So what’s a guilty pleasure? According to Wikipedia, it’s “something one enjoys and considers pleasurable despite feeling guilt for enjoying it.” That’s as good an explanation as any. Here at Grand Old Movies we’ve been musing on the meaning of “guilty pleasure” because of our participation in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Guilty Pleasures Blogathon, running from September 18-20, 2011. Of course, regular readers of our blog, in regard to guilty pleasures, might ask, “Isn’t that what you always post about?” Well, perhaps—the very nature of blogging, after all, implies the confessional; it’s geared to the personal revelation. But, as people often feel when the confiding mood strikes, we’re relieved to know that we’re not alone in our pleasurably guilty musings. All the Blogathon participants are posting—openly, in public—about the movies that give them that naughty frisson of enjoyment—movies that should really be watched while huddled under the blankets, with only a flashlight to aid when fiddling with the buttons on the remote. As you can imagine, there’s been quite a run on those flashlight batteries. (For a list of the shamelessly culpable CMBA bloggers and their wicked thrills, please click here. Admit it, you want to know.)
For those Blogathon readers whose classic-movie watching is limited to, shall we say, the classics; or for those whose idea of cinematic enjoyment is a steady diet of Ingmar Bergman, followed by healthy helpings of Robert Bresson, you might be in for something of a shock. As this Blogathon (as well as our own blog) makes clear, not all classic-movie watching involves endless analyses of Citizen Kane. To quote that guiltily pleasurable actor, Elisha Cook, Jr. (from a 1947 movie entitled Born to Kill, which can certainly count as someone’s guilty pleasure), it ain’t feasible. An entity as vast and as complicated as the golden-age Hollywood studio system was bound to produce some clinkers. After all, the same studio, RKO, that produced Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece produced the 1945 horror-comedy opus Zombies on Broadway, a film that’s as bizarre as its title suggests. (In fact, RKO also produced Born to Kill—which should give you an idea just how vast and complicated the Hollywood studio system could be.) If we were to divide classic-film fans into two categories, we’d say that there are those who watch Citizen Kane, and then there are those who watch Citizen Kane and also watch, as Monty Python puts it, something completely different. And into the ‘completely different’ class falls the Guilty Pleasure.
But what makes a pleasure guilty in the first place? Wikipedia elaborates: “The ‘guilt’ involved is sometimes simply fear of others discovering one’s lowbrow or otherwise embarrassing tastes.” Ay, to quote someone else, there’s the rub (can’t remember who said that—but we’re sure it wasn’t Elisha Cook, Jr.). It’s not just admitting that you’re not watching Citizen Kane, but that you’re watching—well, such as the GP of our choice: the 1944 Monogram production, Voodoo Man. Can anything get more lowbrow or embarrassing than a flick from Monogram, Hollywood’s notorious Poverty-Row studio? (Actually, it can—Producers Releasing Corporation was a studio even lower down on the Poverty Row scale. Wags suggested that its acronym, PRC, stood for Pretty Rotten Crap.) Before you all start snickering about our selection (Monogram! Really!), let us remind you that Jean-Luc Godard dedicated one of his pictures to Monogram Studios (so there!). Thus blessed, as it were, with the imprimatur of one of filmdom’s most high-falutin’ auteurs, we proceed, with heads held high, to discuss, what, by any blanket-huddling definition, is a Guilty Pleasure of epic proportions. Read on, if you dare…
Voodoo Man came out of Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions, a company that this notoriously cheap film producer had set up within Monogram itself. Classic-horror cultists know Katzman as the legendary (sort-of) film maker of what Ken Hanke has labeled the “fabled Monogram Nine”: the nine cult horror movies Katzman and his partner, Jack Dietz, made with Bela Lugosi in the 1940s. And everyone this side of the moon knows Lugosi, one of the greatest horror-movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age. Lugosi is more than a famous actor; his performance in the 1931 Dracula has established him as a cult icon for the ages. With his burning eyes, his darkly Satanic good looks, his comic-opera accent, Lugosi is recognized and imitated everywhere. Quick, quote a line from Dracula: “I naivar drink…vine”; “The Chill-dren of the night—vhat Mu-zik dey make!”; “I yam—Dra-koo-la.” You probably thought of the lines before we did; even reading them, you can ‘hear’ the deep, slow tones, the emphatic, oddly formal speech rhythm that could make the most solemn line sound faintly risible. Sure, Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, which experts have voted the greatest movie ever made, but does anyone do Orson Welles impressions? (No, that wine commercial does not count.) Lugosi is a cultural touchstone, lodged in our collective unconscious so deeply that we don’t even think it’s strange to have him there—how many other actors are referenced on both a cereal box and a well-known children’s TV show, without our needing to explain who he is? But more than just his famous vampire role, we respond to Lugosi himself—to what Carlos Clarens calls the “corn-ball, demented poetry and total conviction” that he brought to all his parts. Classic-horror film buffs love Karloff, that other great cult-horror icon, but they want to be Lugosi. The man possessed a grandeur, a heroic belief in himself, that not even his roles in the dreckiest Ed Wood morass could shake.
