Saturday, February 20, 2010

VOODOO MAN: Patron Saint of Megalomaniacal Children and Torpor!

Notoriously absent from the world of DVD for the longest time (it's somehow not as much in the PD as the rest of the Lugosi Monograms? What else explains it?): VOODOO MAN (1944) completes the holy "Lugosi Nine." The missing link in the chain of strange, boring, inept but irresistibly Brechtian and unintentionally hilarious horror films from poverty row studio Monogram starring Bela Lugosi. Marked by a cheap crackerjack style that made sister fleapit PRC seem an MGM by contrast, what saved Monogram movies from dullness was a savvy they needed to keep kids from getting bored and tearing up the theater seats with their switchblades and--in the Lugosi nine--an ability to create the space for the great one to display the full breadth of his talent, from heartbreaking pathos to seething megalomaniacal menace.

Especially during the war years (when the bulk of "the nine" came out) Lugosi's complex persona found a niche freezing the new brides of overseas fighting men, as if preserving them for their soldier boys' return (in danger only of having their hair combed and petted by Carradine like he's Lenny with a rabbit.)

VOODOO MAN's release year, 1944--the last full year of all-out war, was an otherwise lean one for horror films. Aside from the work of Val Lewton over at RKO,  poverty row studios like Monogram ruled over the empty kingdom of wartime horror like blind kings. A lack of budget led to lack of meddling producers noticing or caring about the product as long as it was finished at or under budget and on time, and in the process nocturnal dream poem auteurs like Lewton and Jacques Tourneur could weave future classics like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE out of gossamer cobwebs, while half-asleep directors like William "One Shot" Beaudine could follow their lead like a dollar brick road, straight into the undernourished collective unconscious of the home front audience.

In the case of VOODOO MAN (or similar CORPSE VANISHES), the plot involves Lugosi abducting women for scientific experiments and keeping them in suspended animation via hypnosis and/or narcotics. The subtextual translation to home front psychology isn't hard to discern: Unable to see what their men were doing overseas except through alchemical means (and letters that might arrive after the sender had already been killed in action), the brides and sweethearts left at home created a distorted magnification of sexual paranoia that found a nice screen in the suave, European dark and handsome devil Lugosi even as the repression of being faithful to a ghost husband driving themselves into cold storage storage fugues.

But me, I was a kid when 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 the threadbare films seem better - like maybe we missed something, like there was something to miss. We kids watched these titles over and over again --every time they were on TV--in our forlorn pre-VHS hope of catching a view of a real frickin' monster --they were rare. Maybe it was edited out and we'd see it next time? 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 towards the man working outside. Similarly, the drivers who pass by George Zucco's gas station don't realize this is the station where Zucco signals the arrival of desired vicitms by 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 a mile 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 a star and he gave it his all, like it was his last picture ever, and like his character had nothing left to lose, was not about to postpone joy just because the cops and/or mom was closing in. 

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? 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." 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 contemptuous mumbo jumbo but the actors are game and Lugosi and Zucco both intone like skilled hypnotists or bass players, their robes are badass, and Ramboona clouds the minds of all who would try and stop them. Free to treat the landscape of the film as his own tyrant sandbox, Lugosi outwits the sluggish sheriff, berates his cringing dingbat servant/drummer Toby (John Carradine) and leaves 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; and who recruits the dumb little brothers and their friends into his mad schemes to transform the den into a magical alternate realm. The only other 'real' person he knows- - his 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, until she turns to killing sailors as a sacrifice to get her man back from hell.  

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, and they do 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!" His 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 and now here he was at 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. And Zucco of course, his perfect wingman. 

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. 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 who dies last. 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, everyone gets their own death scene, to make of what they will. After all, what is the difference between a living soldier and an emotionless zombie if not that one of them is seen but not heard from, the other heard from but never seen again? The pain of absence underlies both, and is the one true enduring badge of courage. Come home, soldier. Andy, come home, whatever you are. 


  1. I seen the rifftraxs of this, awesome!

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

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

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


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