There’s a common perception that my tastes in film are strictly of the “elitist” variety. I believe I have even been tagged as “artsy lefty” in some quarters (well, “righty” artsy types just aren’t a dime a dozen). I can’t exactly deny either accusation, since what this mostly comes down to is that I’m more likely to find a new Pedro Almodovar film of greater interest than whatever latest 100 percent all-action, all-effects-driven, all-exploding effort Michael Bay has cooked up. That’s an accurate picture, but it’s hardly the complete one.
I have always contended that no one who truly loves movies doesn’t also love at least a certain quantity of trash. No, I don’t mean “respectable” trash like those Douglas Sirk melodramas from the 1950s that have been made respectable by folks claiming that they’re richly rewarding satires of the soap-opera genre. (I have my own opinion, but that’s another matter.) I’m talking about bottom-of-the-barrel, unregenerate, unlegitimized and irredeemable trash.
And it can’t be deliberate trash. We’re after the kind of thing that just happens naturally — or maybe unnaturally. Many of my personal favorites in this realm are hard to imagine even being made. It’s easier to accept the idea that they simply appeared like a genie from a bottle.
Unfortunately, we don’t get much of this kind of trash these days. Oh, Dr. Uwe Boll can be counted on to deliver the goods when it comes to laughable incoherence, but when he makes something like In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale any vestige of wayward appeal gets lost in the two-plus-hour running time. Then again, it’s no longer quite so much fun when the trash cost enough to feed a small country for five years. The sheer wastefulness starts to outweigh the amusement value.
The kind of rubbish movie I have in mind pretty much died out with the double feature and the drive-in. When that once-voracious market dried up, there simply wasn’t the same impetus behind knocking out such loopy nonsense as Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula and its companion feature Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Pause for a moment and just consider the very existence of those titles. Imagine them being booked by any theater chain today. Uh huh. They make things like Deuce Bigalow: Eurpoean Gigolo sound positively reasonable, don’t they?
I actually saw that misbegotten double-bill when it first appeared back in 1966. I’d have been 11 at the time, and not only was I not impressed, the rest of the similarly aged audience wasn’t either. You know a movie has achieved a level of monumental incompetence when a crowd of pre-teens are pointing at the screen and laughing at the sight of a crew member standing in plain sight of the camera through the windows on a stagecoach. What none of us knew at the time was that this was an historical moment. We were witnessing the last theatrical features of William Beaudine — a man with a filmography that encompassed somewhere between 350 and 500 films dating back to 1915. Is it any wonder that his nickname was “One Shot” Beaudine?
Truth to tell, Beaudine had once been a relatively respectable filmmaker, turning out actual good movies like Mary Pickford’s Sparrows (1926) and W.C. Fields’ The Old-Fashioned Way (1934). Admirers of bad cinema, however, know Beaudine primarily for the junk movies he turned out in the 1940s and 1950s. Whether we’re talking about flat-out exploitation like the infamous Kroger Babb “sex-hygiene” film Mom and Dad (1945) or the last gasp Charlie Chan movies or the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys programmers or — best of all — his Bela Lugosi horror pictures, Beaudine was, is and always will be the bee’s knees of lovably craptastic movies. He’s the patron saint of junk at its most incredibly jaw-dropping.
My most treasured outbursts of Beaudinana are his Lugosi pictures. He made three of the horror icon’s notorious “Monogram Nine” and reteamed with Lugosi in 1952 for Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. (I don’t know about you, but I just feel better living in a world where a movie with that title could exist.) OK, so one of his Lugosi Monogrammers, Ghosts on the Loose (1943), is negligible, but The Ape Man (1943) and especially Voodoo Man (1944) are choicest trash.
For the unitiated, the “Monogram Nine” are a series of nine downright peculiar cheap horror pictures made by Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions for B movie studio Monogram Pictures between 1941 and 1944. Now, if you don’t know Monogram Pictures Corp. or think a long defunct studio that specialized in cheap bottom-of-the-bill fodder is beneath your consideration, remember this: Jean-Luc Godard dedicted his New Wave classic Breathless (1960) to the studio. (Can MGM or Paramount make that claim? No.) I somehow doubt that Godard had the Katzman product in mind when he made that gesture, but no matter.
