, “Stop digging, you fool!”

It appears to be a centuries-old box. Aunt Flavia is sure it contains gold. Gordon reads a warning against opening it and the date: 1579. That means the box must somehow be connected to Sir Francis Drake (…yeah. It could happen…) as he was only Englishman to visit California at that time. The box itself would fetch a fortune from a museum, provided it’s not damaged. He offers to go to Sacramento to get the head of the Historical Society.

This annoys Flavia, but she agrees, locking the box in a room and locking the key in her purse, which she lays on her nightstand. She also posts Mike as a guard outside the locked room. Mike is a large man and tough as an ox, but strategic thinking is not his strong suit. He could, for instance, easily be led astray by creepy Boyd or by a sixteenth-century devil worshipper (Robin Hughes) who puts his whammy on ordinary folk with his evil eyes. Back in the day, his comrades got so fed with him and his devil-worshipping ways, they decapitated him and buried his head in a box apart from his body and then cursed him (somehow…) with the inability to die.

What could go wrong on the McIntyre Ranch?


The viewer sympathizes with Jessica. Yes, she looks goofy, carrying a stick around the chaparral looking for water. At the same time, Gordon, Hank, and Linda don’t have to be mean about it. After all, Jessica is only trying to help her Aunt Flavia.

When she screams about a tree falling on people, it’s easy to chalk it up to teenage drama, but after it happens, you have to wonder if there might be something more going on. The three guests challenge Jessica. Linda’s watch has been missing. Jessica tells them it isn’t missing but was stolen. The thief isn’t human. They’ll find it in a trade rat nest in a tree near Linda’s cabin. And thar it be. Might want to clean it before you put it on your wrist. Rat droppings. YUCK.

One by one, the residents of the ranch fall under the spell of the head. Under the influence, Linda becomes mean and blows off her fiancé. Jessica becomes slutty and shows cleavage.

It’s not entirely clear what the head’s goal is, beyond using Jessica and her ability to find things to locate his body and become whole again. …And then? Finally find a cure for scurvy? Conquer the world or something?

California history is not my area of expertise, but maybe I missed something. Did Francis Drake have a super-wizard with him when he stopped for repairs near where San Francisco would be founded? One who could curse miscreants with undeath? Maybe it’s something they don’t discuss in school. I mean, otherwise, this plot point makes no sense.

The ending was far too facile, in my seldom humble opinion. One minute, the world (or something?) looked doomed, and the next, everything was bright and joyous again, with “The End” floating over the scene.

While the idea of a water dowser finding an ancient buried evil is an intriguing premise, and there were characters I cared about, this movie ultimately just didn’t work for me.

Title: The Thing that Couldn’t Die (1958)
Directed by
Will Cowan

Writing Credits
David Duncan…       (written by)
David Duncan…(story “The Water Witch”) (uncredited)

Cast (in credits order)
William Reynolds…Gordon Hawthorne
Andra Martin…Linda Madison
Jeffrey Stone…Hank Huston
Carolyn Kearney…Jessica Burns
Peggy Converse…Flavia McIntyre

Released: 1959
Length: 1 hour, 9 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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