Directors: Andrée Pelletier/Alain Zaloum
Code Red Releasing

Code Red and Maria Kanellis provide us with a double feature of direct-to-video Canadian sleaze: the girls school screamer VOODOO DOLLS and MADONNA: A CASE OF BLOOD AMBITION.

After her father dies, Vanessa Forbes (Grace Philips, QUIZ SHOW) and her mother (Pascal Devigne, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND) move from California to Louisiana. Vanessa is enrolled at the private Hanley College where she will major in drama. New drama teacher Karen Sayers (Nicole Jacqueline) initially plans to stage Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” for the fall play until she discovers the unpublished play “White Darkness” – a play about voodoo and black magic set in the Caribbean – in the theatre’s basement. She approaches headmaster Matthew Hanley (Howard Balaban) about staging the play. He is initially reluctant since the play’s author – a talented student named Lisa King (Flavia Carozzi, MIDNIGHT HEAT) – was obsessed with his grand-uncle Malcolm Hanley (also Balaban), the school’s founder, and brutally murdered him and two classmates when she found them all in bed together before killing herself. Hanley eventually relents under the condition that the play’s title be changed and the author remains anonymous. Karen casts Vanessa as the lovely Emily and Dennis (Brett Halna Du Fretay) – a student from the local high school – as Adrian, the Prince of the Night; however, Vanessa and Dennis have already made a special connection off campus. Although Vanessa is witness to telekinetic phenomena and ghostly visions of Lisa and Malcolm, it is Karen and Dennis that seem to be falling under a supernatural influence from the play. Vanessa gets increasingly unnerved by strange goings-on and believes that something in the school is drawing her towards Matthew – who is already having his way with her roommate Laura (Maria Stanton, DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE) – which makes the progressively creepier Dennis even more possessive. After the voodoo doll-induced suicide of already unstable classmate Rickie (Beth Lachance, WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE…), Vanessa decides she wants to leave the school only to mysteriously change her mind after a talk with Matthew. When Vanessa confides in Bobby (Glenn Scott, HOT TARGET), he is mysteriously injured on stage by a falling sandbag. As the opening night of the play nears, mysterious caretakers Blanche (Jessica Dublin, FELLINI SATYRICON) and Desmond (Graham Chambers) break out the voodoo drums and Karen seems bent on offering herself to Baron Samedi. Vanessa won’t be short-changed though, since she may be destined to repeat history when she witnesses her roommate Laura and best friend Ingrid (Nathalie Gauthier, THE MIND BENDERS) sneaking over to Matthew’s cottage for a threesome.

VOODOO DOLLS – although adapted by its own authors – will not be remembered as one of the classic examples of Canuxploitation (even as a guilty pleasure). Based on the novel The School by Ed Kelleher and Harriette Vidal – one of a series of horror paperbacks the two wrote for Dorchester Publishing’s Leisure Books imprint – the film varies from its source for reasons of both budget and the decision to shoehorn voodoo in place of inverted crosses and the “Book of Necromancy” (the film’s production company is “The School and Co.”, suggesting that it might have started development as a more faithful adaptation). The novel is set in New England at a gargoyle-glutted private school and the play “Flowers of Darkness” – also renamed “The Dark” in the novel – focuses on black magic and sorcery in rural New England. The film, of course, moves the setting to a not very convincing Louisiana – actually Quebec and the College St. Laurent (one wonders how many of the cast and crew names are actually French-Canadian and how many are made up to sound Cajun) – where only Dubin’s Blanche and Daniel Varga’s janitor Walter attempt to sound remotely southern (Varga horribly so). The idea that the school is alive and feeding off of certain characters is conveyed mostly through dialogue (as is Vanessa’s last minute obsession with Matthew), and the play’s supernatural influence on the repressed Karen is conveyed through endless shots of her restless sleep. The voodoo angle ends up making complete nonsense of the fates of the two leading characters. In the novel, janitor Walter is swallowed up by the school; here, however, he is bloodily attacked by the titular voodoo dolls, which are ridiculous to behold (picture sub-sub-sub-sub-PUPPET MASTER). One wonders if the Walter scenes were tacked in since his peeping into the girls’ locker room provides more nudity than any of the sex scenes, and his death by living voodoo dolls is gorier than any of the other bits of bloodshed.

