Sunday, January 18, 2015

Voodoo Woman (1957)

... aka: Black Voodoo

Directed by:
Edward L. Cahn

When it comes to 1950s horror directors, was anyone - other than perhaps Roger Corman - as prolific as Edward L. Cahn? In just a five year time span, he amassed nine directorial credits in the genre: Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), The She-Creature (1956), INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957), ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957), Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), Invisible Invaders (1959), THE FOUR SKULL OF JONATHAN DRAKE (1959) and this one. Of course all of these films were cheaply-produced, shot in a matter of days and vary wildly in quality, but the sheer number itself is quite impressive given the time frame in which they were made. Considering Invaders went on to heavily influence NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and It: The Terror... went on to be a primary influence behind ALIEN (1979), I'd say he's probably never been given the recognition he deserved. Part of that reason may be because of the other, less-successful films he made during his career. After all, they can't all be winners... as the hokey and boring Voodoo Woman can solemnly attest.

Somewhere in the fictional country of Bantalaya (which appears to be somewhere in Africa), mad scientist Dr. Roland Gerard (Tom Conway) is busy at work trying to turn natives into monsters using his secret formula combined with native voodoo, or merging, as he calls it "white man science and black voodoo." He has witch doctor Chaka (Martin Wilkins) to perform the necessary "blood rituals" for the latter and his own medical know-how and insane drive for success for the former, but all he's lacking is the appropriate test subject. They're currently using Zuranda (Jean Davis), a neighboring tribal leader's daughter, but she's so pure of heart she will only stay a monster for a few minutes at a time before transforming back into a human. Not content with trying to "shatter the very foundations of science" alone, Dr. Gerard has also decided to make life as miserable as possible for his young wife Susan (Mary Ellen Kay), who's half his age, threatened with death if she ever tries to escape and is being kept on lock down in a hut guarded by rotund, spear-carrying native warrior Gandor (Emmett Smith).

Meanwhile, at a nearby bar, Harry West (Norman Willis) knows the whereabouts of gold and precious jewels in the jungle and has a map to point him in that general direction. Unfortunately for him, hard-bitten, hot tempered, money-hungry, murderous tramp Marilyn Blanchard (Marla English) cuts his plans short by shooting him dead and taking his information, with plans of heading into the jungle and finding the treasure herself. You do see where this is going, right? Accompanying Marilyn on the expedition are her loose cannon current lover Rick Brady (Lance Fuller), who decides to impersonate the dead Harry, and experienced macho guide Ted Bronson (Mike "Touch" Connors), who's been hired by Marilyn's shady bartender friend / accomplice Marcel (Paul Dubov) and is oblivious to what has gone down prior to his arrival. The three head into the jungle and eventually stumble upon Dr. Gerard, who's happy to finally have a more appropriate and willing guinea pig at his disposal.

You get a much better look at the creature in this promotional still than you do in the actual movie!

Talky, slow-moving, set bound, cheap and obviously rushed, this is a pretty typical low-budget B picture of the era destined for the bottom half of double bills. The film ran into numerous production difficulties, like much of the cast and crew coming down with the flu while on a tight deadline and money wasted on an earlier monster mask designed by Harry Thomas that was so terrible it couldn't even be used. The monster was then re-designed by Paul Blaisdell, who reused the monster body suit from the previous She-Creature (which featured most of the same cast seen here) with a newly-designed monster mask and blonde fright wig added. Blaisdell also inhabited the costume and suffered severe burns doing one of the special effects scenes where "acid" is spilled on his leg. And I must admit, regardless of how silly or cheap the finished creature looked, I'd preferred to have at least seen it! Instead, the filmmakers keep it hidden in the shadows and behind brush all the time so you never even really get a good look at it. A potentially interesting aspect of the plot where the mad doc shares a telepathic link with the beast isn't utilized to its fullest extent either.

