Friday, October 27, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: V is for Voodoo Woman (1957)

Somewhere in the fictionalized land of Bantalaya (-- which the Magic 8-Ball says might be an island in the Caribbean or might be somewhere in deepest darkest Africa, answer unsure, try again later), Dr. Roland Gerard (Conway), a scientist gone completely bonkers, has taken up residence to further his experiments on the transmutation of humans into monsters. Here, he has found a kindred spirit in a witch doctor named Chaka (Wilkins); and together, mixing a little ‘white man science and black voodoo’ these two have nearly perfected a ‘blood ritual’ -- whose ingredients include “the blood of a fox to make them crafty, the claw of a cougar to make them strong, and the venom of a viper to make them kill” that will allegedly transform the test-subject into a mentally susceptible beast of mass-destruction.

At least in theory, as their latest patient, Zuranda (Davis), the captured daughter of a rival tribe’s chief, is transformed into a hideous, hulking, humanoid creature but then just as quickly reverts back to normal after only holding the mutated form for less than a minute -- much to Gerard’s consternation. Watching all of this fleeting success from their hut, Gerard’s young trophy wife, Susan (Kay), is a virtual prisoner of her jealous husband, who’s threatened to kill her if she ever tried to escape, explaining why she’s constantly shadowed by a pudgy warrior named Gandor (Smith). Seems the Gerards are there in exile over these dubious experiments that got the good doctor canned and shunned, sending him on this errant quest to show how wrong those who laughed at him were. And while he’s found an ally with Chaka, the other villagers are starting to get a little restless with these terrible experiments.

Meanwhile, at a bar in what I will assume is the nearest city, a man named Harry West (Willis) is about to run afoul of a couple of no-goodniks. Seems this West knows the whereabouts of a sizeable stash of gold and jewels out there in the jungle -- and has a map and a gold encrusted voodoo idol to prove it, but makes the mistake of revealing this to a hot-tempered vamp and her current deadbeat lover. Thus, Marilyn Blanchard (English) shoots West dead, steals the map and idol, and then passes off her boyfriend, Rick Brady (Fuller), as West to the oblivious Ted Bronson (Connors), the jungle guide the dead man had hired over the phone, who will now lead them to the treasure instead.

And so these three head off into the jungle, and it was very boring, and tedious, and tediously boring -- and the only relevant thing to happen is Marilyn chucking Brady for Bronson, whether the latter likes it or not; so let's skip ahead as they zero in on Chaka’s village, where Gerard is still trying to turn Zuranda into a vicious killing machine. And while the transformations seem to be lasting longer, the monster still stubbornly refuses to obey his mental commands to murder anyone. 

In fact, she keeps reverting back to normal whenever the creature comes close to fulfilling one of Gerard's kill orders. Chaka feels this is due to the girl’s inherent good nature, and after one last failed attempt to get her to kill a native from her village, Gerard reluctantly agrees, gives up, and sends the girl packing. Unfortunately for Zuranda, the way back to her village crosses paths with the sleazy Brady, out on a scouting mission while Marilyn tries to get her hooks into Bronson, I’d wager, who winds up killing the poor girl when his attempt to rob and rape her goes staggeringly awry.

When the rest of the tribe finds her body, and trace the killer back to the safari trio, this is just the excuse they’ve been looking for to rid themselves of these white interlopers and finally overthrow Gerard. But through some fast talking, Gerard is able to delay the inevitable at least for awhile when he convinces the villagers to capture the other three whites first and force them to kill the actual guilty party. And when this is all put into motion, and Marilyn guns down Brady without hesitation, Gerard can hardly contain his glee. For, if Zuranda failed by being too nice, what kind of monster will this psychotic, trigger-happy woman make, right? Well, whatever the answer, I think we’re about to find out...

Perhaps one of the most unsung but important cogs of American International Pictures early success was producer, Alex Gordon. In fact, if not for Gordon, the independent company might never have even existed. See, since they were old enough to attend the cinema in their native Britain, Alex and his brother, Richard Gordon, were both bona fide film fanatics. While in high school, they formed film societies, fan clubs for their favorite stars (--ranging from Bela Lugosi to Gene Autry), published fanzines, and submitted articles to others. In 1947, the Gordons migrated to America to enter the film business proper. And while Richard stayed in New York and started his own distribution company, Amalgamated Productions, Alex moved on to Hollywood to seek his fame and fortune in showbiz. What he found instead was Ed Wood.

