(2/10) In a nutshell: Horror icons George Zucco and John Carradine join Bela Lugosi in his last film at Poverty Row studio Monogram, for a tongue-in-cheek rendering of one of the most bizarrely funny so-bad-it’s-good sci-fi horror films of the forties. Unfortunately giggles aren’t enough to lift this film out of the ruts, although it is a must-watch for the wonderful Voodoo seances with Carradine and Zucco immensely enjoying the insanity of it all.
Voodoo Man (1944). Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Robert Charles. Starring: Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, Tod Andrews, Wanda McKay, Louise Currie, Ellen Hall. Produced by Jack Dietz and Sam Katzman for Banner Productions and Monogram Pictures. IMDb score: 5.2
There are, in my opinion, strictly speaking two ways to grade a movie. The first one is to grade it on its entertainment value, i.e. ”how much did I enjoy watching this film?” The problem with this approach, of course, is that it ultimately comes down to personal taste. The other way is to do it the way I do it on this blog: to try and grade the film according to some pre-set criteria, such as originality, production values, artistic merit, impact, acting, directorial and editorial style, writing merits, and so forth. This approach does have the drawback that it is difficult for a low-budget movie to reach really high marks, whereas a film with a lavish production might score slightly higher points than it would actually deserve based on sheer viewing enjoyability or originality. But this is a trade-off that I feel is worth making – a really good low-budget film is able to overcome its low production resources and turn the lack of money into an asset rather than a burden, and makes it easier for a reviewer to have oversight with certain production flaws. And a film with a lavish budget doesn’t get away with a bad script or obvious production blemishes quite as easily as a cheap film with lots of heart.
The issue of head vs heart is drawn to a point when reviewing ”so bad they’re good”-films. Ed Wood’s films are decidedly rubbish, but they are loved by millions of fans nevertheless, because of the director’s childlike enthusiasm and love for the subject-matter. Another problem arises when filmmakers know that they are making a really, really bad film and decide to play it for laughs, winking at the audience: ”yes, we know this is crap, ain’t it funny?” Is crap that knows it is crap better than crap that doesn’t know it is crap? Such is the dilemma with Monogram’s 1944 horror comedy Voodoo Man, starring three horror legends: Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and George Zucco.
Here is the rundown: The sinister Dr. Marlowe (Bela Lugosi) uses misdirection and a device that shuts down car engines to lure young female motorists to his mansion, where he hypnotises them and with the help of a Voodoo chant transfers some of their life force to his wife (Ellen Hall), leaving the women in a zombie-like state. Helping him in this task are his henchmen, the Voodoo priest/gas station proprietor (how’s that for a combination?) Nicholas (George Zucco) and the dimwit Toby (John Carradine).
The mystery of the disappearing lady motorists intrigues S.K, the head of a film company called Banner Productions, and he asks his screenwriter Ralph Dawson (Tod Andrews) to make a movie script about it. Unfortunately both Dawson’s fiancée (Wanda McKay) and her sister/friend/cousin? (Louise Currie) fall prey to the Voodoo priest/physician/mad scientist Marlowe, and you all know how these movies progress from there, let’s just say that there are no huge surprises in this film.
Calling this a sci-fi film is admittedly stretching it a bit – but there is the car-stopping device and Marlowe does use some sort of ”ray” on his wife, which is never really explained, so it clocks in, but only just. About one third of the film’s running time is taken up by several scenes of the most hilarious Voodoo ritual ever put on screen. Lugosi, dressed in an Aleister Crowley-esque cape, slowly and solemnly, with a completely straight face and surrounded by beautiful, zombified women, chants invocations like ”Boddy too boddy, souul too souul, emowshann too emowshann”, and so on. All the while, Zucco is standing behind him in a truly bizarre feathery headdress, cape and ”African” facepaint howling gibberish, frantically waving his hands over two pieces of string that magically tie themselves in a knot through the ancient art of reverse photography. Meanwhile, Carradine the dimwit sits in an ill-fitting dinner jacket banging on a bongo drum like a stoned hippie, along with another henchman. It is bad movie gold.
Adding to the feeling that the filmmakers were taking the piss out of the film are the numerous inside meta-jokes. The film company named in the movie, Banner Productions, was the actual film company that produced this movie along with Monogram Pictures. The studio boss S.K. shares his initials with the actual head of Monogram, Sam Katzman. There are scenes in which the filmmakers are clearly trying to bring back images of Lugosi’s successful 1932 film White Zombie. He even sports a similar goatee in the movie. The setup is also very similar to the 1942 film The Corpse Vanishes, that he also did for Banner and Monogram. In the final scene of the movie Dawson delivers a finished script to S.K, who asks if Dawson has any suggestion as to who might play the mad Voodoo doctor. To which Dawson replies, in the film’s final line: ”Hey, what don’t you use that actor Bela Lugosi? It’s right up his alley!”
