Monday, December 20, 2010

Voodoo Man (Monogram, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Voodoo Man, yet another of the Bela Lugosi films for Monogram and Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions, eighth of the nine-film series and actually a surprisingly good one. I’d seen it only once before, on a very bad over-the-air picture from UHF Channel 44 in San Francisco in the presence of my then-girlfriend Cat, who found it utterly ridiculous and for years afterwards quoted the words of the stupid ritual by which the film’s protagonist, Dr. Richard Marlowe (Bela Lugosi), was attempting to revive his catatonic wife Evelyn (Ellen Hall) by draining the life force from young girl Stella Saunders (Louise Currie, back for more punishment in a second lead after having played the heroine in Lugosi’s immediately preceding Monogram film, The Ape Man): “Soul from body to body … emotion to emotion … life to death.” This time around, on an public-domain download that was no great shakes technically but was at least better than the snowy picture I’d dealt with in the late 1970’s, I liked it a lot better.

Though William Beaudine returned as director following The Ape Man, at least this time he had a different cinematographer, Marcel le Picard, who seemed to have far more of a clue about how to create a genuinely Gothic atmosphere than Monogram house hack William Sickner had had in The Ape Man, and probably more due to le Picard than to Beaudine Voodoo Man emerges as the first Monogram Lugosi since Joseph H. Lewis’s The Invisible Ghost with any visual distinction whatsoever. The script by one Robert Charles is the usual farrago of silliness — it’s a close reworking of Lugosi’s earlier Monogram, The Corpse Vanishes, only instead of using a medical procedure to kick-start his half-dead wife back to life, Lugosi is using a voodoo ritual taught to him by Nicholas (George Zucco), involving dressing up in long black robes with obscure symbols on them (this may be where the makers of the unspeakably awful Manos: The Hands of Fate got the idea for the costume of that film’s protagonist) while Zucco speaks, at first in tongues (or at least in gibberish) and then in English (more or less) to invoke the voodoo god Ramboona before Lugosi takes his turn and does the soul-from-body-to-body, emotion-to-emotion bit.

In order to make all this work they need the presence of a young, attractive woman, and to get them Marlowe and Nicholas have worked out a series of subterfuges: every time a good-looking prospect drives up to the Mobil gas station Nicholas runs when he’s not being Marlowe’s personal voodoo priest, Nicholas calls Marlowe’s house on a secret line, then Marlowe’s servants Toby (John Carradine, inexplicably cast as a retard on the order of Lennie in Of Mice and Men) and Grego (Pat McKee) go out and rig up a phony “Detour” sign that diverts the poor girl onto a secret road (usually hidden by a fence covered with fake bushes, which the henchmen move as needed), where an electronic gadget Marlowe works from his home disables the car’s motor and forces the girl to stop so Toby and Grego can kidnap her. The good people are Tod Andrews (Michael Ames), a screenwriter for the Banner studio; his fiancée Betty Benton (Wanda McKay); her mother (Mary Currier) and her cousin Stella Saunders (Louise Currie). Tod gets involved when his car runs out of gas after a visit to Nicholas’s station — fortunately for him, Nicholas wasn’t in but his assistant Sam (Ralph Littlefield, who played Zippo the comic-relief character who appeared at the end of The Ape Man as the screenwriter) waited on him and was so eager to check his windshield, oil and tires that he forgot to pump the six gallons of gas Tod asked, paid for and (even more important in 1944) presented ration coupons for — he thinks Tod was an idiot for driving off without getting his gas while Tod thinks Sam deliberately ripped him off.

Nicholas runs out of gas and just then Stella pulls up and offers him a ride, saying that she’s going to be going to a wedding in the area very soon — she’s going to be the maid of honor when her cousin marries “some Hollywood sap.” The byplay is genuinely amusing and Robert Charles turns out to be that rarity — a Monogram writer who can make you laugh when he’s actually trying to — but soon enough Stella’s car gets the treatment (despite Marlowe seeing her on his closed-circuit television — a then ultra-high-tech gadget Lugosi’s characters had in Bowery at Midnight and The Ape Man as well — and cursing out Nicholas in absentia for having set the trap for a woman who was not in fact alone) and both she and the car disappear, much to the discomfiture of Tod, who ends up having to walk two miles to another gas station for fuel to get his own car going.

Stella gets outfitted in a costume clearly modeled on the ones the brides of Dracula wore back in Lugosi’s star-making film in 1931 for her debut as Marlowe’s pigeon in the Ramboona ritual, though Toby gets the hots for her and accidentally lets her out of her cage (she and the other kidnapped women are housed in what look like phone booths but may have been based on the sarcophagus in which Boris Karloff kept the corpse of Lugosi’s ex-wife in the 1934 The Black Cat — which I’ve long suspected was in turn based on the real-life Lenin’s tomb). This allows Stella to escape and return to the Bartons’ home, only Marlowe comes by pretending to be a doctor who’s made a special study of catatonia and can help her. Rather than act like most corrupt movie doctors and lure her back to his place with the promise of treatment, Marlowe returns to his place and hypnotizes Stella long-distance into returning — and Tod and the Bartons seek the aid of the local sheriff (Henry Hall) and his deputy, Elmer (Dan White), two country-bumpkin lawmen of such thoroughgoing doofusness they make Andy Griffith and Don Knotts look like two Law and Order squad members by comparison.

At the finale, Marlowe’s hypnotic power lures Betty Barton to the house to take her place in the ritual — Marlowe having decided that because of her resemblance to his wife that she has the right “affinity” to have her will to live drained and put into Evelyn’s body, and as before with Stella he gets his wife back in full consciousness for a few seconds only to lose her again. The sheriff and deputy crash the party at this point and Marlowe picks up something — it looked to me like a knife he was going to throw at them — only they fire before he can, Marlowe falls to the ground dying and he tells Evelyn that he will finally be with her in death since he couldn’t manage it in life. As Marlowe dies, he takes Evelyn with him and Stella and the other kidnap victims all come out of their trances and are returned to normal. There’s a tag scene at the office of the Banner studio, in which Tod announces that his real-life experience on his vacation has inspired his latest horror script, called The Voodoo Man, which he plunks on the desk of his producer, “S.K.” (the initials are those of this film’s real-life producer, Sam Katzman, though the person we see on screen is actor John Ince), proclaiming that “that horror actor, what’s his name? Bela Lugosi,” will be the perfect person to star in it.

Voodoo Man is a typical Monogram in that its plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s better than the series average because the demented silliness almost achieves camp, while Lugosi himself actually has something of a chance to act in this one — as in The Invisible Ghost (and, even more so, in his 1934 Principal serial The Return of Chandu), Lugosi gets to portray emotions of love and warmth that usually weren’t part of his screen persona: Marlowe is no great shakes as a character but he’s still considerably deeper than Brewster in The Ape Man, who was willing to kill as many people as it took to get his ape-like posture and beard reduced to those of a normal human. Between that, Marcel le Picard’s artful cinematography and a script by Charles that is actually funny some of the times he wants it to be (though the so-called “comic relief” of the sheriff and his deputy is a drag on the film and the movie would have been better without them), Voodoo Man achieves a bit of stylishness that sets it apart from the truly dreadful Lugosi Monograms like The Corpse Vanishes and The Ape Man that had preceded it.