Voodoo Man (1944) -***
I guess it was inevitable sooner or later. Not even the most deranged staff of writers could keep coming up with crap like the screenplays to Monogram Pictures’ wartime horror films without eventually having to repeat themselves— certainly not at the rate that studio cranked them out. And if Monogram had to dip into the same well twice, they could certainly have done a lot worse than to combine the plot and premise of The Corpse Vanishes with the lunatic metatextuality of The Ape Man, and then to sprinkle on a honkified version of the ludicrous voodoo from King of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies. If nothing else, the resulting concoction is so heady with mismatched ideas that I can’t get too irritated about having seen all of them used by the same people before.
Once again, an evil scientist played by Bela Lugosi is kidnapping girls in order to repair his stricken wife with parts or substances taken from them. This time, his name is Richard Marlowe, and she’s called Evelyn (Ellen Hall). But Evelyn isn’t just an old lady in need of supernatural rejuvenation, nor even an accident victim in the market for a new face (the latter of which, admittedly, would really be A Thing in the movies for a while yet). No, she’s actually been dead for 22 years, although the doctor has managed to keep her both artificially preserved and marginally animate throughout all that time. (As Marlowe will later put it to another character, Evelyn may be dead, but “not in the way you understand death.” Remember that line; I’ll be making much hay over it later.) So rather than go the mad-science gland-extraction route, Marlowe has turned to black magic. His victims donate not their hormones but their souls, the object being to invigorate Evelyn’s body enough for her own spirit to come fully back into it. The metaphysical implications, I’m sure you’ll agree, are astounding. Such a process is rather outside Marlowe’s area of expertise, but luckily for him, the proprietor of the nearest gas station to his house outside the little town of Twin Falls— Nicholas (George Zucco, of Scared to Death and Fog Island) is his name— just happens to be a warlock in his spare time. Whenever a suitable out-of-town gal like Alice here (The Invisible Ghost’s Terry Walker) stops in for a fill-up, Nicholas calls Dr. Marlowe, and Marlowe’s two halfwit servants, Toby (John Carradine, from Revenge of the Zombies and The Hound of the Baskervilles) and Grego (Pat McKee, of Mandrake the Magician and Hangover Square), lay a trap for her on the lonely stretch of Laurel Road that passes by the doctor’s estate. It’s the same phony detour trick that the revenant residents of Pleasant Valley would later use to such satisfactory effect in 2000 Maniacs, only with the high-tech twist that Marlowe employs some kind of electromagnetic pulse generator to disable the victims’ vehicles once they’re inside the killing box.
The rash of weird disappearances along Laurel Road has not gone unnoticed, however. One person who’s spotted the pattern is Banner Motion Pictures production head S.K. (John Ince, from Bedlam and The Savage Girl). That’s S.K. as in Sam Katzman, whose real-life Banner Motion Pictures produced nine of the horror films released under Monogram’s imprint during the 1940’s— Voodoo Man included. What was I saying before about metatextuality? S.K. wants one of his contract writers, Ralph Dawson (Tod Andrews, of Return of the Ape Man and From Hell It Came), to slap together a script taking inspiration from the case, but Ralph has more pressing concerns just now, and barely glances at the newspaper clipping the boss waves in his face. As S.K. knows perfectly well, Ralph is about to marry Betty Benton (Wanda McKay, from The Bowery at Midnight and Jungle Goddess), after which he’ll be much too busy honeymooning to write any screenplays, even a quickie programmer about disappearing girls. That said, he’ll be happy to take up the project in two weeks, when he returns.
Wouldn’t you know it, though, Betty lives in Twin Falls, and Ralph’s route there leads right down Laurel Road— past both Nicholas’s gas station and Marlowe’s house. Ralph even stops at the former, although he does so in such a state of distraction that he drives off without giving the slow-thinking and slow-moving carhop a chance to fill up his tank. Thus it is that Ralph finds himself stranded by the side of the road after dark, which in turn leads to him hitching a fortuitous ride with Betty’s maid of honor, Stella Saunders (Louise Currie, of You’ll Find Out and The Ape Man), whom he has never met until now. Stella, too, stopped for gas, and that means Toby and Grego have their bullshit roadblock set up in anticipation of her arrival. The trouble is, Stella obviously isn’t alone anymore, so some quick thinking is necessary to catch her without being caught themselves. Once Marlowe knocks out Stella’s engine, he orders his men to wait until Ralph sets off to ask for help at the house that’s just barely visible through the surrounding trees— which, of course, is Marlowe’s own. While Dawson futilely negotiates with the doctor’s mulish housekeeper (Mici Goty), Toby and Grego spirit Stella away and dispose of her car. By the time Ralph gives up and trudges back the way he came, there’s no sign of either girl or vehicle, and Dawson faces an even longer walk into Twin Falls by himself.
Not surprisingly, Ralph arrives at the Benton house cursing Stella’s name, although Betty and her mother (Fingers at the Window’s Mary Currier) are both tickled to hear about the prank they all assume Stella has played on him. However, as the night wears on without any further contact from the girl, even Ralph starts to worry. Mrs. Benton even goes so far as to bring up the previous disappearances on Laurel Road, at which point Dawson finally makes the connection with that script S.K. was badgering him about on his way out the door. He drives Betty out to the sheriff’s office immediately, leaving her mother behind at the house in case Stella belatedly turns up. Unfortunately, the sheriff (Henry Hall, of The Mad Monster and The Ape) is as dim a bulb as one comes to expect from a small-town cop in a wartime B-movie, and Elmer the deputy (Dan White) is dimmer still. It’s something of a triumph just convincing those two that the circumstances merit investigation, and the smart money is strongly against them actually finding anything.
