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William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen’s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm’s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

Jean Renoir on Val Lewton

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

Renoir worked briefly with Val Lewton on Woman on The Beach (1947).

As he observed in a 1954 interview, “I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise ‘B’ pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun.

When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that ‘B’ pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

You can read more about Renoir’s thoughts on this by following this link.

Val Lewton

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

If you don’t know the work of producer Val Lewton, you should.

Lewton came up working for David O. Selznick, and then accepted an offer from RKO in the early 1940s to head up their horror film unit, using pre-sold titles, miniscule budgets, and existing sets to create a series of Gothic films to rival those of Universal, then the reigning kings of 1940s horror.

Instead, Lewton created a series of poetic, atmospheric masterpieces, working with directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson (Wise and Robson both apprenticed under Lewton; Wise, an editor who had cut, among other films, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane [1941], was anxious to direct, and Lewton gave him the chance to do so).

It all happened very quickly, and Lewton’s reign was brief but incandescent; in slightly less than four years, he produced, designed, and brought to life eleven films, of which nine comprise the body of work on which his reputation rests.

Lewton’s key films are:

Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Bedlam (1946)

Click on any of the titles above for more information on these films.

Just for the record, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (Jane Eyre transported to the West Indies, with remarkable results), The Seventh Victim (devil worship in Greenwich Village), The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead are my personal favorites.

Much has been written on Lewton’s tragically short career; perhaps one of the best overviews of his films in the first major book on his work, Joel E. Siegel’s Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror; there are also no less than two box sets of DVDs of Lewton’s work, and several documentaries.

Lewton’s films aren’t really horror films at all, as everyone now realizes; they are the deeply personal testament of a literate man, steeped in the classics, who saw a chance to bring his vision of the world to the screen, and seized it with both hands. When Lewton departed from RKO, his career was essentially finished; he died at the age of 46 on March 14, 1951, after a series of heart attacks.

Lewton’s films can be seen again and again, revealing with each viewing multiple levels of depth and detail that makes his work as resolutely modern as Universal’s 40s horror films are now dated; Lewton’s world is the world we all live in, with its joys, difficulties and problems, and his films, very much a product of wartime America, resonate in our consciousness today as much as they ever did.

Below: Val Lewton in the projection room at RKO, mid 1940s.

Click here, or on the image above, for a detailed list of Lewton’s films.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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