Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

"Made Just for Halloween:" THE UNDEAD, VOODOO WOMAN

The AIP graveyard is alive with beatnik dancing thanks to ShoutTV via Prime. Right now they're showing both parts of a 1957 AIP "Made just for Halloween" double bill: THE UNDEAD and VOODOO WOMAN. There's no time like tonight or any night to experience this bizarro only in America in the wake of Bergman's SEVENTH SEAL could such a thing be possible. Shout + Prime = the October majesty of Satan and Marla English.

(1957) Dir. Roger Corman
**** / Amazon Image - B

Meant to tie in to the then-craze for reincarnation (set in motion by the popularity of the Bridey Murphy story) the story quickly throws logic and even metaphysics to the wind, and ends up derailing the 'Grand Scheme of Things' when Lorna Love is able to whisper advice to her about-to-be-beheaded for witchcraft Middle Ages incarnation, Helene. Whoa! That's not how hypnosis works, but hey -- go for it! We shouldn't really care about internal logic in a Corman movie when there are so many more cool things going on. Clearly Roger just saw The Seventh Seal, newly arrived from Sweden, and it blew his cinematic mind. The idea that archetypes like Death, the Devil, the Knight and the Witch could be directly represented as if straight out of a woodcut, but sexier, funnier, and edgier, redefined the 'so old it's new' adage. And what else is intuition if not selves of the future shooting us tips and cautionary warnings from their shrink's space couch? And whether you are labeled a witch or schizophrenic depends on the century. Either way, soon the castle guards are giving chase through the gnarled trees, and in the 20th century, the hypnotist has no choice but to get hypnotized himself and join her in the past to try and correct the matter. Whoa! You will be either outraged at the total disregard for logic or jumping for joy for the same reason. It's the kind of looney premise we wouldn't see repeated until Exorcist II when Richard Burton straps in to rescue an endangered Linda Blair from her dream demon.

I saw Undead when very young on TV and the scene were Duncan seeks shelter at the witch's house is to me the eternally definitive Halloween moment. Dorothy Neumann is the definitive good witch: her crooked nose, clearly made by cheap putty that seems always about to dry and fall off (you can see the line between Neumann's real nose and the false one), warped screechy laugh, bubbling cauldron, and other trappings, puts to rest the libelous claim of Glenda in Oz that "only bad witches are ugly" (the bad witch here is the sexy Alison Hayes, turning into one of the flying rubber bats from It Conquered the World and flying around with her cackling mute imp played by Billy Barty, raising unholy hell); and I love the casual way she asks the stranger at her door: "Are you from this era or from a time yet to be?" as if hypnotists from the future were not uncommon. And Richard Devon is a helluva devil; and those graveyard dancers, oh man. , And how Livia and Meg Maud size each other up and admiringly realize "you will make a good opponent" in a wager for the life of Helene and love of Pendragon (Richard Garland). It's all so good, so strange, so uniquely (as per below) "Made Just for Halloween." I'm so glad it's finally on Prime, so the world can know!

(1957) Dir. Edward L. Cahn
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

If you want to see the genius of Corman, just consider the output of Edward L. Cahn, a journeyman director given more or less the same mix of low money and total freedom by producers Arkoff and Nicholson. If the script and cast were good he did it right, but if it was shit, it stayed shit, lacking even William Beaudine's ambivalence to bring it some Brechtian sublimity. Also, while Corman used his young crew of UCLA-grad regulars-- can-do beatniks who brought the right mix of hipster cool, talent and sincerity to the material-- Cahn goes for lumpen middle-aged white men trying to hide their drinking problems long enough to make it with a starlet half their age before she turns into a Paul Blaisdell monster and shreds them limb from limb. Here the drunk is Tom Conway, deep in Africa working with witch doctors. He'd be dead in another decade (from cirrhosis) but here he's hitting his marks, and looking more or less conscious even whilst bedecked in a crazy feather hat. Fond of injecting prostate dames with monster serum while the natives shimmy and shake menacingly around him (they're in darkest Africa, or somewhere on some cool, well-lit sets). Most unforgivably, he's very mean to his trophy wife (Susan Gerard), keeping her a prisoner in their one story but pretty nice hut, with a fat armed guard (with spear) ever-lurking outside the window, making sure she doesn't try to leave or have visitors while he's off in yonder cave trying to turn local girlz into rampaging beasts that will kill upon his psychic command!