An A.I.P. production for executive producers Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson, Voodoo Woman was conceived under the title Black Voodoo, had a 60,000 budget, was co-written by actor Russ Bender, features a musical number by high-pitched singer Giselle D'Arc and played most theaters paired up with the vastly superior Corman film THE UNDEAD (1957). Amazingly enough, it was also remade in color less than a decade later as CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE (1966) by director Larry Buchanan, which turned out even worse than this one.


Return to Witch Graveyard (2014)

Directed by:
Reuben Rox

This is a sequel to Witch Graveyard (2013) in name only and with no plot connections to the previous film aside from the fact it's partially set in a graveyard, involves long-dead witches striking back from beyond the grave and was made by and stars most of the same people (all playing different roles here). Jonathan (director / writer / producer / cinematographer / nearly everything else Rox), host of the TV show Late Nights with Jonathan, is doing a series of supernatural stories for a "13 Days of Halloween" series. This brings him, model-turned- reporter Noelle Martin (Catherine Franklin) and Noelle's assistant / camera girl Maya (Rachel Wise) to the Eternal Peace Cemetery. Rumor has it the plot of land the cemetery rests on is cursed because the remains of thirteen women accused of witchcraft and burned to death are buried there. There have been many disappearances there over the years and legends claim you can hear both the trees whispering your name at night and the voice of a woman calling out for help. Answering those calls may lead to your own doom. And you certainly don't want to desecrate or muck up the pristine cemetery grounds either, as we will later discover...

Jonathan, Maya and Noelle first venture out to the cemetery to meet up with Lance (Alex Williams), whose sister had disappeared there. After they leave, Alex has a fatal run-in with some animated tree limbs that poke his eyeballs out. A mysterious woman named Mae (Shonda Cannon) next shows up at the TV station claiming to be the descendant of Mary Young, a woman also buried in an unmarked grave at Eternal Peace after being executed in 1670 for her pagan beliefs. The two ladies from the TV station accompany Mae to the cemetery (a long twenty minute walk through the woods) the following day, become trapped / lost there and are hunted down and killed off by a mysterious hooded figure with a skeleton hand whose face is never shown. Jonathan, his friend Michael (Randy Robinson) and a hiker (Nathaniel Quinn) all end up there as well for more of the same.

Like nearly all other micro-budget regional films, one has to be willing to forgive some jagged editing, fluctuations in sound level, uneven acting, awkward dialogue deliveries and other technical glitches (there's even a visible shadow of the camera operator seen several times), to get any real enjoyment out of it. That said, this is a marked improvement over the first film. It moves at a faster pace, there's just enough plot, some of the more surreal elements work, the Oregon shooting locations are excellent and the photography and music are both decent enough. Much time is spent with the various characters walking or running around in the woods, though the very best scene - a series of shots following the three ladies as they venture deeper into the woods toward the old cemetery - also involves nothing but walking but is a good example of building tension and establishing mood within the most meager of means.

The material is also elevated a bit by some bizarre and expected things that happen along the way. Weird trinkets are found hanging in the trees, a missing camera keeps appearing everywhere, a murderous man wearing overalls (whose face is also never seen) lurks around, a ball rolls at one of the girls' feet and she stumbles upon a bunch of teddy bears sitting at the foot of trees, one of which cries blood, etc. In addition, there's a elevated amount of bloodshed and gore (fingers and ears are cut off, a heart is cut out, lots of blood spurts from off-camera); something mostly missing from the first film. Editing in the more action-oriented scenes is a bit haphazard (things seem to cut away too abruptly), some of the scene transitions are pretty rough and there's not much of an ending, though. The film is really at its best with the more quiet, low key moments that make good use of the setting.

Part of the true appeal of super-low-budget films, where technical proficiency is seldom if ever achieved, is their willingness to do things and take creative chances that their big budget Hollywood counterparts do not. While these things don't always work, they're often interesting to see and this delivers enough of those moments to make it worth a look for fans of these kind of films. The end credits feature outtakes.

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