Oh Bela, Bela, Bela
There are two ways to become a cinema legend: achieve short but spectacular success before coming to a bad end (the James Dean method); or plug away at your chosen field until your list of accomplishments is so long people feel forced to pat you on the back. Voodoo Man (1944) achieved no discernible success, but did provide credits for men with two of the longest CVs in Hollywood, director William Beaudine and actor John Carradine.
Starting out assisting the great D W Griffith on classics Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), Beaudine became one of Hollywood’s most prized directors of the ‘silents’, but financial losses sustained in the stock market crash of 1929 compelled Beaudine to accept whatever work came his way, most of it grey and formulaic stodge made to support bigger budget films on double bill features. Voodoo Man was just one of ten pictures he directed in 1944 alone, part of a hectic career that stretched right up to his death in 1970, by which time he’d amassed over 350 directorial credits.
Beaudine’s nickname of ‘One Shot’ tells you how he made such a turnover possible; no re-takes, no matter how the scene turned out, even for a fluffed line or a ropy effect. As a result of such editorial parsimony, Beaudine became invaluable to the Poverty Row studios such as Monogram, Republic and PRC for whom speed and quantity came first over care and quality. For Monogram, producers of Voodoo Man, as long as the film came in under budget, the rest could look after itself.
Voodoo Man came early in John Carradine’s horror film career, though like Beaudine, he’d
The lead in Voodoo Man, Bela Lugosi, had already become a horror legend, with Beaudine directing the Hungarian in two of his lesser efforts, The Ape Man and Ghosts on the Loose, both in 1943. Here, Lugosi plays Dr Richard Marlowe, and as with White Zombie, Lugosi’s character is in league with the living dead.
Our film starts with a car pulling up at a remote gas station, an action which accounts for around seventy percent of all 1940s Hollywood opening scenes. Asked for directions, the garage owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) warns of detours on the road ahead; once alone, Nicholas contacts an unseen figure via telephone, letting him know another possible subject is on the way. The half-witted Toby (John Carradine, sporting a modern floppy haircut like Dolph from The Simpsons) and a like-minded colleague abduct the woman when, thanks to the fake detour, she arrives at a ‘dead-end,’ in a sparsely wooded field in the middle of nowhere. Envious of the woman’s more contemporary style, Toby strokes her hair while carting her off to a fate unknown.
A spinning newspaper, which plagued the skies of the Forties in the way flying saucers did in the Fifties, informs us this unfortunate is the third woman (and third car) to go missing in the area. Who reports the disappearances, and how the authorities know where they happened, is not explained by any later newspaper, rotating or otherwise.
At the Banner Motion Production Company, boss S.K. (John Ince) asks a writer named Ralph Dawson (Michael Ames) to write a treatment based on the disappearances, because what ongoing missing person cases need is a cheapjack Hollywood company impeding investigations with wild speculation. Dawson refuses, not on moral grounds (that would be too unrealistic), but because he’s getting married and is off for a fortnight’s honeymoon, a frequent starting point for horror film heroes of the time. Are American films really so scared of sex that all impending marrieds go through the horror mill – get married, turn into a zombie, is that it? Or just scared of a bloodbath in the bridal suite?
Dawson soon pulls up at the same gas station we saw earlier, where Nicholas’ more annoying assistant, Sam (Ralph Littlefield) pesters Dawson about gas coupons, the car’s battery, the windshield, how about those Dodgers just lately, yadda yadda yadda. Irritated by this husky varmint, Dawson walks off, only to return and drive away before Sam puts any gas in the car. Sure enough, Dawson runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere, near the same middle of nowhere as before.
Stella Stevens (Louise Currie) pulls up at the same gas station and asks Nicholas for directions. I didn’t realize the war effort involved recycling dialogue, as we hear almost word for word the same exchange as Nicholas shared with the first woman. As Stella leaves, the secret boss is again alerted.
The stranded Dawson flags down Stella, who happens to drive by because there’s only one single road in America and everyone in this film either lives by it or drives on it. Stella cheerfully agrees to give Dawson a lift, as there’s nothing suspicious about a strange man needing a lift from a woman in an area where women keep disappearing. Hasn’t Stella read the spinning newspapers?
