Saturday, February 20, 2010

VOODOO MAN: Patron Saint of Megalomaniacal Children and Torpor!



Notoriously absent from the world of DVD... until now, comes VOODOO MAN (1944), the hitherto missing link in the chain of strange, boring, inept but irresistibly fascinating, Brechtian and hilarious horror films from poverty row studio Monogram, usually starring John Carradine, George Zucco, Bela Lugosi or in rare and precious instances such as this, all three. 

The wartime era was a lean one for horror films, with the war overseas far more horrific than anything that could be imagined on the homefront blah blah blah---meanwhile poverty row studios like Monogram snuck in when the lights were out and filled the "second feature" bill, and in the process tapped into the undernourished unconscious of the women and children left behind while the men all went to Europe and Asia and were fighting external demons. 

I first encountered VOODOO MAN as a bored child in the 1970s. It was on UHF TV almost all the time, along with other Monogram Lugosi 'classics': THE APE MAN, GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, THE CORPSE VANISHES, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT and THE INVISIBLE GHOST... all could barely register against the constant attacks of static and "ghosting" on UHF channels, and in retrospect, that made them seem better - like maybe we missed something, like there was something to miss (there wasn't, as it turns out). We kids watched these titles over and over again in our forlorn pre-VHS hope of catching a view of a real frickin' monster --they were rare. The "Voodoo" title of this one made us think that, maybe, there'd be, I don't know, a zombie? Anything? But Noooo! Just hypnotized chicks in robes, and Bela Lugosi and George Zucco in a crazy headdress, all seeming to have been filmed on a single dirty staircase with a ratty old camera, and as full of dull adult talk as any crappy film parents watched. But still... when Bela was on, we were transported!




To really appreciate VOODOO MAN as a key 20th century work of art, you need to vibe with the lonesome beauty of Edward Hopper's paintings, as in the gas station scene above. It's hard to tell if the VOODOO MAN gas station is indoors on a set or outside at a real gas station, I'd assume the latter. But the resemblance is uncanny for other reasons then the style of the pumps; the same lonesome quality of Hopper's gas station, the same eerie forlorn dusk approaching, darkening the forest down the road so it seems like a black devouring sadness is creeping up like unwinding clockwork towards the man working outside. Similarly, the drivers who pass by George Zucco's gas station don't realize the station's where he chooses his victims, radioing on ahead for the trap to be laid. In bigger budgeted films you might see a long shot of the gas station along the road, but Monogram's aesthetic afforded no non-stock footage exteriors. So the Zucco station demands close framing all the time, giving the film a cramped feeling as if the road is only around 4 miles total in length, and then the world just ends in a black gulch abyss. 

World War Two saw, among other things, men going off to fight battles who, before they left for Europe, got married so they could at least have some sanctioned sex, i,e, not die a virgin, and maybe even leave a kid behind as a legacy. For a nation of these young women and young men, the sexual relation was hot and short, leaving them with a whetted appetite and little else. Their erotic awakening froze in early bloom. The soldier’s bride surely felt as if she was married to a nonexistent entity (perhaps she even sets the table in case he comes home, in shades of Lugosi’s first Monogram pic, THE LIVING GHOST). Not only is her man not around, but his next letter may arrive weeks after he is already dead. These sorts of things were probably swilling around the collective unconscious like a plague of ghost G.I.s and seductive traveling salesman Hitlers. Like the Voodoo Man, in fact. 

And of course, through it all, that horrendous ache, the lonesome sadness, the same sadness a boy in the early 1970s like myself was feeling from staying indoors on a sunny day, unable to leave Bela's side in his hour of woe, sighing over his Charlie's Angels bubblegum cards in prepubescent longing all the more tortuous for the fact that Kate Jackson was so out of reach, yet right there - in ephemeral mirage form. Life.... to death. Image... to life, and each side greener than the other, blacker too. 



Thus to appreciate the beauty of VOODOO MAN without the background of having seen it many times as a child in the 1970s, or as a wartime lover, you must first understand true suffering: romantic longing, unfair parents, stupid little brothers, annoying teachers. You should be a mad genius trapped in the mundane reality of normal suburbia. For like such a mad genius, VOODOO MAN suffers from disrespect and the hostile derision of lesser mortals. For indeed, the poverty row horrors of the 1940s were dissed by everyone, even their own makers; a sad state of affairs when the director and writer admit throughout the film that they don't give a damn about what they're doing and you shouldn't either. But we were used to being told stuff we liked was crap. And we raged against boredom and against every bedtime and in this refusal to kowtow to life's petty rules we really found a kinsman in Lugosi. It didn't matter how bad everyone else was in front of and behind the camera, Bela was the star and he gave it 120 proof. 