The good news is that Cahn is doing a fine job with the atmospheric jungle setting. I like that there are absolutely no animals (in cages or even stock footage) nor white guys trying to pass for locals, and that it's shot on on dark and misty sound stages rather than outdoors, allowing for deeper, truer blacks, with thick potted vegetation, torch-lit caves, and a swirling abyss topped off with slow brewing mist!

And most importantly, there's a unique full-tilt unmitigated villainy from Maria English as a gold-digging (literally and figuratively) femme fatale (she uses men like men use their fists). If you're as tired of watching her passively endure the hypnotic caresses of Chester Morris's one-note villain, until such time as she can turn into a monster and rend him to pieces (in The She Creature) you may love this as much as I do. Here she's a badass even before she becomes a Paul Blaisdell monster and rends her maker limb from limb. Only by English's flat strident delivery stops her from being one of my favorite deadly women as she plunges headfirst deep into voodoo country with only a gun and her punching bag boyfriend for protection, just on the off chance the tribe has gold to steal. While her 'good' guide finds a nice girl in Conway's imprisoned wife, English finds a good match in Conway, who tricks her into thinking she's undergoing an "initiation rite" which will enable her to become a voodoo priestess and loot the place (as opposed to being a hypnotized rampaging monster). An out of focus dime store skull mask and blonde wig replaces the lobster head from She Creature, but the same armor plating returns, and English has no problem with killing masses of people in either form. So if you're a person who loves strong, armor-plated femme fatales with no qualms about killing, and you dig jungle movies filmed indoors amidst swirling fog and potted fronds on deliciously dark soundstages with cool females and Tom Conway (and no one sweating or exploiting animals), this is your kind of jungle movie, a bizarro world I Walked with a Zombie. If you can't tell, I am one of those persons and this is all mine. The Prime print via Shout TV, is perfection. (PS - no relation to Voodoo Man, which is also on Prime streaming - see here). PS - though it's not on Prime, this would make a good double bill with The Disembodied if you need another hour-long evil voodoo woman jungle movie shot on indoor sets with no animal footage or sweating (the only thing I don't love about that film is Alison Hayes' censor-bar-evoking black fringe top during her lascivious dancing. 

The Optional Third Feature: 

(1957) Dir. Edward L. Cahn
** / Amazon Image - A

Neither good nor bad, this fusion of the past life/Bridey Murphy craze from The Undead and the Marla English becomes an archaic monster plot from Voodoo Woman, stars Chester Morris as an unscrupulous hypnotist who conjures the past life of his enslaved subject (English) for aghast ritzy audiences. He goes so far back in time, he actually conjures a dormant sea creature, a weird blend of Forbidden Planet's Monster from the Id and a ghost girl version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon (via a dynamite monster costume by the legendary Paul Blaisdell). Morris loves English; she's more into the bland hero but is too passive and so can't escape Chester's Svengali-style machinations, and that of his sponsor, a just-beginning-to-fade Tom Conway whose gift with ballyhoo has made them both rich, but now really wishes Morris would move out of his guest house as he's creeping everyone out.

Alas, unlike The Undead or Voodoo Woman, The Astounding Sea Monster (from the same past life-crazy year of 1957) this is kind of a bummer, with way too much watching passive Marla English get fought over by Morris and the snidely dismissive 'won't believe his own eyes' hero. Voodoo Woman is so much better since there are two women, and English's character is a remorseless villainess. Hence, this is not really a recommendation except for hardcore AIP 1957 fans. It's good to fall asleep too though as it has this misty late night at the beach ambience about it, and the Prime print gives us deep, inky blacks. The whole vibe is like being at a late night half-drunk seance magic show hypnotist session, surrounded by gullible cocktail revelers and swathed in black curtains and incense smoke, yet feeling always a sense of muted unease, like you can't tell if you're coming down with a fever or are just hungover on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. 

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