Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Voodoo Man, Monogram's last Bela Lugosi production
By Doug Gibson
I really like 1944's Monogram film, "Voodoo Man," the last film Bela Lugosi starred in for Sam Katzman's Monogram/Banner film company. It was released, however, prior to the earlier Lugosi film, The Return of the Ape Man. I love all of the Monogram Lugosi films, the wild plots, the very low budgets, the dank lighting, the dreary non-horror leads, the typed-last-night dialogue. "Voodoo Man" for a long time was not seen as much as other Lugosi Monograms, and it took a while years ago to find and buy. However, with the Net generation, you can watch it above courtesy of YouTube. Still, I never see it on Turner Classic Movies or other television, even today. (Frankly, it's amazing how many films I once thought were virtually impossible to find, such as this and Rogues Tavern, are now easy to access via the web)
That's too bad, because it may be the best-paced, least convoluted Monogram film Lugosi made. It's ably directed by William Beaudine and looks like a lean, mean film-in-a-week film. (It was helmed in October of 1943). The plot involves Dr. Richard Marlowe, who kidnaps young lovelies in an attempt to transform their conscious life into his "dead" comatose wife, Evelyn (Ellen Hall). In typical Monogram nonsensical fashion, he lures his prey (and he has a home full of zombie-like beautiful women) with the help of a service station owner, George Zucco, who sends the girls to Lugosi via a roadblock. Lugosi, watching them on that newfangled thing called a television transmitter, sends an electrical ray that stops their cars. At that point, two moronic but relatively gentle henchmen, played by John Carradine and Frank Moran, kidnap the lovelies and take them to Dr. Marlowe's lair, where Zucco, a high priest to the God, Ramboona, attempts to transfer their lives to Marlowe's "dead" wife. Carradine's role is very bizarre; he has a large mop of hair brushed over his face to make him look dumb, and he plays some mean drums!
OK, you're wondering why I call this non-convoluted. My only defense is to recount the other Lugosi Monogram plots but I don't have 100 pages to do so. ... Back to the film, a Hollywood screenwriter, Ralph Dawson, off to marry his sweetheart, is sent by his studio boss (named SK, an inside Sam Katzman joke) to write a screenplay about the missing girls, which has, not surprisingly generated a lot of news.
The film, 62 minutes long, moves swiftly and carries the viewer's interest. It may be outlandish, but it's never dull. Lugosi is, actually, a his biographer Arthur Lennig notes, a sympathetic character, despite his kidnappings. He's endured 22 years of his wife's zombie-like state, and conveys his despair well. "Voodoo Man" has a dream cast, with Lugosi and Zucco together. It's a lot better than their other pairing, "Scared to Death." Carradine, as mentioned, is cast way out of type as one of the henchmen and has been criticized but I like his work in the film.He seems to be having fun and even manages to look creepy when he bangs the drums during the Ramboona God ceremonies. Moran, a former prizefighter, is good as his partner.
Monogram starlets Louise Currie and Wanda McKay are two of my favorites. Both are gorgeous and capable actresses who worked with Lugosi more than once. In fact, Katzman called Currie the low-budget Katharine Hepburn because of her striking beauty. In her films, I've noticed that her acting chops are a tad higher than other Monogram starlets. Unlike most Monogram.Banner romantic male leads, who tend to be stiffs, Michael Ames' Ralph Dawson has energy and personality on the screen. He later changed his screen name to Tod Andrews and guest starred on both and early late Andy Griffith Show episodes, Veteran actor Henry Hall is well cast as the amusing sheriff and has a fun time saying "Gosh All Fishhooks!" when the script calls for it.
But the best, and perhaps most famous line, is delivered by Ames' Dawson in the film's epilogue. Handing the script to the producer, he turns to movie company's president and suggests a casting choice: "Why don't you get Bela Lugosi. It's right up his alley!" That's a GREAT line in an average, enjoyable low-budget programmer.
Despite the flim clincher, it was Lugosi's last Monogram film role. Initially, things looked better for Bela in 1944. He was in a higher-budget horror spoof, "One Body Too Many," for Fine Arts Productions and then signed a three-picture deal with RKO that included "The Body Snatcher." But his film career would dry up in the latter 1940s, and he only made two films in that decade after the RKO deal. One, fortunately, was "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." Another was the strange, sometimes dull but at times surreal "Scared to Death," a color outing. As the decade progressed, most of his earnings would come barnstorming the country, on the stage in summer stock and other venues, usually performing as "Dracula" or as "Jonathan Brewster" in "Arsenic and Old Lace."