Feeding off of each other’s enthusiasm, this duo co-wrote and produced Jail Bait (1954) and a western called The Lawless Rider (1954). The two had also been working on putting together a script for their mutual friend, Bela Lugosi, called The Atomic Monster, pitched it around town, but got no takers. Now, one of these outfits they pitched to was Jack Broder’s RealArt pictures, currently making a killing at the box-office re-releasing Universal’s back catalogue -- most notably introducing a whole new generation to their classic horror movies. And one of those creature features was the Lon Chaney vehicle, Man Made Monster (1941), which Realart released as, you guessed it, The Atomic Monster. Feeling swindled, Gordon got his lawyer, Samuel Z. Arkoff, on the case, who confronted Broder and his assistant, James H. Nicholson, with these allegations. And while both men feigned ignorance over the plagiarism, Arkoff did secure a small settlement.

Nicholson, impressed by Arkoff’s ability to get any money out of his boss, struck up a friendship with this lawyer and the two decided to go into the movie making business together, forming American Releasing Corporation -- later morphing into American International Pictures. That’s right. Ed Wood and Alex Gordon are the reason American International Pictures came into existence. And after growing tired of Wood’s alternative lifestyle, Nicholson and Arkoff brought young Gordon into the fold, who, along with Roger Corman, would serve as producer for the first salvo of AIP pictures, including Apache Woman (1955), Day the World Ended (1955) Girls in Prison (1956) and The She Creature (1956).

Loosely based on the book The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein, a dubious tale of reincarnation and hypnotic-assisted regression of past lives lived, The She-Creature takes things a few steps further when a sideshow huckster physically regresses his assistant back to some primordial sea monster. Though a bit of a snoozer the film did fairly well at the box-office; and so, the brass at AIP asked Gordon to produce another, similarly themed picture with a female monster -- only cheaper and in half as many days. And Gordon was keen to do it, having had so much fun on the first film, hiring a bunch of his old silver screen heroes to star in it -- though most turned him down. In fact, both Tom Conway and Lance Fuller were last second additions to the cast of The She-Creature, replacing Peter Lorre and Mike Connors. And Gordon had wanted to hire Conway for his next feature, Runaway Daughters (1956), but he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was replaced by another actor.

For a script, Gordon was hoping for something original penned by AIP regular Lou Rusoff, who, along with Chuck Griffith, basically comprised the studio’s whole writing staff at the time, but he was busy on another project. And so, Sam Arkoff dusted off an unused script written by actor Russ Bender and V.I. Voss called Black Voodoo. The script was pretty terrible, a throwback to the mad science and pagan films of the 1930s, and I don’t think anyone would’ve been able to salvage it -- let alone someone charged to film it in six days for $60,000. In fact, the budget was so small resident AIP monster maker, Paul Blaisdell, only got as far as a few production sketches, which suggested a withered creature with a shrunken head, before Gordon broke the news to him, saying they had no money for a new monster and could they possibly, maybe, just recycle the monster suit from She-Creature instead?

Blaisdell reluctantly agreed on the stipulation that someone else redo the head. And with that, he and his wife and co-conspirator, Jackie, set to work modifying the old suit, removing the head, stripping off the tail, dorsal fins, vestigial wings, horns, lobster claws, and the toothy maw that framed the abdomen. They then stuffed it inside a burlap sarong and called it good. But! Turns out Blaisdell’s work wasn’t finished quite yet as the head built by Harry Thomas was nothing more than a dime-store skeleton masque with a fright wig stapled to it. And this looked so awful Gordon begged Blaisdell to salvage it, who did the best he could, building up the cheekbones and filling in the eyes. And then, such as it was, the monster was ready to shoot.

Director Cahn and producer Gordon.

