Dreamy silliness from the vaults of Monogram horror! Olive Films has released VOODOO MAN, the 1944 horror/occult outing from producers Sam Katzman and Jack Dietz for Monogram Pictures, starring a trio of classic horror icons: Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, and John Carradine. With plenty of cheapjack black-and-white atmosphere, a weirdo dream-like pace, and some surprisingly funny moments, VOODOO MAN may not actually scare you... but it will entertain you beyond your expectations for this kind of outing. No extras, unfortunately, for this okay pillarboxed Blu-ray transfer.
Just outside of Twin Falls, U.S.A, somewhere out on country byway Laurel Road, young women are disappearing off the face of the earth. The only things the victims have in common? They're beautiful, and they all stopped off first at silky, mysterious Nicholas' (George Zucco, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, DEAD MEN WALK) gas station. Banner Motion Picture Company producer "S.K." (John Ince, THE AMAZING EXPLOITS OF THE CLUTCHING HAND, TERRY AND THE PIRATES) sees a newspaper item on these disappearances and thinks scripter Ralph Dawson (Tod Andrews, RETURN OF THE APE MAN, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, here billed as “Michael Ames”) could punch it up into a timely horror programmer. Dawson, however, has a bigger horror awaiting him: he's getting married, so he's off to meet his fiancée, Betty Benton (Wanda McKay, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT, THE BLACK RAVEN). Stopping at (where else) Nicholas' gas station, where dim-bulb pump jockey Sam (Ralph Littlefield, THE LIVING GHOST, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD) fails to fill up his tank, Dawson is later stranded out on Laurel Road when sassy ice cream blonde Stella Saunders (Louise Currie, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, MILLION DOLLAR KID) picks him up. Coincidentally, she's Betty's cousin, there in Twin Falls for Betty's and Ralph's wedding.
Too bad for her, though, because she's been targeted by Nicholas to be the next "disappearing girl" for Nicholas' partner in crime, Dr. Richard Marlowe (Bela Lugosi, DRACULA, BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA). Marlowe electronically zaps Stella's car, and has henchmen Toby (John Carradine, REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and Grego (Pat McKee, THE GREEN HORNET, I WAKE UP SCREAMING) drag her off to a secret tunnel while Ralph is looking for a phone (at the doctor's house, no less). You see, the good doctor has a beautiful wife, Evelyn (Ellen Hall, RAIDERS ON THE BORDER, CALL OF THE ROCKIES) who's been a zombie for 22 years. With voodoo priest Nicholas' help, the doctor has been hypnotizing young women and then transferring their souls into Evelyn, with only fleeting results. If he could only find the right girl....
Shot in a lightning-fast seven days in 1943, VOODOO MAN was Bela Lugosi's last commitment in his nine movie contract with Monogram Pictures, where he had previously been slotted in marginal-at-best efforts like SPOOKS RUN WILD, THE APE MAN, and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE. Already hopelessly typecast in horror/sci-fi/fantasy/crime roles, Lugosi would ride out the rest of the 1940s with only a handful of low-budget titles like ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY and SCARED TO DEATH (even A-list ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN was done on the cheap), before his advancing drug addictions would severely curtail his final big-screen appearances in the 1950s. While VOODOO MAN is certainly far removed from Lugosi's 1930s glory days of titles like DRACULA, WHITE ZOMBIE, and THE BLACK CAT, it does have a certain bargain basement allure, an appealing patina that can crop up unexpectedly when seasoned pros have to make-do with small budgets and less-than-stellar scripts.
Although VOODOO MAN's story and script are credited to Robert Charles (whose only other big-screen credit seems to be Lugosi's next-to-last Monogram, RETURN OF THE APE MAN), it's not inconceivable that associate producer Barney Sarecky, a far more prolific screenwriter with brisk low-budget credits like DRUMS OF FU MANCHU, THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES, and TV's THE CISCO KID, might have punched up the proceedings for the novice Charles. Either way, VOODOO MAN's storyline may be preposterous...but its script does have that jokey, sorta hip (and one might venture even sophisticated) bookending framework, which sets it apart from similar Bs of that era. Hollywood producer "S.K."-- an in-joke for VOODOO MAN's real-life co-producer, B-movie genius Sam Katzman -- self-referentially re-launches the on-screen story, with Tod Andrews then putting the capper on the "wink wink" to the audience, at the movie's fade out, by suggesting Bela Lugosi for the casting of the upcoming movie of the Laurel Road disappearances ("Say why don't you get that actor Bela Lugosi...it's right up his alley!"). Despite the frequently implausible story, amusing lines pop up with frequency here. When Currie unwittingly asks Andrews, "You know the sap [McKay's] marrying?" Andrews deadpans back, "Yes, I shave him every morning." McKay, seeing a zoned-out Currie, helpfully offers, "You know...I've seen people act like this in pictures." Too bad someone didn't shoot for full-on parody here.
Director William Beaudine (WESTWARD HO, THE WAGONS!, TEN WHO DARED), now often unfairly maligned by hacks who repeat the Medved brothers' "One-Shot" pejorative, does with VOODOO MAN exactly what he did with most of his hundreds of other movie and TV titles: he delivers a workmanlike, unpretentious bit of undemanding entertainment marred (mostly) by limitations in his budget (how would some of his contemporary A-list director's reputations fare, if their movies were limited to first takes only?). Whether it was intentional on Beaudine's part, or due to budgetary restrictions (and some choppy editing), VOODOO MAN does manage to produce a strange, dreamlike quality to its storytelling, with repetitious shots and an unhurried pacing that somehow give the movie a loopy, slightly dizzy feel, particularly if you watch this late at night, when fuzzy movies like this seem to work best. Cinematographer Marcel Le Picard (HILLBILLY BLITZKRIEG, SIX-GUN SERENADE) doesn't have a lot to work with in terms of production values, but he sometimes strikes an eerie mood (the shots of the women, hypnotized behind glass closet doors in a seedy hallway, is at first funny... and then a bit unsettling). As for Beaudine's handling of his three horror icons... from everything this reviewer has read, Beaudine didn't have time to "handle" his actors; he trusted them to do their bits while he raced from set-up to set-up. As it stands, all three acquit themselves well enough. Carradine has the least to do as the mentally defective Toby, but he can't help but be memorable, petting and pawing at lovely Currie in such a believably repulsive manner. Zucco is the damnedest gas station owner you've ever seen (can you imagine someone asking the gabardine pants-and-sweater vest-wearing Britisher to crawl under their Packard and check the linkage?), but he's game for all the voodoo mumbo-jumbo during the silly ceremonies. As for Lugosi, he isn't asked to do anything out of the ordinary from his usual B efforts at that time, but he has one or two nice moments, such as his breakdown when his wife "dies" again, that remind you how his valid dramatic talents were often underutilized.
Olive Films' pillarboxed AVC encoded 1080p 1.37:1 transfer for VOODOO MAN is only adequate… but that's all on the original materials' condition, no doubt. Blacks aren't inky or solid, while many scenes seem a bit bright and contrasty for this reviewer's liking, considering the movie's tone. Grain structure isn't bad considering the materials, while overall image detail is mid-range outside of the crisper close-ups. As with some other Olive Blu releases of Monogram Bs this reviewer has watched, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 split mono track level sounds quite a bit lower than it should be in this re-record. Otherwise, it's equally adequate. No subtitles or closed-captions available, nor are there any extras or bonus material included here. (Paul Mavis)
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