It’s almost refreshing, really.
We’ve seen so many of these mad scientist films which decided that it would be a great idea to throw in a bit of voodoo. Heck, I just reviewed Al Adamson’s amusingly awful Blood of Ghastly Horror (1967).
They all love to tell us about the scientific marvels hidden in native magic, and some like Night Monster (1942), try to put it all in terms of vibrations, or wrap it all in claims that someday we will understand the deeper science behind a guy waving a chicken bone at the moon while chanting and drumming on his bongos.
But I guess that’s why I like Voodoo Man: Bela Lugosi has been luring beautiful young women to his house in order to revive his dead wife.
Now Bela is your classic mad scientist, complete with labs, weird scientific machines and even a secret device which prevents automobiles from running. His wife has been dead for twenty years, but by some strange means which involves bathing her with rays, he has kept her dead body young and healthy, and ready for her spirit to take up residence again.
But where this all suddenly goes off the road like a runaway steam roller careening through the guard rail and crashing its way down a mountain through a forest, is that he is attempting to do this with the help of a voodoo priest.
The ordinary middle-aged guy sort of voodoo priest, the kind who owns a gas station. The kind played by George Zucco who made a career out of appearing in these poverty row horror films even though he seems fairly ordinary most of the time.
Well, he can do sinister. But he’s not in Bela’s league.
And that’s about it. Bela is a mad scientist, wearing what is supposed to be a mystic robe, without a supposedly scientific explanation in sight, or even the standard comment about how this all reflects a greater science which modern science has neglected, but which he is struggling to learn (as in, for example, Voodoo Woman).
He just wants to bring his young, beautiful but mindlessly inert wife back to full life and is perfectly willing to use his hypnotic skills (well, he is a Bela Lugosi mad scientist, after all. With voodoo help) to put the girls he kidnaps under his full control and try to transfer their souls or something like that into his wife’s body.
Not that I’m saying it is ever as simple or as clear as that.
Now the main plot is a typical breezy sort of mystery plot of the variety so common in the Thirties, as a young screenwriter on the verge of getting married, runs out of gas in the desert and is picked up by one of the girls who has been targeted by Zucco and Lugosi.
She’s also going to be the bridesmaid at his wedding, but we’ll ignore how convenient that plot contrivance is.
They go down Bela’s phony detour, the girl disappears, and the screenwriter and his fiancé then spend the rest of the film trying to get her back.
John Carradine also stars, as a half-witted assistant, the sort who keeps telling us he likes “purty gurls,” while doing whatever horrible things to them his boss commands. His finest moment comes when he plays the drum with an expression on his face that has to be seen to be believed.
It’s a shame, though, that he wasn’t given more to do.
As always, Bela stands out: sure, his performance is hammy. I mean, he is playing a mad scientist who’s also a voodoo priest, what do you expect? But he’s doing more with the material than most actors could.
I really think that, even though he was in pain, in financial trouble, and stuck with second rate poverty row roles after his hopes of being a great serious actor evaporated, Bela still worked hard at these Monogram films.
Maybe he’s phoning it in when it comes to some of his later films, but he’s still great here.
The problem with Voodoo Man is that it just feels like it needs just a little more. This would have been a far better film had it taken just a little time to explore his wife’s curious state of death, or to give us just a little more information about Bela’s mad science and how it got tied into Voodoo rituals. Or, for that matter, to delve just a little more into who George was and how he ended up working with Bela.
Even a tiny touch of extra depth would have helped.
Oh, well. Not that you’d expect that from a Monogram film.
And that really does sum this one up. It was never meant to be more than a fun and breezy little horror film, but it does that quite well because of a great cast and a reasonably good script.
It’s really a shame Hollywood just can’t make great minor films like this anymore…
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