Friday, March 3, 2017
I'm not a fan of the "making fun of bad movies" industry--the Golden Turkey books, Mystery Science Theater, etc.. A major part of that is I have too much respect for anyone who manages to make a theatrical film, no matter how it turns out. If you know my cinematic tastes, you'll know that many of the films I watch are somewhat...unusual, to say the least. Despite the rise of Geek Culture, there are still plenty of folks out there who believe that any subject involving the weird or the fantastic is bound to be crap. One of the things my Dad always says is, "Why can't you watch movies that have real stuff that happens in them??" Well, if I wanted reality, I'd look out the window--or go on the internet, and read the posts of everyone who is whining and moaning about whatever is going on in the world today.
A bad fantastic movie can still wind up being far more entertaining than a mainstream one. For me, the worst thing a movie can do is be boring, and most so-called worst movies ever are at least not boring. And that brings us to the subject of the 1944 very low-budget VOODOO MAN, starring Bela Lugosi. Even lovers of strange cinema find VOODOO MAN to be terrible--but what is the line between strange and terrible?
VOODOO MAN is one of the notorious "Monogram Nine", a series of films made by that poverty row company which starred Bela Lugosi. The Monogram Nine are well known to most film buffs due to the fact that most of the titles have been readily available in public domain home video formats. When I started collecting movies in the late 1980s, the Lugosi Monogram features could be found wherever VHS tapes were sold. (If you consider other Lugosi titles such as WHITE ZOMBIE, THE HUMAN MONSTER, and his collaborations with Ed Wood, there's no doubt that Bela is the all-time Prince of Public Domain.) Many use the Monogram films as an example of how far Bela's star had fallen in the 1940s, but these pictures gave him far more to do--and far better roles--than he was given by Universal at the same time. These movies may seem ridiculous to some, but because of their easy to see status, and the fact that Bela starred in them, they've had a longer shelf life than many bigger-budgeted, more reputable films made during the same period.
VOODOO MAN stars Lugosi as Dr. Richard Marlowe, a man who is trying to bring back his wife from the dead with the power of voodoo. The doctor is assisted in this endeavor by a man named Nicholas (George Zucco), who runs a nearby gas station. Yes, Zucco, the erudite and distinguished British character actor, is in charge of a gas station. (If you think that's the worst indignity Zucco is going to suffer in this film....you're wrong.) Marlowe also has at his command a half-witted half-wit named Toby (John Carradine), a creepy housekeeper, and a brutish looking fellow named Grego (if this movie had been made ten years later, Grego would have been played by Tor Johnson). Nicholas, during his shift at the gas station, waylays attractive young women toward Marlowe's house, where the doctor has an electrical device that shorts out their car's engines. (Marlowe sees them coming through his very own closed-circuit TV monitors.) Toby and Grego then kidnap the women and take them to Marlowe's cellar, where the doctor and Nicholas engage in a voodoo ceremony to attempt to transfer the girls' mental faculties to the comatose Mrs. Marlowe.
Despite Nicholas' solemn declaration that "Ramboona never fails", the voodoo ceremonies get no response from Mrs. Marlowe. They do, however, leave the girls used in the ceremony as zombies themselves--and Marlowe keeps them in the basement, in their own separate compartments, dressed in white robes. (If VOODOO MAN had been made decades later, you can bet there would have been a more prurient reason for Marlowe keeping the sleeping beauties around.) The missing girls attract media attention, which is shown through the typical newspaper headlines we've all seen in hundreds of B movies. Marlowe gets his comeuppance when he captures the cousin (Louise Currie) of the fiancee (Wanda McKay) of a hack screenwriter (Michael Ames).
Describing the plot of VOODOO MAN really doesn't do the film justice--it needs to be seen. Lugosi, in his goatee and formal evening clothes, looks very refined, and he even underplays the role of Marlowe. (Director William Beaudine constantly lights Bela's face from underneath, giving him a sinister undertone.) One would expect Bela to ham it up in a role like this, but he doesn't--it's actually one of his best poverty row performances. Maybe Lugosi toned it down because he was surrounded by so many oddball characters. John Carradine as Toby makes Lon Chaney Jr's Lennie look like a nuclear scientist. Carradine does all sorts of weird stuff here, talking to the zombiefied girls as if they were pets, and stroking their hair (I'm convinced that Carradine ad-libbed during the entire picture). George Zucco is best known for his incisive and subtle villainy in dozens of movies, but here (when not working at a gas station) he has to wear a silly-looking robe, put on a sillier-looking headdress, wear face paint, and make prayers to the supposed all-mighty voodoo god Ramboona. It's bad enough that poor Zucco has to spout gibberish, but when he starts making wild gyrations and faces directly at the camera, you can't help but wonder what the actor was thinking at those moments.
Monogram's horror films never worried about logic, and VOODOO MAN appears to have none at all. Lugosi says that he wife has been dead for 22 years, yet she's far from a rotting corpse--she's a attractive woman in her early 20s, wearing one of those flowing white robes (did Marlowe order a bunch of those robes at wholesale?). Mrs. Marlowe is also able to wander around (Louise Currie's character gets to amble about while in her zombie state as well), and these scenes bear a small (very, very small) resemblance to I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Sarcastic folks might come to the conclusion that since Lugosi has a pretty young wife who doesn't talk, and shows no emotion whatsoever, he shouldn't complain.
The "good guys" in the film are even more inadequate than Lugosi & Co. Michael Ames, in the David Manners role, is just as useless as David Manners. Louise Currie and Wanda McKay (who both co-starred with Lugosi in other titles in the Monogram Nine) are attractive, but their roles give them nothing to work with. There's a country sheriff and deputy who make Andy Taylor and Barney Fife seem like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. (Despite the fact that the missing girls were last seen on a road near Marlowe's house, no one seems to have bothered to investigate the place.)
The ending has the sheriff interrupting one of the voodoo ceremonies to save Wanda McKay and Louise Currie (the screenwriter guy tried, but he got knocked out--figures). Lugosi raises a voodoo knife, but the sheriff shoots him dead. Mrs. Marlowe also expires (maybe--she didn't seem dead in the first place). The girls all go back to normal, and the screenwriter goes back to the studio, having written up the events as a new story. He suggests that it's perfect for that one actor...Bela Lugosi!
It would appear that VOODOO MAN is one of those bad movies people love to make fun of. But let's compare it to another low-budget chiller made about the same time, Universal's 1943 film NIGHT MONSTER. That movie also stars Bela Lugosi, along with Lionel Atwill. Both men are basically wasted in their roles, and the story is okay, nothing more. In VOODOO MAN Lugosi is deservedly the real star, and even though the roles John Carradine and George Zucco play may be embarrassing--at least they get to do something. VOODOO MAN is far goofier than NIGHT MONSTER--but it is a goofiness that draws attention and stays in the memory.
It is far more satisfying to me to write a post about VOODOO MAN than the latest CGI spectacular that has A list stars and a $200 million+ budget. Many of those CGI blockbusters I wind up forgetting about a couple days after I've seen them. Technically, VOODOO MAN is a bad movie--but I'd still rather watch it than anything George Clooney has been in recently.