One reason as to why the filmmakers might have decided to play a little loose is that this was the final of nine films that Lugosi made for Monogram, and perhaps the studio wanted to do a bit of an homage to the veteran actor who had been experiencing many both personal and professional problems over the last years. This might also explain the fact that both Zucco and Carradine were content with playing what are basically sidekick roles, when they usually carried their own weight as mad doctors and main villains.
Carradine is really the salt of this film. He plays his dimwit character with such panache that you could watch just him for the full running time of one hour. He jogs and trots across the screen in a manner that evokes what T. William Cook at InfoBarrel describes as a ”hangdog heron” all while talking baby talk to the zombiefied women and smelling their hair, that is, when he isn’t doing his impression of a bongo-playing literature professor who’s smoked one joint too many. Zucco is reliable as always, and really goes for gold in his Voodoo scenes. Unbeatable. It’s hard, though, to decide what to make of Lugosi’s acting in the movie. When doing his hypnosis and Voodoo scenes he reverts to the worst sort of morphine-dumbed hammy acting he produced during his career, but during his more straight scenes he actually seems quite on top of his game. One would like to believe that he was simply playing a parody of himself, but there’s nothing to suggest it. He actually did that in PCR:s low-budget fare The Devil Bat in 1941 (review), and there is no hint of the sort of bemused self-irony he produced in the movie.
For more on Bela Lugosi’s career’s ups and downs, please read my reviews of The Invisible Ray and The Son of Frankenstein. For more on Zucco, see for example The Mad Monster or Dr. Renault’s Secret. For background on Carradine, check out my texts on Captive Wild Woman and Revenge of the Zombies.
Tod Andrews does an adequate job in the lead, emulating the sort of wisecracking playboy character that was often reserved for reporter heroes in these kind of films, but then again, he was a writer. This was one of the last films in which Andrews was billed under his pseudonym Michael Ames, which he used to protect his reputation as a serious stage actor. Andrews is probably best known for playing the lead in the 39-parted syndicated TV series The Gray Ghost (1957) about the American civil war. He also had a small role as a defence attorney in the Clint Eastwood western Hang ‘Em High (1968), and played the president of the United States in the White House drama The President’s Plane Is Missing (1973), which was his last role.
But although not very well known, Andrews has made quite an impact in the sci-fi genre as well. Not only did he play the male lead in Bela Lugosi’s two final Monogram films: this and The Return of the Ape Man, which was actually filmed before Voodoo Man, although it was released later. He also played the male lead in the 1957 ”classic” From Hell It Came. Unfortunately few people will remember him from the film, since at least most male audience members have been too busy watching scantily clad native girls having cat fights. But most if all it is because all people remember from the film is that it features what is probably the most ridiculous movie monster ever put on screen: the Tabanga – a native price wrongly executed, who as returned to torment the afterworld – as a tree stump. In a costume that basically looks like someone glued two foam rubber mattresses together and painted an angry face on the front.
But this is not all: Andrews also played one of the leads in The Bewitching Pool, which was the very last episode in the original The Twilight Zone series in 1964. And he further achieved sci-fi nerd points for being part of the original Planet of the Apes film franchise. Andrews played Skipper Maddox, captain of the space ship sent out to rescue Charlton Heston and the rest of his crew in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).
As so many starlets of Poverty Row, Wanda McKay had a background in modelling rather than acting, although she is better in this film, than in her previous effort from the same year, The Monster Maker (review). Not that she has much to work with. She first won a contract with Paramount in 1938 after being chosen as Miss American Aviation, but mostly got uncredited bit-parts. In 1940 she moved down the studio ladder a notch to Columbia, which resulted in small, but credited, parts in a few westerns. She finally took her career to Poverty Row, where she finally got leading lady roles, but of course these were all in cheapos like The Monster Maker and Voodoo Man.
Louise Curry was the more experienced actress, and had actually attended Max Reinhardt’s drama school before not finding fame in uncredited bit parts and some larger parts in western and sci-fi serials, and Poverty Row films. Curry appeared in the serials The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, review) and The Masked Marvel (1943), as well as played the female lead in the films The Ape Man (1943, review) and Voodoo Man. She passed away in 2013, exactly 100 years old.
In a small role role we see one of the more legendary extras and bit-part players in Hollywood in the thirties, forties and fifties, Dan White, who appeared in a number of great movies, such as The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Giant, Red River and Jailhouse Rock, sometimes credited, often not, and mostly as a henchman. He was actually offered the role as the barman in the legendary TV series Gunsmoke, but passed it up and told his good friend Glenn Strange (staple B movie monster and occasional Frankenstein) to apply for it. Strange got the role and played it for years as one of the most beloved characters of the series. White had uncredited extra work in a number of sci-fi serials and a few films, but later in his career he actually played substantial, credited parts in such science fiction masterpieces as Attack of the Giant Leeches (1962) and Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (1975). In another small role is Dennis Moore, a prolific, handsome western actor, best known for acting as a stand-in leading man in a few western serials during WWII, while many of the stars were called in for duty. Moore had a few small credited roles in a number of sci-fi serials, and actually played the lead in the relatively successful serial The Purple Monster Strikes (1945).