Stella is on her way to act as bridesmaid to her cousin Betty, who is marrying “some sap scenario writer for the movies.” Of course, she means Ralphy boy. Small world, huh? You couldn’t make it up, unless you were a sap scenario writer for the movies. The motor of Stella’s car dies along Kidnap Road; this is the work of Dr Marlowe (Bela Lugosi), who watches Stella and Ralph in crystal clear sound and vision on a remote-operated TV that’d beat most appliances on the market today, let alone 70 years ago. We can’t tell if Dr Marlowe is watching in living color, as Monogram splashing out on Technicolor is as likely as William Beaudine demanding Kubrick-style re-shoots of an actor throwing a cigarette to the ground.
Ralph leaves to look for a telephone and Toby and friend abduct Stella. “She’s a pretty one,” comments Toby, worryingly, dragging Stella away into an underground lair under Dr Marlowe's place. They’re all pretty ones, Toby; that’s how Hollywood works.
The only house nearby in this bubble universe is that of Dr Marlowe, but the housekeeper (Mici Goty) repels Ralph who, overdoing it a fraction, tells the housekeeper he intends to “report you to the Chamber of Commerce,” and ‘Mr Dawson Goes to Washington to Complain About a Doctor’s Housekeeper Not Letting him Use the Telephone’ might have made for a more rich and varied film.
Toby brings Stella before his master, Dr Marlowe, who hypnotizes the “guest.” And yes, the camera closes in on Lugosi’s ‘mesmerizing’ eyes to achieve the effect. By 1944, there’s a lot to see in Bela’s eyes that isn’t so pretty.
Dr Marlowe introduces Stella to his wife Evelyn (Ellen Hall) who looks great for being dead for
Ralph walks the lonely dirt track of life until he arrives at the home of his fiancé Betty (Wanda McKay) and her mother (Mary Currier, sporting a ‘do that won first prize in a bread-baking competition at the county fair). Explaining his abandonment issues, Betty laughs and comments “You’re the first man who needed to walk home from an automobile ride,” but I guess you just had to be there. Fearing Stella has joined the ranks of the missing, Ralph commands Betty to grab her hat, and off they go to the police.
Dr Marlowe and Nicholas don ceremonial voodoo garb and Marlowe instructs Toby to “bring the zombies now,” something we all wish we could say in life more often. The zombies are the missing women, drained of their spirit but still alive, if not very talkative. They’re probably just blanking out Nicholas, who tells them they’re going “for a nice walk”, in the way a farmer tells his prize pigs they’re going for a nice ride in the back of a big white van with a picture of pork chops on the side. As the zombies assemble in the main room, Dr Marlowe leads Stella in by the eyes, Nicholas plays the bongos and Toby performs on a string instrument. Well, it’s a piece of string, but this is a Monogram picture, after all.
Stella and Evelyn sit opposite each other as Marlowe cries “mind to mind...emotion to emotion!” while Nicholas mutters strange rites, to effect the transfer of the spirit. Evelyn perks up from her trance, asking “how did I get here?” You and the rest of the cast are asking that, honey. Just as Dr Marlowe gets his hopes up for a life with partner who's not aged a day in twenty-two years, Evelyn sags and returns to her previous state. Dr Marlowe slumps to his knees in grief and wishes for a female subject with “perfect affinity.” Want a tip, doc? Don’t bother with OK Cupid.
Ralph and Betty meanwhile are talking with the lamest police in movie history, with the Sheriff (Henry Hall) and Deputy Elmer (Dan White) the slack-brained offspring of Will Hay’s halfwits from Ask a Policeman (1939). On hearing of Stella’s disappearance, the Sheriff laments “This is getting a little monotonous...this job used to be a synch, but now it’s a pain in the neck!” Inspiring words; it’s almost as if Voodoo Man’s sap scenario writer had no idea how police procedure works. With this the fourth disappearance on their watch, the Sheriff supposes they should do something, so he wakes Elmer and the pair reluctantly drive over “to the old Johnson place.” There follows some of the most astonishing police dialogue in a film this side of a Joe Don Baker movie as the Sheriff and Elmer discuss whether they’ll find any of the missing automobiles in Dr Marlowe’s living room. No, really.