But by the 1940s, Lugosi’s luster had dimmed. Never an astute businessman, the actor had taken so many roles in cheap horror films and even cheaper serials for quick money and star billing, that he had harmed his career. Hanke notes how at Universal, where he had first achieved super-stardom, Lugosi was reduced to making B-horror films, such as the 1941 The Black Cat (not to be confused with the 1935 version he made with Karloff) or 1942’s Night Monster, which, while giving him top name billing, presented him in small, inconsequential roles (usually mysterious butlers peripheral to the plot). Enter Katzman, with an offer “for a series of very cut-rate thrillers” that gave the actor “what he obviously wasn’t going to get at Universal: true star status and a lot of screen time.” Thus were born the Monogram Nine: Invisible Ghost, Spooks Run Wild, Black Dragons, The Corpse Vanishes, Bowery at Midnight, The Ape Man, Ghosts on the Loose, Return of the Ape Man, and the wildest of them all, Voodoo Man (although VM was made last, it was released to theaters before Return of the Ape Man).
Cult movies, writes Welch Everman, “sugges[t] a small group of loyal fans, so a cult horror film would seem to be one made strictly for the horror audience, the audience that will literally watch anything as long as it’s a horror flick.” We don’t know if Lugosi in the 1940s had the cult following that he has today, but undoubtedly Katzman was making horror films for an audience that wasn’t too fussy about what was served up before it. And Katzman’s Lugosi offerings were skimpy even for Poverty Row, consisting basically, notes Hanke, of “an idea and Lugosi—lots of Lugosi.” The Monogram Nine really are for the core Lugosi horror fanatics out there—those who want as much of Lugosi as they can get, “a good adult-sized dose,” says Hanke, and are not too concerned with the rest of the product. Even Hanke’s label for these films—the Monogram Nine—bestows on them a cultic, slightly sinister aura, as if they’re lurking inside a vault, to be let out only during the full moon, with garlic and crucifixes sprinkled prophylactically over windows and doors. The ancient Greeks had their nine Muses, but the Lugosians have their nine Monogrammers. And with today’s advantages of television, the Internet, and DVD players, the objects of adoration can always be kept close at hand (and ready for sneak viewing under those blankets).
