Monday, 2 September 2013

Voodoo Man (1944)

Voodoo Man was one of the pictures Bela Lugosi made for Monogram after signing with the studio at the beginning of the 1940s. Lugosi had, quite reasonably, come to the conclusion that he had no future with Universal. Monogram were at least offering him starring roles. Lugosi’s Monogram pictures are often disparaged, sometimes quite justifiably, but they did include a few good movies. Voodoo Man, made in 1944, was one of the best.

This was a moderately ambitious effort for the Poverty Row studio. The cast includes a couple of reasonably big names in the horror world, John Carradine and George Zucco, as well as the headliner Lugosi. They also put at least some effort into the sets. And unlike some of Lugosi’s Monogram films this is a fully fledged horror movie.

A young scenario writer from Hollywood, Ralph Dawson (Tod Andrews), is on his way to a small town to marry his sweetheart, Betty Benton (Wanda McKay). His car runs out of gas but luckily for him he gets a lift from Stella (Louise Currie). He then discovers that Stella is going to be matron of honour at his wedding. They find the main road closed but follow a detour sign but then Stella’s car mysteriously gives out on her. Ralph sets off for a nearby house but when he returns Stella is gone. He thinks no more about it until he gets to his fiancée’s house and is informed that Stella has not shown up.

In fact Stella is just the latest in a long line of young women who have gone missing in this county. What the viewer knows but the protagonists don’t is that the girls have been kidnapped by Dr Richard Marlowe (Bela Lugosi). Dr Marlowe’s wife died twenty-two years earlier but he still has hopes of bringing her back to life, by a mixture of science and voodoo. To do this he needs to capture the will to life of a suitable girl. So far he hasn’t found the right girl but he has built up a collection of beautiful young zombies.

Nicholas (George Zucco) runs the local gas station but in fact he’s the one who sends the girls to Dr Marlowe. Nicholas also happens to be a voodoo priest and is helping Dr Marlowe in his efforts to bring his wife back to life. Dr Marlowe’s henchmen also include a creepy simple-minded pervert named Toby (John Carradine).

Stella escapes from Dr Marlowe but she’s been zombie-fied and she just stares blankly into space saying nothing. Ralph, Betty and Betty’s mother can’t figure out what is wrong with her but luckily a doctor who specialises in such cases just happens to arrive on the doorstep and he offers to do what he can for the unfortunate Stella. Of course this doctor is none other than Dr Marlowe! And not long afterwards Stella disappears again - she has been called by Nicholas’s voodoo powers.

The local police have been trying to find the missing girls without any success. Ralph is no on hand to give them a helping hand although it has to be said that any success that he has is more due to good luck than to his non-existent skills as an amateur detective.

By the standards of Monogram movies this is a surprisingly decent-looking production. The budget was minuscule but director of photography Marcel Le Picard manages to get some quite atmospheric shots. Director William “One-Shot” Beaudine was renowned for his refusal to do retakes. His ability to bring in movies on time and on budget was a major asset to a studio like Monogram. He was certainly a fast worker but he was also a competent professional and it shows. The sets look fairly good with enough mad scientist and voodoo paraphernalia to make things convincing.

Lugosi is definitely this movie’s highlight. He obviously knew this was a good part and he throws himself into it with enthusiasm. He demonstrates that when given a good meaty role that suited him he could still produce the goods. This is the kind of vaguely sympathetic mad scientist movie where the scientist is tragically misguided rather than evil, the sort of role that Boris Karloff did so well. Lugosi shows that he could play such roles extremely well if given the chance. He conveys some real emotion and his performance is quite moving at times.

George Zucco does well and he approaches his role with gusto. John Carradine goes so far over-the-top that he’s off the scale as the shambling idiot Toby who is just a bit too fond of zombie-fied young ladies. Even the lesser supporting players are quite competent.

The focus here is on entertainment. There are numerous movie in-jokes. The pacing is brisk and unlike some Monogram movies this movie is never in danger of becoming dull. And a major plus is the absence of the usual excruciating comic relief.

It has to be emphasised that (contrary to the general opinion) this is not a so-bad-it’s-good movie. It’s very much a B-movie but it’s a good B-movie with a fine cast and it works as an effective little horror flick.

This movie is only available on DVD as a Rifftrax release with one of those tediously and embarrassingly unfunny MST3K-style accompaniments. Luckily the DVD does offer the option of watching the movie without the Rifftrax accompaniment. There’s quite a lot of print damage in parts but otherwise the picture quality is reasonably good.

Voodoo Man is one of the best of Bela Lugosi’s later movies (in fact it probably  is the best). A thoroughly enjoyable horror B-movie that deserves more respect than it’s ever received. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

G-8 said...

An entertaining movie.