In the underground lair, Toby tries to converse with the zombies. “No-one talks to me,” he complains, not noticing the zombies don’t talk to him either. The Stella-zombie, bored of another idiot’s pick-up lines, wanders off and takes to the great American road, where she is found by the Sheriff and Elmer and returned to Betty's mother. Toby, noticing Stella’s absence, observes “she’s not here – she must be somewhere else!” Ever wondered why no-one talks to you, Toby?
At Betty's, the only doctor in existence, Dr Marlowe, prescribes solitude and rest as the best cure for being a zombie. It’s a ruse, as during the night, Nicholas (a really boring name for an evil voodoo henchman) performs a ritual to a spirit named Rumboonan (more like it) over a purloined ring of Stella’s, and she’s off back to the old Johnson place, with no-one noticing her along the way. Ralph and Betty return to Dr Marlowe to tell him of the disappearance, but the strain causes the doctor to mutter giveaway lines like “you remind me of her in so many ways, my dear,” to Betty while thinking of his wife. Dr Marlowe steals one of Betty’s gloves while the doctor’s dead wife passing by, distracting Ralph and Betty.
Marlowe uses the glove in a voodoo ceremony while Ralph and Betty discuss matters in a café, only for Betty to lapse into a trance and walk out while Ralph is otherwise engaged (if these dimwits weren’t so easily distracted, even less would happen in Voodoo Man than actually takes place). After altering the Sheriff, Ralph finds Betty has taken the car, so hitches a ride from a guy with a sedan the length of the Florida panhandle who admits to checking out Betty as she left the car lot.
Zombie Betty parks in that ‘dead end’ again (oh, the irony) and is soon part of the ‘life to life’ ceremony with Evelyn. Ralph rushes in, only get knocked out by a wonderfully well-timed punch to the jaw by Toby’s associate, in the film’s funniest moment; back in ’44 people queued up round the block for the chance to see Ralph get socked on jaw, and eagerly awaited the moment when the film played on TV years later.
The Sheriff and Elmer, tipped off by the Chamber of Commerce about the housekeeper, smash their way into the Marlowe residence, just as the ritual revives Evelyn to full health (unusually, the film suggests voodoo actually works). Dr Marlowe takes the idiot cops seriously and aims a sacrificial knife at the Sheriff, who shoots the doctor. Marlowe dies, his last words: “Evelyn, soon we will be together.” I wouldn’t bank on it, doc. The age difference is so great Evelyn’s going to live until at least the Clinton administration, and even then, I doubt St Peter took kindly to the voodoo or your tampering in his employer’s domain.
Betty, Stella, and the other zombie women come to, and Ralph has what he believes is a good idea for a film called ‘Voodoo Man.’ Yes, the film we just watched is Ralph’s version of what happened to him in ‘real life.’ As Aristotle spins in his grave through the power of infinite regress, Ralph thumps the script for Voodoo Man onto S.K’s desk in the last scene, offering a casting suggestion. “Why don’t you get that actor, Bela Lugosi? It’s right up his alley!” Ralph’s remark means in the universe of Voodoo Man, Bela Lugosi exists, blissfully unaware there’s a crazy doctor who looks like him performing rituals to the living god Rumboonan, who holds sway over all living souls. Oh Ralph, what demonic dystopia is this where you live? And why tempt the wrath of Rumboonan by telling us about it?
Voodoo Man just about gets away with its meta-repetition through sheer cheek, and any film with the beetle-browed George Zucco (who co-starred with Lugosi and Carradine in 1943’s Return of the Ape Man) chanting voodoo gibberish in a feather head-dress has some merit as entertainment, but in the end, Voodoo Man takes very little and stretches it to breaking point, some achievement given the films 60 minute running time.