VOODOO MAN (Monogram Pictures, 1944)
A Banner Production (Sam Katzman/Jack Dietz), directed by William Beaudine
starring Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, Wanda McKay, John Carradine, Louise Currie, and Michael Ames
VOODOO MAN was the eighth of nine films Bela Lugosi made for producer Sam Katzman for release through Monogram Pictures in the 1941-44 period–I always assumed that it was the final one, but it was released a few months before RETURN OF THE APE MAN, which shares some of the same stars and the same screenwriter (these two films are his only credits, leading me to wonder if “Robert Charles” was a pseudonym).
Katzman always understood the power of a unique personality whose very name suggested a certain atmosphere—-Bela Lugosi in horror, The East Side Kids in comedy, Johnny Weissmuller in Jungle Jim films, Elvis Presley in rock and roll films (he also made them with Bill Haley and Chubby Checker before that). You did not need expensive productions and settings when you could put Johnny Weissmuller on a cheap jungle set or Bela Lugosi in a dungeon on the Monogram lot and simply let him do his thing.
The Katzman-Lugosi film THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942) was the film that got me interested, as a child seeing it in a TV horror package, in both low budget genre films AND in Bela Lugosi AND in Monogram Pictures. It was SO different from anything I’d seen before–the super low-budget ramshackle feel and the intense over-acting of Bela Lugosi created a kind of strange and non-logical cinematic netherworld that was both eerie and seductive.
VOODOO MAN borrows many plot elements from THE CORPSE VANISHES, but it was made two years later and it is surely the weirdest of the Lugosi-Katzman films, which is really saying something.
It’s hard to believe how much is crammed into the film’s modest 62 minute running time, but at the same time, the plot is very simple. Lugosi, though his henchmen led by John Carradine (and this must rate as one of Carradine’s Top 5 most eccentric performances), is kidnapping young women in the country side and using them in some kind of occult/voodoo mumbo-jumbo “energy transfer” where the young women’s spirit is sapped and somehow put into Lugosi’s burned-out wife.
I remember seeing some Italian Westerns—-BORN TO KILL with Gordon Mitchell and TURN, I’LL KILL YOU with Richard Wyler come to mind—-which pretty much threw out any attempt at reflecting any kind of human reality and simply started in high gear and gave the lowbrow (people like me) audience what it wanted, in spades. One killing and gunfight after another….atmospheric situations, but a plot that just barreled on like a runaway freight train, hitting all the expected tropes, and as a genre-film fan would say, “delivering the goods.”
VOODOO MAN does that. It just starts with an outrageous kidnapping at a gas station run by George Zucco operated for what seems to be the sole purpose of kidnapping people (and Zucco has a hidden “secret phone” which looks like something the caped villain in a Republic serial would have to call his minions on), then others are kidnapped, and eventually Lugosi appears at about the ten minute mark (we’ve got to create suspense and have the audience clamoring for his appearance….Sam Katzman understood audience expectations!), and we are then in the midst of surreal pseudo-occult rituals with George Zucco chanting mumbo-jumbo and Carradine banging on bongos as if he’s at a beatnik nightclub. There is no attempt to make this seem at all like any kind of “reality,” and that quality is taken even further by the film’s self-reflexive qualities, where the male protagonist is a screen writer working for Sam Katzman’s production company, Banner Pictures (!!!!!), looking for plots for SK’s films, and he happens to stumble into one in “real life”. Then at the end of the film, after he’s lived through this, he tells his producer the story and suggests Bela Lugosi star in it!
Lugosi is at his eerie best here, although he’s not given the kind of big soliloquies he got in some of the others. His death scene allows him to emote somewhat, but mostly he is just stepping into his “eerie” persona and playing it to the hilt….and it works just fine.
The low-rent cheapo production design always helps films like this. There are no haunting art-deco sets as Lugosi and Karloff had in THE BLACK CAT….no, this looks like the kind of seedy basement a REAL criminal would conduct his evil activities in, which thus makes it work even better. Sam Katzman understood that….just watch his threadbare 1930’s serials such as SHADOW OF CHINATOWN or BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD. The incredibly low-budget settings–which look like abandoned warehouses or residences people have moved out of but left discarded items in–become quite atmospheric.
VOODOO MAN was always the hardest to find of the Lugosi Monograms. Most of the other ones have been staples of dollar stores and public domain copy services for decades, but VOODOO MAN was not, as there were not good quality copies in circulation. I also don’t remember it running in the local TV horror film packages I saw as a child and adolescent, and I saw ALL the other Lugosi Monogram horror films in those series. Maybe VOODOO MAN just was not shown in Denver for some reason. Who knows….The copy I eventually found 15 or 20 years ago, long after I had all the others on VHS, was a dupe which looked like it had been taped off TV decades earlier. Fortunately, now there is a quality transfer available from Olive Films (who have also been doing some great things with the Republic Pictures library). Yes, it looks like a grainy Monogram film shot on cheap sets on cheap stock, but it’s a crystal clear transfer of a grainy Monogram film shot on cheap sets on cheap stock. There’s a real comic-book feel to the whole thing, but at the same time I’d imagine it would have been shocking to a juvenile audience, shocking without being threatening….that’s the trick, and once again, Sam Katzman knew what he was doing.
I remember reading an old newspaper or trade magazine interview with Sam Katzman—-who certainly knew the value of ballyhoo and who cultivated a crotchety persona as much as his later movie-producing partner Colonel Tom Parker did—-from 1944, where he talked about how the public had no taste, and the lower the intelligence of his productions, the better they did, and how the public’s lack of taste bought him a swimming pool and an expensive home, and in that interview, he mentioned VOODOO MAN as proof of his contention. That was classic Katzman, playing the industry and the public like a master conman.
This film DOES deliver the goods. It’s feverish pulpy entertainment of the highest order. The cast plays it just right, it moves quickly, it’s dripping with atmosphere, and there’s an odd screw-loose quality about it that simultaneously makes it entertaining and makes it slightly off-putting and disquieting. Sam Katzman understood that. In a way, he was doing a similar thing in a Jungle Jim film or in Elvis’s HARUM SCARUM…or in RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP. If you like Lugosi and have enjoyed any of his Monogram films, you MUST get this wonderful Olive Films release of VOODOO MAN….and be thankful that such a thing exists for your purchase!
the excellent new release of VOODOO MAN from Olive Films, on DVD or Blu-Ray
the Astor Pictures reissue of VOODOO MAN, so we know it was in circulation for some time after its initial release, as Astor got lots of bookings in second-and-third run houses all over