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DVD Review

DVD cover

Voodoo Man (1944)
(2019 Reissue)


Starring: Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and George Zucco
Distributor: Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises


Certificate: 12
Release Date: 24 June 2019

If you get off the Hollywood Freeway at the Western Exit and travel west in the crush of four lane traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard, soon you’re in the heart of ‘the old town’. South is the celebrated cemetery of stars and just beyond, Paramount Studios. On the north side you’ll see large windowless warehouses now gentrified into wholesale stores and heavy equipment garages. These used to be the little studios known as ‘Poverty Row’. Many a talent would come here to do quickies, movies made in seven days or less. John Carradine, who would work in anything, is here three years after his Oscar winning performance in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. Karloff is here when he has to be but it depresses him. Zucco is here when he’s not on call at Universal. Lugosi is almost always here.

Talent was essential because there was little time for preparation, conferences or second takes. Voodoo Man was started on 16 October 1943 and wrapped seven days later to be released 21 February 1944 on the economy circuit, read that urban low rent neighbourhoods or boondocks. Produced at breakneck speed but industrial art at its best.

Bela Lugosi drove in, committed the script to memory with a one-time read-through, hit his marks, performed and went home. It is not known if his chronic leg pains from war injuries required reliance on morphine but most probably, yes. He may have been stoned but was also obviously able to be a consummate actor for twelve to fourteen hours every one of those seven days. The God of Genesis worked six days and had to rest. Bela worked seven days and had to deliver a perfect performance for every one of them. Or they wouldn’t have asked him back to do it again and again (The Devil Bat, Spooks Run Wild, Bowery at Midnight, The Ape Man, Ghosts on the Loose, Return of the Ape Man, Zombies on Broadway and this doesn’t exhaust the list). Lugosi was the King of Poverty Row.

Fabulous Films gives us a remastered Monogram Pictures print that is crisp, sharp and extremely well contrasted in both shadows and blinding sound stage arc lamps. It’s the best rendering of the film anyone has ever seen, including the cigar smokers at Monogram.

A woman motorist (Dorothy Bailor) is routed off the main road by ever beady-eyed henchman George Zucco. A hand throws an electrical switch. Her car stalls. Toby (Carradine) and his mouth breather sidekick, Grego, (Pat McKee) grab her and Carradine tells her, “Don’t worry, we won’t hurt you.” She doesn’t believe them and screams and Grego reassures her by clamping a hand over her mouth.

She is the third missing woman motorist this month the newspaper tells us: "Several theories have been advanced, but to date every effort to run down a clew has ended in…" maybe the typesetter meant somebody’s yacht down at the marina.

Cut to Banner Motion Picture Company. A script writer, Ralph (Tod Andrews) enters the boss’s office and addresses him as ‘S. K.’— an insider joke referring to Voodoo’s immortal producer, Sam Katzman (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers [1956] The Giant Claw [1957] Don’t Knock the Twist [1962]). Andrews himself would go on to star in many major pictures and TV series but we remember him most fondly for From Hell It Came (1957) where the monster is a vengeful walking tree. Don’t laugh. Those branches would really hurt you.

S. K. thinks the story in the paper could be an interesting horror movie. Ahhh, self referential cinema, rare in those days. Ralph, on the way to his wedding, ironically finds himself on the abduction detour road – and out of gas – where he gets a ride from the cousin (Louise Currie) of his bride to be, Betty (Wanda McKay).

Now we see Dr Richard Marlowe (Lugosi sporting a Leon Trotskyesque goatee) throwing the switch on his electronic car stopper. Lugosi can watch them on television (a matte insert EFX). He obviously should be working with the Allies in the war effort but he’s not. Ralph goes to a nearby house to make a phone call. It’s Marlowe’s house and the nasty crone housekeeper (Mici Goty) turns him away.

Lugosi has electronic voice powers too and tells Toby now is the time. Toby and Grego grab Stella. "You’re pretty," Toby tells her as they snarf her away.

Stella gets face to face with Marlowe and Lugosi entrances her with his trademark hypnotic stare. A beautiful close up with the star’s eye-acting in full force. She becomes compliant. Lugosi/Marlowe ushers her into a room to meet his wife, (Ellen Hall) beautiful and silent in an ornate chair.