In spite of the implied unity of the M9 label, Bela’s Monogram works are a discrete lot. His roles in them range from Nazi doctors to mad scientists to distraught husbands to foils for the East Side Kids (another Monogram staple), or weird combinations thereof. However, like many independent producers, Katzman recycled plots and characters, no doubt on the theory that originality doesn’t equal box office. VM’s story is similar to those of The Corpse Vanishes and Invisible Ghost. (If you haven’t seen the films, don’t worry: They’re public domain and readily available. And why deprive yourselves?) These three films share what might be called the uxorious motif, in which Bela’s thralldom to a dead or invalid wife makes him commit a series of extraordinarily bizarre and always illegal actions that comes to no good end. The theme of the dead past, as represented by the wife, haunting and influencing the present is not new to horror; just pick up any tale by the great ghost-story writer M.R. James and submerge yourself. What’s unique about these three Monogrammers is the representation of the live present in the person of Lugosi. No matter how illogical the plot, the actor always gives his all; he took his star billing seriously. And the plots often stretched the outer limits of logic. Take, for example, The Corpse Vanishes: Lugosi’s crackpot scientist, who, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, is “Match’d with an aged wife” (but who, unlike Tennyson’s hero, decides to deal with it directly), has taken to kidnapping brides, from whom he extracts a ‘vital force’ that he uses to keep his nagging spouse young. How or why the deeds are done is not the point; the point is always Lugosi, front and center. Whether carting off wedding-gowned girls in a hearse, or laying himself out in a coffin to fool the police, Lugosi is essential to the proceedings. As Tom Weaver puts it, “it’s tough to imagine who would have filled the bill in movies [like these] if Lugosi hadn’t been around to do them.”
If TCV is essential to the Lugosi completist, so is VM. We’ll go further—VM is just plain essential. Hanke describes VM as the M9’s “most outrageous offering,” while William Everson says it’s “probably the most entertaining film in the whole [M9] group.” The film is a kind of summing-up of Lugosi’s Monogram career. Weaver calls it “a compendium of everything that went into the Lugosi Monograms: Fun casts; inane, confused plots; lousy dialogue; unintentionally funny scenes; unfunny intended humor; and a stray, fleeting moment or two of not-bad horror.” If for nothing else, VM is worth watching for its main players. Supporting Bela are two other famous horror stars, John Carradine and George Zucco, in what, says Hanke, is “a virtual Monogram All-Star production.” It’s also the only picture the three made together. (Although Zucco receives billing in the Lugosi-Carradine Return of the Ape Man, he had withdrawn from that film prior to shooting; contract requirements kept his name on the cast list.) Both Carradine and Zucco had sterling movie and theater credits: Carradine appeared in many great John Ford films (including Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath), and was at the time producing, directing, and starring in his own stage production of Hamlet (using his movie salaries, including the one from VM, to finance the project). Zucco had starred in the original stage production of Journey’s End, and was Disraeli to Helen Hayes’ Victoria in Victoria Regina; he had also played Moriarty to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. But the two men, like Bela, had, by the 1940s, been reduced to Poverty Row horror, acting in vehicles not worthy of their considerable talents. However, we’ll venture that neither actor ever had parts quite like what they had in VM.
VM‘s story centers on a bereft husband, Dr. Marlowe (Lugosi), whose beautiful wife (Ellen Hall) has been in a catatonic trance for, as he frequently reminds viewers, twenty-two years. With the connivance of Nicholas (Zucco), a gas-station attendant moonlighting as a voodoo priest (whatever else, Nicholas has an interesting resumé), Marlow kidnaps a series of young women and (as in TCV) attempts to transmit their ‘life essence’ to his somnolent wife in order to revive her. This is done via an elaborate ceremony in which Nicholas, garbed in robes and feathered headdress, fiddles with bits of string and prays to the god Ramboona (punctuating his garbled chants with eldritch cries of “Rambooooona!”), while Toby, Marlowe’s simpleton assistant (Carradine), keeps time on the bongo drums. That the ceremony never works doesn’t discourage the trio; they just haven’t found the girl, says Marlowe, with “the perfect affinity” for his wife. There, basically, is the film: Bela, George, and John collect one girl after another for repeated voodoo experiments (the used-up girls are not discarded but are kept around as decorative ‘zombies’ for the rituals), while the sheriff (Henry Hall) bumbles around for clues, and the hero (Michael Ames) stumbles accidentally onto the truth. It all ends when the sheriff shoots Marlowe, the wife dies, the girls are released, and the hero and his kidnapped girlfriend (Betty Benton) are reunited. Any resemblance between this film and Citizen Kane is purely imaginary.
