The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)

69 mins | Horror | June 1958

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HISTORY

The working title of this film was The Water Witch . As noted in a 22 Jan 1958 HR news item, Universal purchased David Duncan's original screenplay on 21 Jan 1958. A 23 Jan HR item stated that Jill St. John turned down the lead role in The Thing That Couldn’t Die and subsequently had her contract suspended by ... More Less

The working title of this film was The Water Witch . As noted in a 22 Jan 1958 HR news item, Universal purchased David Duncan's original screenplay on 21 Jan 1958. A 23 Jan HR item stated that Jill St. John turned down the lead role in The Thing That Couldn’t Die and subsequently had her contract suspended by Universal. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
19 May 1958.
---
Daily Variety
1 May 58
p. 4.
Film Daily
9 May 58
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Jan 1958
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Jan 1958
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Jan 1958
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
31 Jan 1958
p. 6, 14.
Hollywood Reporter
7 Feb 1958
p. 16.
Hollywood Reporter
1 May 58
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
16 Jul 1958
p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
27 Jan 1958.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
10 May 58
p. 825.
New York Times
28 Jun 58
p. 13.
Variety
7 May 58
p. 6.
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
The Water Witch
Release Date:
June 1958
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 27 June 1958
Production Date:
29 January--early February 1958
Copyright Claimant:
Universal Pictures Co., inc.
Copyright Date:
26 May 1958
Copyright Number:
LP12456
Physical Properties:
Sound
Westrex Recording System
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
69
Length(in reels):
7
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
18987
SYNOPSIS

In the California countryside, eighteen-year-old Jessica Burns uses her divining power to douse for water on the ranch of her aunt, Flavia MacIntyre. Jessica is distracted, however, by the arrival of archaeologist Gordon Hawthorne, who is visiting his childhood hometown for the summer along with his friends, artist Hank Houston and Hank’s fiancée Linda Madison. Gordon, shocked to note how mature and lovely Jessica has grown, gently mocks her “superstitions,” spurring her to locate an underground spring in defiance. As soon as handymen Boyd Abercrombie and Mike begin digging, however, Jessica begs them to stop, as she detects something evil buried nearby. When the group refuses to heed her warning, she shouts that she wishes a tree would fall on them, and one immediately does, hitting Linda. Although Linda is unhurt, Jessica is full of remorse, and tries to explain her powers to the three visitors. When Gordon chides her for believing in fairy tales, she announces that the watch Linda has lost can be found in the base of a tree. Gordon searches and finds the watch and also a talisman, which he presents to Jessica as an apology, promising that it will protect her. After digging all night, Boyd and Mike uncover a metal chest, which Flavia assumes is filled with treasure. Gordon sees Old English writing on the outside, however, and convinces her that the chest may be worth more intact than pried open. While he leaves for Berkeley to secure the help of noted archaeologist Julian Ash, Flavia locks the chest in a room of her house and instructs Boyd and Mike to guard it overnight. When Jessica refuses to stay in the house with ... +


In the California countryside, eighteen-year-old Jessica Burns uses her divining power to douse for water on the ranch of her aunt, Flavia MacIntyre. Jessica is distracted, however, by the arrival of archaeologist Gordon Hawthorne, who is visiting his childhood hometown for the summer along with his friends, artist Hank Houston and Hank’s fiancée Linda Madison. Gordon, shocked to note how mature and lovely Jessica has grown, gently mocks her “superstitions,” spurring her to locate an underground spring in defiance. As soon as handymen Boyd Abercrombie and Mike begin digging, however, Jessica begs them to stop, as she detects something evil buried nearby. When the group refuses to heed her warning, she shouts that she wishes a tree would fall on them, and one immediately does, hitting Linda. Although Linda is unhurt, Jessica is full of remorse, and tries to explain her powers to the three visitors. When Gordon chides her for believing in fairy tales, she announces that the watch Linda has lost can be found in the base of a tree. Gordon searches and finds the watch and also a talisman, which he presents to Jessica as an apology, promising that it will protect her. After digging all night, Boyd and Mike uncover a metal chest, which Flavia assumes is filled with treasure. Gordon sees Old English writing on the outside, however, and convinces her that the chest may be worth more intact than pried open. While he leaves for Berkeley to secure the help of noted archaeologist Julian Ash, Flavia locks the chest in a room of her house and instructs Boyd and Mike to guard it overnight. When Jessica refuses to stay in the house with the chest, Linda invites her to sleep in her cabin, then leaves with Hank to attend a dance. As Jessica and Flavia retire to bed, Boyd watches Jessica lasciviously, then steals the room key and urges Mike, who is strong but mentally handicapped, to break open the chest. Mike soon opens the box, inside which lies the disembodied, live head of Gideon Drew, a sixteenth-century devil worshipper. Drew’s eyes hypnotize Mike into doing his bidding, and when Boyd enters, Mike kills him and drags the body and the head outside. The noise wakes Flavia, who screams for Jessica. Upon discovering the empty chest and blood on the floor, they contact the police, not knowing that Mike is outside holding Drew’s head to the window, where he spies Jessica’s talisman necklace. Soon after, Gordon returns with Julian and suggests that Jessica try to find the wounded party with her divining rod. Although she is hesitant to use her powers merely to recover “treasure,” Gordon convinces her the wounded man might need help, and she agrees. The rod leads her outside to Mike and Drew, where she faints and has a vision of the past: Drew is sentenced to a living death for having traded himself to the devil in exchange for the ability to control humans with his eyes. His head will now be severed from his body and each buried separately, because the devil will not take an incomplete person. Declaring that the curse will last until the head and body are re-joined, the executioners carry out their task. Jessica awakens and discovers Boyd’s body just as the police arrive and declare that Mike is the killer, but fail to apprehend him. Later, Mike brings Drew’s head to the cabin window, where he hypnotizes Linda and instructs her to steal the talisman. Jessica, however, refuses to part with it. Linda then cruelly rejects Hank, who returns to his cabin, perplexed and distraught. In the morning, Hank drinks while Gordon and Julian clean the chest and read its inscription, which describes Drew’s curse. Julian is eager to find the casket with the body in order to bring it to his museum, and offers Flavia $5,000 to dig up her ranch in his search. Linda enters and coldly suggests that Jessica find it with her rod, after which she announces that the girl is now alone with Hank in his cabin. Just then, however, Jessica flees a drunken Hank, and upon hearing the plan to find the second casket, vows to run away. While Flavia unsuccessfully attempts divining with Julian, Gordon comforts Jessica and asks for the talisman back, due to its historical value. She agrees and then leaves to bid goodbye to Linda, who presents her with a “gift.” The box contains Drew’s head, which is able to hypnotize Jessica into helping find his body. Gordon is concerned when Jessica reappears in a slinky black dress and announces her intention to stay. With Linda and Hank, he follows Jessica as she locates the site. When Gordon questions her change of heart, she kisses him, then pushes him away. The men dig up the casket and drag it into the house, where the headless body pushes open the lid and turns to Jessica, who reattaches its head. Although Gordon shoots at Drew, he remains protected by Satan, and is bloodthirsty from his years of imprisonment. Disdaining Jessica and Linda as “too cold” and Hank as too drunk, Drew chooses Gordon as his first victim. As Drew advances, Gordon pulls out the talisman, the sight of which causes Drew to cower in fear. When Drew falls backward into the casket, Gordon shuts him in. When they open the lid minutes later, all that remains of Drew is a skeleton, and his hypnotic trances have been broken. As Linda apologizes to Hank, Gordon replaces the talisman around Jessica’s neck, to protect them both in their future together. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.