“Is your wife ill?” Stella asks.

“She is dead,” says Lugosi.


“She has been dead for twenty two years,” says Lugosi.

It’s been one of those kinds of marriages. We feel a wince of derivative discovery about Dr Phibes. And we also think real life abductors should be forced to watch this picture during their sleep depravation along with the magistrates who let them off.

Lugosi will extract Stella’s will to live and infuse it in his dead wife by electronic mystic hypnosis. He has the spark-spitting equipment in his laboratory and some really neat glowing neon glassware. It hasn’t worked yet with the three other abductees (now in white gowns tucked away in hypno-stasis in booths down in the laboratory cave) but he’s on a learning curve and can already stop cars by remote control, remember? - and talk to John Carradine through thin air and watch it all on television. I’d say he’s on the road to successful resurrection, wouldn’t you?

Ralph unites with Betty but there is growing concern over Stella who should have been there by now. Ralph realizes she didn’t ditch him when he finds the other abductions had occurred on the same road he and Stella were on when they had car trouble.

Lugosi, Zucco and the crone housekeeper all robe up in what looks like a cross between graduation gowns and something serious astrologers would wear if they were hicks or in a Dennis Wheatley knockoff. Mouth breather Grego watches spellbound. Zucco does pagan priestly duty. Carradine pats out a rhythm on a tall bongo drum. Stop. This right here is worth whatever Fabulous Films wants to charge for their DVD without extras. John Carradine playing bongo.

Ralph and Betty enlist the help of the sheriff. His visit to Lugosi’s manor is fruitless. Carradine goes to check on the hypnotized women and strokes their hair in a way that would get him into trouble if he was a politician, a film producer or a presidential candidate.

Stella somnambulistically escapes and is walking around outdoors in her diaphanous gown. The Sheriff and Elmer his deputy find Stella walking on the road.

“Hey, a sleep walker and a derned pretty one too.”

The Sheriff and Elmer take Stella to Ralph and Betty. Marlowe seeks them out. He’s a specialist in these types of cases. The Sheriff and Elmer leave because they’re all in good hands with Dr Marlowe. Zucco is enlisted to gnostically call Stella back to them and, in her zombified state, she goes cross country back to the laboratory cave where Carradine tells her, “You bad girl, you’re a very naughty girl, you know you shouldn’t have left.”

Zucco makes a good Aleister Crowley-type priest, in full goat head mode, making one wonder if he did some field study in preparation for this role. He works a believable skull altar. Ralph and Betty go to Marlowe’s manse for help. Marlowe shares that his own wife suffered from a malady of wandering away and we get an insight into that marriage. Marlowe’s dead wife comes wandering into their view but is quickly ushered away by the crone housekeeper. She’s moving around now but not enough to suit Marlowe. He seizes on Betty as a new candidate for bringing his wife back to full wedded bliss. Betty feels the call of Zucco’s spell. She splits from Ralph while he’s on the phone to the sheriff. When Betty gets into the car to leave there is a nice reflection of the camera lights on the car door. I live for things like this.

When Betty arrives, in full trance state, Carradine manages to stroke her hair too. Ralph arrives alone as all four of the other abductees are brought out for the big transference ceremony. Carradine plays the bongo drum again. Grego stops his inferior bongo-ing and knocks Ralph out, his head symbolically coming to rest on a big floor drum. A percussive knockout. The Sheriff and Elmer enter with guns drawn. Marlowe raises a sacrificial knife to strike them. They shoot him. Marlowe’s wife asks where he is and then dies. Stella comes to herself and remembers nothing.

Ralph and Betty bring a script in to his movie boss S. K. It’s called Voodoo Man. S. K. asks who should play the Voodoo Man. Ralph says, “Why don’t you get Bela Lugosi. It’s right up his alley.”

My fellow audience member here said, “It wasn’t as bad as the one where the guy gets mauled by the bear but doesn’t die and for the rest of the picture chases Tom Hardy…” I go very still and decide, yes, it is time to go to bed…


John Huff

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