After reading the above paragraph, you may wonder why such a film would qualify as a guilty or any other kind of pleasure; or why even the most devoted Lugosi aficionado would want to spend sixty-seven valuable minutes watching its loony goings-on. In a bare-bones plot summary, VM amounts to very little. Its story is strange, its acting by the non-star cast is minimal, its script is a clunker (“Get me the zombies” is a typical line), and its direction, by William ‘One-Shot’ Beaudine, is no more than a serviceable shot-countershot construction—just enough to keep the film moving and to keep us watching. VM partakes of that odd, unauthored quality of other Monogram horror films—it’s hard to believe that it did not just crawl out, unbidden, from some primeval swamp, but that it was actually written, produced, and directed, it was consciously created, as a commercial film for the mass market. For all we know, Ramboona himself may have had a hand in its making, so all-over-the-place does the film feel. That VM is not entirely clueless as a film production is indicated in its heavy-handed attempt at reflexive humor. (For the brave spectator out there who would like to experience a totally clueless film, we refer you to the 1964 opus The Creeping Terror, a movie that beggars description.) VM opens and closes with blatantly self-referential sequences in which the screenwriter-hero delivers a script, based on the story we’ve been watching, to a producer (coyly addressed as “SK”), and recommends that ‘Bela Lugosi’ be given the lead (you are all permitted to groan).
It’s the very lack of a guiding structure, though, that allows VM’s three stars to rip loose, in effect branding the film as the Bela-John-George show. Carradine’s performance is perhaps the most notorious, as he “persists,” says Donald Willis, “in drawing attention to himself, fidgeting crazily and running in place, in a role in which probably any other actor would have preferred to go unnoticed.” “Even when [Carradine’s] mouth is shut,” writes Weaver, “he’s still making a spectacle of himself.” Self-spectacle was meat and drink to Carradine. According to Greg Mank, the eccentric actor first attracted Hollywood’s notice in the early 1930s by “parading up and down Hollywood Boulevard, wearing a cape and slouch hat, roaring Shakespeare.” Unfortunately, VM is not Shakespeare; Carradine delivers his dialogue—mostly on how “pretty” he thinks the zombified girls are—in a slack-jawed, stream-of-consciousness style (we wonder if he was ad-libbing some of it), while stroking and petting the unresisting females. In contrast, Zucco, simply by his reserved British demeanor, comes across as more dignified (although, notes Everson, his “cultured tones make him an unlikely candidate for [his] gas-station attendant job”). It’s a shock then to watch him in his wild voodoo get-up, mumbling and chanting (per Hanke, some of Zucco’s incantations were achieved by playing bits of the soundtrack backwards), waving his arms (at one point he flourishes a machete), and, in essence, making a prize fool of himself. Zucco’s most deliriously mad moment comes when he magically lures an escaped zombie victim (Louise Currie, a Monogram stalwart) back to Marlowe’s house: Standing in feathers and face paint, he chants, gestures, and even growls, like a bear that senses it’s near feeding time. When the entranced girl returns, a joyous Marlowe springs up and squeezes the priest round his shoulders. “Well Done, Dear Nee-ko-las!” he cries out in congratulatory triumph. To which Nicholas solemnly replies, “Ramboona never fails.”