The film was directed by legendary Z movie producer William ”One-Shot” Beaudine, known for spitting out cheap Z-grade movies perhaps faster even than his closest rival Sam Newfield over at PRC studios. The moniker ”One-Shot” was by all accounts made up after his career, and according to people he worked with, not quite fair. Legend has it that Beaudine usually didn’t care for doing a second take of a shot even if an actor flubbed his line or knocked over the sets. In fact he often did, but he was extremely efficient and economical, often only covered a scene in one wide shot and moved on. Other times he completely skipped the wide shot and went straight for close-ups, which most directors simply didn’t dare to do. He knew he was making bad movies that no-one would care too much about, and the main thing was to get the film made, have a bit of fun, deliver a product for the studio’s next B reel and collect the check.
Voodoo Man was no exception. In one scene an actor’s face is partly obscured by a car for a long time while he is delivering a line. Most scenes are shot with a single camera from one single angle, and sometimes in one long, single shot. This makes for an extremely static film which borders on unbearably boring, sometimes looking like a filmed stage play. Actors sometimes veer off-screen, correct themselves and sometimes the camera has a hard time catching up with the players as they are moving. There are some ”moody” quick edits of close-ups of Bela Lugosi’s hypnotic eyes and the eyes of some of the actresses, but these are so out of place and extremely badly timed that they become almost painful to watch.
Beaudine had worked his way up in Hollywood in the early days of cinema, and started working as a bus-boy, an extra and at various menial tasks in 1909, and among other things worked as assistant to D.W. Griffith on his groundbreaking (and controversial) epics Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1917).
In 1915 he started directing his own films, making over 150 short films before 1922 when he switched to feature films. In the twenties Beaudine was considered one of Hollywood’s top directors and made both B movies and lauded A films, such as the brilliant Sparrows, starring Hollywood’s first female superstar, the eternally young Mary Pickford, as the oldest sister of a group of children being held as slaves to a cruel master (Pickford was 30 at the time). This artistically bold Southern Gothic film is considered by many as the best Hollywood film of 1926. His career waned slightly with the introduction of the talkies, but worse still was that he was nearly ruined by the Wall Street crash. In 1935 he tried his luck in Britain and made over a dozen films there. When he returned to Hollywood in 1937, the field was taken over by younger, hipper directors, and he found himself relegated to Poverty Row.
The film was shot over seven days and the largest expense was renting a couple of fancy cars. The film takes place almost entirely in a number of nondescript rooms and offices, beside a tightly framed gas pump, where the cars take up most of the frames, by the side of a dirt road and in a ”basement” which could very well be any old stairwell. Lugosi’s ”lab” consists of a few metal cases with blinking lights on them and a Strickfaden arc generator (no mad scientist’s lab is complete without one).
Musical director Edward J. Kay can’t have spent much more than half an afternoon looking for canned music for the film. Much of it is silent, and there are a few dramatic fanfares when something – well, dramatic – happens. But most of the film is bathed in a completely out-of-place, sort of calming easternly flute-and-harp-mat that sounds like it’s been taken from a yoga CD. This is the music that is somehow supposed to evoke terror during the strange Voodoo sessions in the basement. That these scenes are so statically shot further enhances the feeling that there is nothing scary or exciting whatsoever going on.
Now, as you can see above, I have given this film a lowly 2 stars out of 10. Most fans of old B horror films will violently disagree with this assessment, which brings us back to my slightly long-winding thoughts on film rating at the top of the post. Many will feel that this film is simply too much fun to only award two stars. Unfortunately what makes this film so much fun to watch is that the actors and he filmmakers know that they are polishing a turd, and just turn on the what-the-heck-button and decide to play it for laughs. I admit to laughing out loud during the Voodoo sessions because of their absurdity, but unfortunately for the film, giggles alone are not worth more than a single star in my book, ans since the rest of the film is worthy of no more than one star, the end result is two stars. Thus, another Bela Lugosi film again narrowly escapes my List of awful movies, and since I can’t find the 1945 movie Return of the Ape Man (coincidentally starring Lugosi, Zucco, Carradine and Andrews) online, it seems he will remain with only one entry on the list for now (that one being The Ape Man).
Voodoo Man (1944). Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Robert Charles. Starring: Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, Tod Andrews, Wanda McKay, Louise Currie, Ellen Hall, Terry Walker, Marie Currier, Claire James, Henry Hall, Dan White, Pat McKee, Mici Coty, Dennis Moore. Cinematography: Marcel Le Picard. Editing: Carl Pierson. Sound: Glen Glenn. Stunts: George DeNormand. Produced by Jack Dietz and Sam Katzman for Banner Productions and Monogram Pictures.