Meanwhile, back at the Marlowe house, the doctor and his followers are conducting an astonishing ritual of soul-transference. I’ve not seen anything like it since the séance in Night of the Ghouls! But for all the goofball mystic rigmarole, and despite Nicholas’s assurances that Ramboona the voodoo god is all-powerful, Evelyn regains her full vitality for only a moment before lapsing back into zombiehood. The now-soulless Stella goes into a basement holding cell along with the other zombie girls resulting from previous failures, and Marlowe takes Evelyn to his laboratory for another round of preserving radiation treatments. That’s when the sheriff comes calling. Dumb as he is, even he can’t help recognizing that Marlowe’s house is the nearest one to the site of Stella’s disappearance. Still, the doctor’s flimflam fu is strong enough to deflect any suspicion the idiot cop might be forming, and he toddles off satisfied that nothing is amiss on the premises.
What Marlowe fails to realize as he pulls the wool so effortlessly over the sheriff’s eyes is that Toby is up to no good down in the basement. The doctor’s henchman isn’t too severely retarded to appreciate a pretty girl, and Marlowe’s repeated failures have left him with a whole corral full of them downstairs. Toby likes to let the zombie girls out of their cells so that he can pay court to them, and he forgets to lock Stella in when he finishes with her tonight. She wanders all the way back to Laurel Road, just in time for the sheriff and Elmer to spot her and pick her up. Recognizing at once that this strange, unresponsive girl might be the one Betty and Ralph are looking for, they bring her by the Benton house at once. Naturally, Marlowe and his flunkies are also out looking for her by that point, and word travels quickly in a small town like Twin Falls. Marlowe rather audaciously volunteers his own services in treating Stella, which turns out to be both a lucky break for him and a really bad idea. It’s lucky because he finds in Betty the most promising candidate yet for a soul-donor. But it’s a bad idea because Betty and Ralph are sharp enough to notice the wave of weird tension that comes over Stella while Marlowe examines her. That’s the only reaction she’s had to anyone or anything since the cops picked her up on the highway, and since it’s obviously a negative one, it raises the suspicion that Marlowe had something to do with whatever happened to her. Those suspicions will only grow as Ralph and Betty look more closely at the strange doctor during the course of Stella’s bogus treatment, culminating when they actually catch sight of Evelyn on a visit to Marlowe’s house, and observe both her somnambulistic demeanor and her peculiar dress, both identical to Stella’s when she was found. The latter point, once more, is something that not even this backward county’s lummox lawmen can ignore.
For our present purposes, Voodoo Man is most remarkable for the atypical use to which it puts John Carradine. Moron henchman is not a role in which I’m accustomed to seeing him, nor is it one to which he seems conspicuously well suited. He plays dumb and horny serviceably enough, however, burying his usual lanky dignity beneath a stooped posture, a shuffling walk, and a childish fidget, while also erasing all trace of courage or authority from his famous, resonant baritone. After all, this is supposed to be Bela Lugosi’s show. A movie like Voodoo Man isn’t big enough for two Count Draculas.
Removed from the narrow concerns of this B-Masters roundtable, however, what strikes me hardest about Voodoo Man is its unheralded but seemingly undeniable influence on Manos: The Hands of Fate. On its own, I could write off as generic the reclusive villain with Mephistophelian facial hair known to his followers principally as “the Master.” Ditto the imbecile sidekick with the gimpy gait who provokes the Master’s fury by fondling his harem of diaphanously gowned zombie girls. The zombie girls themselves are less commonplace an element, however, and the pattern they form with the characterizations of Marlowe and Toby is suggestive to say the least. Now look at the wizards’ robes that Marlowe and Nicholas don while invoking the power of Ramboona. In particular, look at the appliqué above the left shoulder. There, among the stars and pentacles and numerologically significant digits, is a great big hand! And finally, think back to the way Marlowe describes his wife’s condition: dead for 22 years, but not as you understand death. What was that Torgo said about his Master 22 years later? Dead, but not like you know it?
Mind you, Voodoo Man, for all its similarities, can’t claim to be as cracked as Manos. Poverty Row Hollywood was still studio Hollywood, be it ever so jumbled. Nevertheless, I’m continually impressed by how near Monogram in particular could always come to matching the— well, “achievements” is obviously the wrong word, but you know what I mean— of people who legitimately had no idea what they were doing. The loopy voodoo rites, the warlock who holds down a day job running a gas station, the unexamined ickiness of a handsy Lenny as a villain henchman… Yet at the same time, Voodoo Man contains plenty of hints that its creators appreciated on some level the absurdity of their handiwork. Dr. Marlowe might as well be speaking for the audience when he replies to the sheriff’s questioning about Stella’s disappearance with a bewildered, “This is all very confusing to me, Sheriff.” More importantly, Ralph’s involvement in the story here culminates in him handing over to S.K. a script called Voodoo Man, based on his adventure in Twin Falls, at which point he suggests that it would make a fine Bela Lugosi vehicle. It’s enough to make you look at Monogram as a long-distance precursor to the companies that now make movies like Gerbilsaurus vs. Baboonigator for the Sci-Fi Channel (or whatever it’s calling itself these days)— people who know they’re making crap, and yet keep doing it anyway.
This time, the B-Masters Cabal turns its attention to an oft-neglected great among the pantheon of horror and exploitation movie stars: John Carradine, the Man Who Wouldn’t Say No! Click the banner below to see whether or not my colleagues did indeed focus on his somewhat more reputable work.