As spectacular as John and George are, VM is Bela’s movie. He’s not as flamboyant here as in the demented The Ape Man, in which, because of an experiment-gone-wrong that’s turning him into a gorilla (you can’t go more wrong than that), he gets to rant, Lear-like, against his fate. But VM does give Bela some magnificent opportunities. In spite of the plot bizarrerie that surrounds him, he plays his role utterly straight, “hold[ing] together,” says Hanke, “[this] most threadbare of material on sheer conviction.” Unlike the flaunting Carradine, Bela maintains a subdued formality that’s rather touching; it suggests reserves of untapped feeling. Indeed, we found it almost painful to watch him in scenes with his wife, particularly during the voodoo ceremonies, when his character’s detachment dissolves and his desperation breaks forth. Bela doesn’t act in the rowdy I’m-getting-paid-so-what-the-hell style of Carradine and Zucco. Instead, he achieves his effects by pulling inward, in a kind of intense immobility, becoming a still focus of energy on screen. Seated between kidnap victim and comatose spouse, he speaks in slow, deliberate bursts, as if physically and vocally willing the transference between the two. “Mind To Mind,” he intones, his gaze burning a trail from sacrificial girl to wife. As the ceremony proceeds, his voice rises: “Body To Body … E-MOtion To E-MOtion”; then, in a dramatic drop in pitch: “Life To Death!” For a moment, the ritual succeeds: his wife slowly awakens, and Marlowe clasps her to him, his eyes alight with a pathetic joy. But the moment is short, and she sinks back into lifelessness: “No, no, you mustn’t,” he pleads, his voice dying off, his face crumpling, like a grieving child’s. To those who don’t understand the Bela Lugosi cult, watch him in this scene—he’s at once absurd and noble, laughable and moving, ridiculous and sublime. However weird or off-putting Bela may have been in his films—and however weird the films—he always brought to his characters a genuine depth of feeling; he gave them, in effect, the dignity of humanity. Lugosi had the one thing of which no amount of commercial success can truly give the measure—an artist’s soul.
No one, of course, watches VM out of artistic yearnings; that’s what Citizen Kane is for. Yet though VM is cheap and silly, it has a fun, loopy inventiveness, what with the zombie girls, the voodoo rites, the proto-TV screen Marlowe uses to spy on potential victims, and the secret laboratory that no proper horror-movie mansion can do without. Marlowe may be mad, but he’s mad in a courtly, Old-World style; properly turned out in cravat, morning coat, and striped trousers, he bows politely to a guest, inclining his upper body from the hip like a hinge. With his smoothed-down hair touched with gray and trim Van Dyke beard, he could be a European professor on sabbatical; who would ever guess he keeps zombies stashed in a back room? The film’s obliviousness to its contradictions, as well as its cheapness and small scale, is what makes it endearing. It’s like a lumpy old sofa you can’t quite make yourself get rid of; tawdry, worn, but full of family feeling. You can even ‘read’ a (dysfunctional) family metaphor into the film’s characters and their tangled relationships: Bela as the stately, if somewhat cracked, paterfamilias mourning a missing wife; the zombie girls as dutifully dull daughters; Carradine as an idiot son; and Zucco as the dotty uncle occasionally released from the attic to attend family gatherings. And in the end, maybe family counts the most. VM is not art, but it provides a kind of blissfully demented pleasure that makes you glad there’s room enough in this sad old world for such happily nutty movies to exist. And for that, we don’t feel guilty—not one damn bit.
Clarens, Carlos, An Illustrated History of the Horror and Science Fiction Film, New York: Da Capo Press, 1967, 1997
Everman, Welch, Cult Horror Films, New York: Citadel Press, 1993
Everson, William K., More Classics of the Horror Film, Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1986
Hanke, Ken. “Bela Lugosi and the Monogram Nine,” Filmfax: The Magazine of Unusual Film, #44, April/May 1994
————-, “Supernatural—Perhaps…Baloney—Most Definitely! Poverty Row Horrors of the 1940s,” Video Watchdog, #61, July 2000
Mank, Gregory William, Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and “The Bundy Drive Boys,” Los Angeles: Feral House, 1997
—————, Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors: Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive, George Zucco, Baltimore, MD: Midnight Marquee, 1998
Pitts, Michael R., Horror Film Stars, 2nd Edition, Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1991
Weaver, Tom, Poverty Row Horrors! Monogram, PRC, and Republic Horror Films of the Forties, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1993
Willis, Donald C., Horror and Science Fiction Films II, Metuchen, NJ, and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982
UPDATE: Due to popular request, here’s a link to VOODOO MAN on the Web – free voodoo for you!
BONUS CLIP: Here’s the trailer for The Corpse Vanishes (1942): “A maniac monster creeps from his domicile of death!”—a statement that could be applied to Lugosi’s Monogram output as a whole. And then there’s that mausoleum in the basement…: