Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or larger

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Creature double feature (Night 2): 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 don't (or shouldn't) really care about logic in a Corman movie, when there are so many more cool things going on. And here, it's clear, he just saw THE SEVENTH SEAL, newly arrived from Sweden and blowing his open Californian mind wide open. The idea that archetypes like Death, the Devil, the Kinght and the Witch could be directly represented as if straight out of a woodcut, this redefined 'so old it's new' and it fit Corman's loose ballsy style like a glove. Besides, what else is intuition and spirt guidance if not hypnotized selves of the future shooting us tips and cautions from their future psychiatrist's space couch? And what else are the voices one hears in one's head that-- if you answer --either means your schizophrenic or a witch depending on the century. Only in this case, her past self is able to act on the counsel, and soon her loyal suitor and the palace guards are giving chase through the gnarled trees, and 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 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), bubbling cauldron, and other trappings, puts to rest the libelous claim of Glenda in Oz that "only bad witches are ugly" (the bad witch is sexy Alison Hayes, flying around with her cackling mute imp played by Billy Barty) 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. There's also her explanation of how she got her powers from the same evil place Livia did, but managed to keep her soul, 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), Helene's super-boring handsome (and dimwitted lover). It's all so good, so strange, so uniquely "Made Just for Halloween".

(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 by AIP more or less the same mix of low money and total freedom by producers Arkoff and Nicholson, but the result invariably hampered by overall witless pacing and a general William Beaudine of the 50s style professional ambivalence. Also, while Corman used his punchy young crew of regulars-- can-do beatniks who brought a hipster disaffect 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, and rightly so! Here the drunk is Tom Conway, looking. well not good (he'd be dead in another decade, from cirrhosis) but hitting his marks, standing still, bedecked in a crazy feather hat while the natives shimmy and shake menacingly around him. Most unforgivably, he's very mean to his trophy wife (Susan Gerard), keeping her a prisoner in their hut, with armed guard (with spear) ever-lurking outside the window, while he conducts hybrid voodoo and medical experiments on the local girls, trying to turn them into rampaging beasts without the natives getting too upset.

The good news is that the atmospheric jungle setting is certainly done well, as in not shot outdoors on the backlot but on sound stages, allowing for deeper, truer blacks, with thick potted vegetation, torch-lit caves, and a swirling abyss topped off with slow brewing fog, in which the unbelievers are tossed to their deaths. And most importantly, we get a full-throated performance of unmitigated villainy from the Maria English as a gold-digging (literally) femme fatale using men like men use their firsts. If you're just used to seeing her passively endure the hypnotic caresses of Chester Morris's one-note villain (in The Astounding She-Monster), until such time as she can sic her ancient prehistoric armor-plated sea brawler other self upon him, you are in for a Halloween treat. Interestingly, that movie--clearly this was made right after since it uses the same monster suit, and a few of the same cast--also traded on the Bridey Murphy past life regression angle. So if you're still awake you might veer over to that film, but I'm finding out I'd much rather watch this one, which has a meatier role for Maria. Though once again turning into a monster she's a monster to start with, a murdering force of nature, unafraid to plunge headfirst deep into voodoo country with only a gun and her punching bag boyfriend, in search of plunderable gold trinkets. And then she's letting Tom Conway turn her into a monster (he tricks her into thinking its an initiation rite which will enable her to become a voodoo priestess able to steal the gold idols). Conway foolishly thinks he can control via ESP (we hear the voice but his lips don't move). He can but only to a degree. Cahn (wisely?) keeps the monster out of focus for the most part, though it seems pretty cool to me. The lobster style face (so iconic to those of us who grew up with Famous Monsters of Filmland) is gone, replaced with a  dime store skull mask, but the armor plating is still there. So if you like strong, armor-plated femme fatales with no qualms about killing, and you dig jungle movies filmed indoors amidst swirling fog and potted fronds, this is your movie, as it is mine. The Prime print via Shout TV, is perfection. (PS - no relation to Voodoo Man, which is also on Prime streaming - see here).

The Optional Third Feature: 

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

One of the cooler elements of this Bridey Murphy craze rider is that like The Undead it goes the reverse route, calling a past incarnation of the hypnotized beauty (the lovely Marla English of Voodoo Woman) forward to our time to kill kill kill! In other words, it's the perfect blend of the first two films on this list. One problem is that the evil hypnotist (Chester Morris) who conjures the past life of his subject is actually a drag. Though he does cause the ghost of this long dormant sea creature, a weird blend of Forbidden Planet's Monster from the Id and a girl version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon (via a dynamite monster costume by the legendary Paul Blaisdell). Morris loves her but she's more into the bland hero, and yet is too enthralled to his hypnotic suggestion to escape his 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( kind of a bummer all the way through, with way too much watching passive Marla English get fought over by Morris and the snidely dismissive 'won't believe his own eyes' hero. Hence, though it deftly merges the two films on this feature (past-life Bridey Murphy-style regression + Marla English's as a monster (via with the same costume from Voodoo Woman) 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.

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