André Pelletier’s direction is listless and the film is perfunctorily photographed by Christine Racine (son of cinematographer Roger Racine [Bravman’s ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE] who co-produced) with unatmospheric black and white flashbacks that look like an eighties crime show re-enactment and generally flat lighting. Although most of the actors are unknowns – and only a few have gone on to do anything else – the performances are generally adequate. Philips shows promise here, which is probably why she may be the only cast member still working today. The most professional – if not necessarily good – performance comes form the British-born Dublin, whose career started out in Italy in the 1960s with FELLINI SATYRICON and Visconti’s THE DAMNED to a string of memorable exploitation movies – including SO SWEET SO DEAD, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, and SEX OF THE WITCH – and a quick side-trip to Greece for roles in LAND OF THE MINOTAUR, DEATH STEPS IN THE DARK, and Nico Mastorakis’ nasty ISLAND OF DEATH. The 1980s found her on the east coast with appearances in THE REJUVANTOR and two sequels of Troma’s flagship series THE TOXIC AVENGER. The monotone Chambers and Vargas give the worst performances. One wonders how the film might have worked had it been directed by Roberta Findlay (the voodoo doll attack is just as hilarious as the attack of the little rubber monsters in THE ORACLE), for whom Kelleher and Vidal adapted their Leisure Books paperback PRIME EVIL as well as the original screenplay for LURKERS (Kelleher – who wrote a film column for CREAM magazine as Edouard Dauphain – also co-scripted Michael Findlay’s SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED and Ed Adlum’s INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS). With Findlay, it might not have been sexier, but it might have been fleshier. The gore effects might not have been any more convincing, but they might have been more ambitious and presented with more gusto. Another Findlay connection is producer Jack Bravman, who produced a number of hardcore and softcore flicks for Michael and Roberta Findlay – jointly and separately – in the seventies (including THE SLAUGHTER, before Monarch Releasing’s Allan Shackleton bought the unreleasable film and reworked it into the hyped-up SNUFF). Actors Scott, Carozzi, and Gauthier also appeared in Bravman’s terrible slasher/comedy NIGHT OF THE DRIBBLER.

MADONNA is not only an appropriate co-feature with VOODOO DOLLS for being a cheapjack, edited-on-video Canadian CineFilm production, it’s script was also adapted from a Kelleher and Vidal novel (this time by Brenda Newman, SUSPICIOUS MINDS). I’m assuming it is loosely based on the novel since very little happens of interest (Kelleher and Vidal get a story credit in addition to the “based on the novel by” credit, so there may have been some more budget-based changes). Real estate agent Richard Kramer Sr. (Michael Sullivan) gets into a heated exchange with his son Richard Jr. (Bob Piedalue, SNAKE EATER) in a diner over his affair with gold-digger Laura Zimmer (Deborah Mansy, KICKBOXER 4: THE AGGRESSOR), ending with Jr. blowing away Sr. with a handgun before getting a shotgun blast to the chest from a short-order cook. Widowed Mrs. Kramer (Carolyn Davine, CRIMINAL LAW) rehires Wingate (Gordon Day, THE BOYS OF ST. VINCENT), the private investigator who had been tracking Laura and Richard Jr., to find out everything he can about Laura. Wingate’s police connection Al (Mark Cummins, NIGHT OF THE DRIBBLER) is unable to find any record of Laura’s existence so Wingate breaks into her apartment – decorated with a creepy amount of religious décor – and takes a picture of the one photograph she has framed. Meanwhile, graphic designer Richard Bloch (Eric Kramer) is annoyed that Blue Moon perfume client Oscar (Eli Godel) has picked a model for the campaign without consulting him or his boss Sid (Ron Kozloff). Naturally, the model turns out to be Laura Zimmer, and Richard is immediately captivated by her. With a little encouragement from her – including lunch at a strip joint and sex in the backroom of a nightclub – Richard enters into an affair with her and neglects his illustrator wife Annie (Pascale Devigne, from VOODOO DOLLS above) and his oblivious toddler son Donald (Jamie Boulanger, FRANKENSTEIN AND ME). Wingate learns that the man in Laura’s photograph is a convicted rapist who was killed in prison eight years previously, and that his daughter Francesca Madonna Leone – aka Laura Zimmer – swore to kill all of the jurors that found him guilty (including jury foreman Richard Kramer Sr.). After a fight with Annie, Richard walks out on her and moves in with Laura, who says she wants him because he is “the last honorable man,” but is he actually next on her hitlist?

MADONNA – unfortunately the “A CASE OF BLOOD AMBITION” subtitle is just a video tagline and not shown onscreen – is not exactly “FATAL ATTRACTION-lite,” although Laura does some stalker-ish things that do not raise any red flags for Richard. Shot by VOODOO DOLLS’ Christian Racine (his father producing once again), VOODOO DOLLS is at least a slicker, better-looking production when the budget allows (Laura’s apartment is nicely designed, although obviously a bunch of studio flats); however, it’s a long time coming between the opening shootout and the “excitement” of the climax. In between, we get a predictable and uninteresting story of a “good guy” getting seduced by someone who’s a lot more femme than fatale. The biggest problem with the film isn’t Laura/Madonna (or actress Mansy for that matter); it’s the completely unsympathetic Richard. He got married in college after accidentally getting his girlfriend pregnant, and has supported her by working in advertising art while she stays at home raising his son and occasionally illustrating children’s books. It’s not surprising that the might want a little adventure and exoticism; however, when he gets what he wants, he turns into a total teenage girl with a lot of “It’s my life” and “Stop telling me what to do” when other people show concern over his destructive choices. Soap actor James Horan gets a “special appearance by” credit for his role as Laura’s creepy photographer friend, but he doesn’t get much to do until the climax other than look sinister. Besides Devigne, VOODOO DOLLS’ Nathalie Gauthier also appears (here as a courier for Wingate). As with VOODOO DOLLS, I wonder if we can view MADONNA as another Roberta Findlay rejection. There’s more bare flesh this time around, but a Findlay version would have reveled in enough absurdities to make it more watchable (maybe she would have even cast THE ORACLE’s Pam LaTesta in the photographer role).

Both VOODOO DOLLS and MADONNA went straight to video in Canada – the latter was released on VHS by Alliance as SINS OF SEDUCTION – and the U.S. (VOODOO DOLLS did get some screenings on Showtime). The U.S. video releases were through the short-lived Atlas Entertainment Corp. label (who also released Donald Farmer’s VAMPIRE COP and Jag Mundhra’s HALLOWEEN NIGHT [aka HACK-O-LANTERN]). VOODOO DOLLS and MADONNA were captured on film but the final edits were performed on videotape, so the garish-looking interlaced presentations here are probably the best they can look. With the exception of an early tape roll, VOODOO DOLLS is a clean-looking presentation. The master tape of MADONNA, on the other hand, has some instances late in the film where the field order is briefly reversed (which may be more noticeable on some displays than others, although the perfect viewing medium for this disc is your old tube TV). Both films – mixed in stereo – suffer from audio distortion which sounds like a combination of bad recording levels and digital clean-up (rely on your player or receiver’s audio decoder to smooth out some of the rough edges). Both films were originally announced for volume five of the Media Blasters/Rare Flix series – as part of a triple feature with the previously-unreleased CENTERFOLDS FROM HELL – but that set was canceled. Hostess Maria Kanellis makes herself up as an 1980s Madonna (and is disappointed to find out that the Madonna of the title is not, in fact, the “Material Girl”) and plays with voodoo dolls that are only a little less ridiculous than the ones in the film. Maria’s “Fantasy” music video is again included as an extra. Trailers for THE LAST CHASE, NIGHTMARE and CUT THROATS NINE – none of which are Maria titles, unless there may be reissues forthcoming – rounds out the package. (Eric Cotenas)