And knowing he needed someone who could work fast and cheap Gordon hired quick-shooting Eddie L. Cahn to direct Voodoo Woman (1956), who saved a lot of time and set-ups by keeping the creature’s screen time brief and in the shadows for the majority of the picture. Thus, like with The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955), with no monster to speak of, it fell on the cast to keep the audiences awake and interested as the scatological plot slogged along with Gerard tricking Marilyn into becoming a willing test-subject for his experiment, saying it was all part of an initiation ceremony that will make her a voodoo priestess, which will give her access to the tribe’s treasure trove. 

Obviously, the greedy Marilyn jumps at this chance for fortune and glory. And so, Gerard injects her with some of his chemicals, Chaka does his thing, and Marilyn quickly hulks out. Here, Chaka’s theories prove correct as this new monster obeys Gerard’s every command, including thwarting his wife’s latest escape attempt, which gets her tossed in a thatched cell with Bronson. (And who didn’t see that plot twist coming?)

Anyhoo, these two hit it off and manage to engineer another escape, but get separated in the confusion as Susan is once more captured by Gerard’s mutant. Only this time, Susan will serve as a sacrifice to appease the restless tribe, destined to be tossed into a deep pit filled with poisonous vapors. 

Meantime, Bronson is also recaptured when he circles back to help Susan and is staked out next to her near the sacrificial altar, where Chaka is getting the crowd warmed up for the ritual, which seems to involve the statue Marilyn stole from West. Here, the witch-doctor has a surprise for Gerard, revealing he is to be sacrificed as well. With that, Gerard sends a psychic S.O.S. to his pet monster, who lumbers on scene, scatters the tribe, and kills Chaka on her master’s orders, tossing him into the deadly pit.

But then suddenly, Marilyn seems to assert herself as the monster is drawn to the sacrificial altar, giving Bronson and Susan a chance to escape unnoticed. And as the monster inspects several artifacts, in perhaps not the wisest of moves, Gerard can’t help but laugh at his duped dupe. Seems they are all made of clay -- except for the one idol she’d already possessed that went into the pit with Chaka. Thus, an enraged creature lashes out at Gerard, breaking his neck against a tree. And with his death, Marilyn returns to normal and, remembering his last words, looks to the pit and sees the golden idol resting on the lip of the abyss. But in her excitement, she gets too close to the unstable hole and falls in, taking the idol with her.

Cut to that same bar in Whereverthehelltheyareville, where Bronson and Susan stumble in are greeted by the shady bartender, who asks about the fate of Marilyn and Brady; with whom he was kind of in cahoots with earlier. (It doesn’t really matter.) Told they’re both dead, the bartender concedes Brady might be dead, but feels nothing can kill Marilyn. And sure enough, cut back to the pit and we see the monster climb out of the pit, the idol clutched in a scaly claw.

It seems producer Gordon’s original choice to play Dr. Gerard was George Zucco, who he had hoped to coax out of retirement -- but turns out the reason the actor had retired was because he’d gone insane, thinking he really was one of those mad doctors he’d played in roles past. So Zucco was out and a since recovered Conway was in. The rest of the cast was filled out with the rest of Gordon’s regulars, Fuller, Mike “Touch” Connors, Paul Dubov as that bartender, and the lovely Marla English. 

English was named Miss Science Fiction in 1951 but it was probably her close resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor that got her contract with Paramount in 1952, where she made five pictures -- mostly uncredited parts in the As and few leads in the Bs. From there, she kinda fell down the ladder to AIP with a few stops at United Artists along the way. She’d also starred as the human half of the She Creature, was in Runaway Daughters, and Flesh and the Spur (1956) for Gordon before playing the delightfully nutty Marilyn in Voodoo Woman, which would be her last film before marrying a real estate developer in San Diego and leaving Hollywood for good.

By all accounts Voodoo Woman was a miserable shoot and, considering the subject matter, most involved felt the production was jinxed. Shot in the old and drafty Charlie Chaplin Studios during an exceptionally cold winter for southern California, a virulent flu bug hit the production and soon infected most of the cast and crew. According to Blaisdell, he and a feverish Marla English spent most of the production lying on cots next to each other between shots. And in the scene where Gerard poured acid on the creature’s leg to show off it’s invulnerability, assured the chemical used was harmless and would only cause some smoke, Blaisdell got into position. But during the take, the chemical started eating through the suit and wound up burning his leg, leaving a scar. Ever the trooper, Blaisdell held it together until the director called cut. Blaisdell also recycled the huge lifts he’d worn to give the She-Creature a more menacing height. But he wasn’t the only one to employ them as both Connors and Fuller also used them. And as the shoot went along, each actor, trying to upstage the other, kept adding more inches onto their shoes. And if you watch the film closely, you can actually see the changes from scene to scene.