So yeah, the director William "One Shot" Beaudine shot the film with his usual adherence to the lazy tenets of his nickname, though like the lazy he occasionally lurches into inspired brilliance. "Romantic" lead Tod Andrews plays Ralph, the most unimaginative and dull screenwriter in Hollywood, though his existential suggestion that Bela Lugosi star in the film he has just written and/or lived, does in fact come true, Moebius strip style. Still, in Ralph's own words, "Zombies are a scenario writers worst nightmare. I should know, I wrote one once.” 

Hmm, so zombie and horror films are for morons, and Monogram's writers should know, because they write them? That's rather self-defeating and dubious logic, yet no one can argue that here the picture is, soaring through time and cobweb covered wings long after the lame writer has been forgotten. Such self-defeating and dubious logic abounds all through the film, as as when the sheriff refuses the hero's help in finding the ever increasing roster of missing women: "Me and Elmer've done all right looking for them ourselves, I guess we can look for one more." The self-defeating and dubious logic in action once more! Not that they've found any clues, or leads, or women, but they're doing "all right by themselves." That's something a child says when they're too shy to ask for help. Such blatant contempt for the intellect of an audience borders on the pathological, even further, until it loops back around to crest the pinnacle of high art. 



This meta-logic ties into the practice of voodoo itself, in both in the contempt it inspires in the western "white man," and the way trances actually can be induced to universal benefit and cosmic aura enhancement. The voodoo spells performed are just contempuous mumbo jumbo but the actors are game and Lugosi and Zucco both intone like skilled hypnotists or bass players, and their mojo robs the reasoning powers of nearly everyone in the crew, the cast and the mise en scene, leaving our true antihero-- the insane, grieving hypnotist Dr. Marlowe (Bela Lugosi)--to treat the landscape of the film as his own tyrant sandbox, outwitting the sluggish sheriff, berating his cringing dingbat servant Toby (John Carradine) and leaving hypnotized women shambling around his whole world backyard. It fits the mindset of any frustrated kid who (often rightly) feels the adults in charge are raving idiots and/or cocktail-dazed bullies. The only other 'real' person he knows- - his long-gone wife--is dead, or in kid terms, his best friend moved away, or Kate Jackson exists only on the cover of Bananas, in WW2 terms it's that girl back home re-reading the letters written by her MIA husband until they're sogged. 

In case you don't have a drunken father or son or me to make snide comments as you watch the film, the VOODOO MAN DVD comes with the comic stylings of Rifftrax, hence the cover that makes this look like some frat boy Tiki party video: Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, ala Mystery Science Theater, are the comics and rather than robot silhouettes there's thankfully just a hilarious audio commentary option. I'm certainly grateful to them for getting the film out on DVD, in a nice transfer, and for keeping their comments on a separate track so I can enjoy the purity of the original and refer to their company only when I want to make sure they caught some ridiculous moment which is often, and they catch them all. Keep 'em coming, buckos! 

So now that I've trashed the film and everyone, let's concentrate on the brilliance beneath: Lugosi, naturally. His restrained, melancholic performance reflects, as I've said, that he always brought his "A" game (check his "handy" robe above), no matter how contemptuously the actors around him treated the story. As grieving husbands trying to resurrect their lost Lenores he could pull you right into the screen by the throat just by welling up his eyes with tears and spacing out his words in the right way... "Life... to... death!" And the sense of despair and dejected madness is again totally metatextual, for he was a classically trained toast of Romanian theater who had come to Hollywood and rose to iconic fame and just as quickly fell off big studio favor for being too much a prima donna, and now here he was at some flea-bitten old and probably cold Monogram studio, with William "One Shot" Beaudine, kind of like Klaus Kinski in AGUIRRE: WRATH OF GOD, ending up the king of a gaggle of unimpressed monkeys. 


Bela's megalomania and devotion to the eternal "play" of acting, then, earns our love despite and because of the dregs surrounding him. Children still at that pre-compassion stage could easily identify with that kind of protective madness, the insanity that prevents true genius from succumbing to despair at the mundanity all around.” 

I also like how the film adheres to the spirit of a child’s sense of play, where no one really dies or escapes fake death. All must pretend to die and thus live forever. In all these Monograms there was seldom any actual harm done to these young frozen brides. They usually snapped out of whatever trance they happened to by the picture’s end (presumably unmolested -- coded into the 'child-like' nature of her keepers), while Bela inevitably died in his burning lab, usually with his hands happily locked around the neck of a gorilla. Every kid knows that in war games the only true winner is the one with the final, longest, most dramatic death scene. Even the last man standing knows that, to truly win, you don't stay standing--you're always shot by the second-to-last man as he dies, as a kind of final exhale of life and bullets: in death there are no losers. After all, what is the difference between a living soldier and an emotionless zombie if not that he is seen, and heard from, and missed. Come home, soldier. Andy, come home.

4 comments:

  1. I seen the rifftraxs of this, awesome!

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  2. The important thing to remember is: Ramboona NEVER fails!!

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  3. Thought I commented on this months ago. Obviously didn't. Magnificent dissection of a magnificent film. The Hopper parallel is superb.

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  4. It's good to see this underrated movie getting a bit of respect.

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