Katzman’s Banner Productions were more or less Monogram’s B unit (roll that concept around for a minute). They tended to be shot in about a week, cost almost nothing to produce and turned a modest profit. Katzman himself was shamelessly contemptuous about the whole thing, even going on record that he felt certain that the people who went to these movies were mentally ill. Considering the fact that not two weeks ago I bailed on an auction for a half-sheet poster from Voodoo Man only after the bidding topped $400, I’m probably not the best person to take issue with old Sam’s point of view. (I doubt it will help my case when I admit that I’ve been looking for this particular poster for years.)
Since Beaudine was constantly working at Monogram at the time — he knocked out seven films for them in 1943 and nine in 1944 — it was inevitable that he and Lugosi would meet. The results were rare indeed.
The Ape Man is the best known — and not without reason. It’s one of the few instances where Lugosi submitted to a monster make-up — albeit a truly crummy one. Its slapdash nature is apparent in the very fact that it was obviously written for another actor (Boris Karloff?) since the Hungarian Lugosi seems an improbable candidate for the name James Brewster. I guess changing the name was considered an unnecessary extravagance — and anyway he was slated to have a sister played by California-born Minerva Urecal, so why bother? In light of the plot — which found Lugosi having somehow turned himself into the titular semi-simian (what possible research can have led to this?) who sleeps in a cage with a “real” ape (Emil Van Horn in a suitably cheesy gorilla suit) and goes on a murder spree to obtain human spinal fluid as a cure for his plight (“It’s de only vay to counteract de ape fluid injections”) — the name was the least of their worries. I freely admit I love this movie.
Ah, but then there’s Voodoo Man — and Voodoo Man is simply in a class by itself. By Monogram standards, this is an all-star effort. You not only get Lugosi, but John Carradine (who often referred to this as the worst film he ever made — this from the star of Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula) and George Zucco. Just what Zucco — who was in the middle of his own low-budget thrillers over at PRC Pictures (a notch below Monogram) — was doing in this is unclear, but since the movie was shot in seven days, his home studio perhaps didn’t notice.
Better yet, here’s a film that seems to cheerfully admit that it’s ridiculous. The hero of the piece (Michael Ames) is a screenwriter for Banner Pictures who receives an assignment from his boss — called “S.K.” (unfortunately, not played by Katzman, but by silent-movie director-turned-bit-player John Ince) — to turn a news item about missing girls into “a kind of horror picture.” Said writer plans on tackling this when he gets back from his honeymoon — only he gets wrapped up in the actual events on the way to his wedding. It gets better.
The missing girls are the work of Dr. Richard Marlowe (another unlikely Lugosi screen name), who — with a pair of quarter-wit henchmen (Carradine and Pat McKee), a voodoo priest/gas station owner (Zucco), a closed-circuit TV set-up, a detour sign and some portable shrubbery — snatches solo lady motorists. Why? The idea, you see, is that Mrs. Marlowe (Ellen Hall) has been dead for 22 years (nevermind the fact that she wanders around the house because “she’d dead only in de sense dat you understand dat word”) and Dr. Marlowe is hell-bent of bringing her back to life with the help of Ramboona (Google it).
Ramboona appears to be the special province of Zucco when he isn’t tending the gas station. On the evidence of the film, he’s the high priest of this interesting voodoo cult — and has bamboozled (or ramboozled) Marlowe into the whole thing. This involves dressing up in a snazzy robe, slapping on some war-paint, donning a hat that must have left at least two chickens bald and shivering, and performing a gibberish ceremony that sounds like a tobacco auctioneer suffering from dyspepsia. The kidnapped girls? Oh, the pitch is to transfer their life force into Mrs. Marlowe’s semi-comatose corpse.
It sounds simple enough, I know, but there’s a catch — it never works. However, like some flashy-dressing faith-healer, Zucco’s got the explanation handy. The subjects are “not the right girl” and lack “the perfect affinity.” This must be so, because Zucco is always ready to remind us that “Ramboona never fails.” That there’s precious little evidence to the contrary hardly matters. The alternative, of course, is a life of checking the oil and cleaning windshields, so his enthusiasm is understandable. Less easy to grasp is Lugosi’s credulity. Has this been going on for 22 years? How much banana oil can even the most doting husband swallow? Well, 62 minutes worth of screwy screen-time at the very least.
If this sounds demented, silly, preposterous and just plain rubbishy, that’s because it is. But take it from this elitist movie snob, there are times in this life when nothing but Voodoo Man will do. Why? Well, isn’t it obvious? Because “Ramboona never fails” — and neither does trashmaster William Beaudine.