And so Voodoo Woman was destined to be a recycled picture with a recycled plot, cast, monster, and production crew, explaining why the whole thing feels tired and a little shopworn -- and worst of all, it’s very boring. And it turned out so bad, it nearly destroyed Gordon’s pending marriage. Released on a double bill with Corman’s The Undead (1956), Gordon took his fiancĂ©, Ruth Alexander, to see his film at it’s Burbank premiere. And when it was over, she returned his engagement ring, saying he should be making “prestigious high class art films” and not trash like this. And therefore, she could not marry him. 

Luckily, Alex’s brother Richard stepped in and salvaged things, explaining to Ruth the differences between low-budget and big budget filmmaking, saving the engagement. Thus, Alex and Ruth were eventually married, and she would later help script several of his features, including The Underwater City (1962) and Requiem for a Gunfighter (1965).

Alex Gordon would eventually leave American International after completing two war films -- both dominated by stock footage, Jet Attack (1958) and Submarine Seahawk (1958), for the same reason a lot of creative talent left the company over the years: money. Accusing Nicholson and Arkoff of cooking the books and stealing profits from his pictures to finance others, Gordon decided to wash his hands of the whole thing and asked to be bought out of the company. After, he worked for 20th Century Fox for several years, heading up a film restoration program, plumbing the depths of their archive, to see what was salvageable and uncovered several films that had been considered lost, like F.W. Murnau's City Girl (1930) and Erich von Stroheim's Hello, Sister! (1933), as well as many other classics, saving them from destruction and preserving them for posterity. Then, in 1976, Gordon resigned from Fox and rode off into the sunset, working for one of his childhood heroes, Gene Autry, as his new head of publicity.

Again, Gordon’s contributions to the early stages of American International Pictures cannot be praised enough. Because for every clunker like The She-Creature there was a gonzo Day the World Ended. And for every misfire like Shake, Rattle and Rock! (1956) there was a Dragstrip Girl (1957). And so, perhaps we should be forgiving of a retread like Voodoo Woman, a talky, cheap, and an obviously rushed film. And I’m not so sure if the film, like a lot of its AIP brethren, wouldn’t be improved some with a digital upgrade as I wound up having to watch a dubbed over in Spanish version on YouTube when my old Sony VHS tape refused to track. And as I watched it play out online, obscured by the usual murk, and tried to piece the story together, I began to think maybe that old VHS tape was trying to tell me something.

Other Points of Interest:

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 22 down with 4 to go! I totally got this. Up next: Mondo Zootopia!

Voodoo Woman (1957) Carmel Productions :: American International Pictures / EP: James H. Nicholson, Samuel Z. Arkoff / P: Alex Gordon / D: Edward L. Cahn / W: Russ Bender, V.I. Voss / C: Frederick E. West / E: Ronald Sinclair / M: John Blackburn, Darrell Calker / S: Marla English, Tom Conway, Mike Connors, Lance Fuller, Mary Ellen Kay


Erich Kuersten said...

Yeah, man, SHE-CREATURE is a great 'sleepy' movie - I love it when I'm suffering from a flu or fever --it's one of the few films too that poses itself as a flim-flam man pic (ala fake seances, the bunco squad, Night of the Ghouls, etc.) but the creature Chester dredges out of English is totally real and lethal. So it's one of the pics like Charlie Chan at Treasure Island that dares to say, ESP and past life shizz is totally real, so let's move on. I feel your pain on this movie Voodoo Woman, never been able to not get bored and leave the room when it's on. Great poster, though!And thanks for that indepth origin of AIP via Wood and Gordon tale. I never really heard the Gordon story. And you say DRAGSTRIP GIRL is worth seeing?

W.B. Kelso said...

Thanks, man. I would love to see a ten part docudrama on the history of American International Pictures. As for Dragstrip Girl, compared to Hot Rod Girl, it's the second coming of The Wild Bunch.

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