Thursday, October 29, 2009

This Fall, Bring Your Tropical Vacation Home With You!

In the world of voodoo film screenwriting you can be sure of a couple of things (or at least you could before 1973). There’s almost definitely a woman in trouble who knows more than she’s told, an opening scene involving a pretty laughable voodoo ritual where a woman is sacrificed, an intrepid white guy who always has a bad feeling about something who has to save the female, an even whiter guy conducting the voodoo experiments with the help of a creepy assistant, a smattering of sorry looking zombies, and a few scenes of tropical locales (budgets having prevented more than just a few minutes of screentime for your nice scenery until exploitation filmmakers discovered they could shoot in Mexico, Haiti, and the Philippines for no money and have a cheap labor force at hand). Womaneater might be seen as the pinnacle or anyway an archetypal voodoo movie and a rather lifeless one at that (I blame it’s British patronage). Think of it as a rehearsal for Plague of the Zombies and maybe you’ll have an easier time makng it through the film’s 70 minutes (just wait until you see the titular Womaneater, that alone is worth the price of admission).

Womaneater
by Charles Saunders

Dr. James Moran of the Explorer’s Club (Ooooh! FAN-CEE!!!) receives a tip about where he might be able to thrash around in fake leaves and see some stock footage of Alligators. He and an expedition leave the next day and stumble upon a jackpot for crusty white guys – a voodoo ceremony! Moran seems thrilled and harrowed at the same time. There’s a woman in a trance preparing to be in the ceremony, a guy dancing with a snake (he seems kind of afraid of it, actually) and…what the hell is that? Is that supposed to be a sock monster? It looks like a muppet orgy. Oh, that’s the womaneater. Moran’s partner can’t take another minute of this barbaric display (dancing and hitting drums) and runs out to put a halt to it. He gets a spear in his chest and all Moran can do now is watch in ecstasy. When he wakes up he babbles about having seen a miracle involving the great sock-like plant we saw earlier.

Five years later in England, so our title card tells us, the native drummer from the ceremony is now in Moran’s basement and he’s beaten out a rhythm that has placed a pale local girl into a trance. When his song is done, Tanga the native feeds the girl to the big puppety plant while Moran watches. After the deed is done he says “She won’t have died in vein.” I guess I should cut to the reason Moran’s going to be feeding local girls to the dog from Fraggle Rock. The plant releases a toxin everytime it kills and Moran seems to think that the toxin can bring the dead back to life. He proves it on a human heart shortly after the first victim is eaten by the plant (the readings on the Pulsometer are off the chart). Think for a minute about this plan…what in the world is the point of killing people to prove you can bring them back to life? Haven’t you effectively achieved nothing? If you have to kill someone everytime you want to make a zombie, wouldn’t it be just as productive and scientific to not kill them? Sorry, I should just keep my big nose out of his mad sciency business. So let’s meet the people who are going to screw with his playing god, shall we?

First is Mrs. Margeret Santor, Moran’s maid and, one gets the feeling, his occasional lover (or at the very least past lover). Santor is only to happy to help Moran with his mad science and murder so long as she thinks there’s something in it for her. Moran han'y been treating her like an equal lately and has started to feel neglected (my guess is Moran hasn’t been treating anyone like an equal. He’s bringing the dead back to life, after all). The bike riding police constable is as useful a unibrow and so won’t be giving us or the plot any real trouble. The other monkeywrenches in Moran’s works are Sally Norton, a girl performing in a traveling carnival and Jack Venner, a garage owner. Venner spies Sally during her break and wins her a stuffed bear at the sharpshooting booth. When he hangs around longer than he should, Sally’s boss comes a calling and shouts at her about starting her act again; Venner feels she’s not receiving the proper respect and decks the old man. Sally shows up at Jack’s garage the next day with no job and no place to stay, perhaps more than he was expecting to come from what he thought was a very valiant thing to do (knock down the can, win a girl). Jack knows just the place where Sally might find temporary employment (cause she as sure as shit can't stay with him) – some creepy old scientist needs a secretary. I believe you know where this is going. Moran prepares to use Sally as food for the womaneater, Santor gets jealous of Sally, Jack tries to stop Moran, Tanga beats a drum, and tomorrow we’ll start the same old thing again.

Womaneater is really nothing special. It has some nice looking camera work and fair performances but the niceness pretty much stops there. I feel like this was only a hop, skip, and a jump away from being one of those psychedelic horror films that started emerging a few years after Womaneater’s 1958 release date but it’s far too reserved and British to be anything but a mildly exploitative horror film. The script is really nothing new: mad scientist, jealous woman, young lovers, diabolical scheme involving young girls and in the end one sorry ass zombie. We spend the whole movie looking forward to the emergence of a zombie (not that the scenes of the womaneater’s rampage aren’t a hoot, they just don’t last long) and then it shows up and it’s a pretty big letdown – I won’t ruin it on the off-chance you find yourself with nothing to do one evening and decide to watch a safe British horror film, but let’s just say it’s someone we’ve spent the whole movie with already. Womaneater scores points with me for the audacity of its plot. I admit freely to never having considered that there was a film where George Coulouris feeds pasty English tarts to a giant plant to harvest its life giving toxin to bring the dead back to life. That’s something a lunatic thinks up. And if you take away the plant, you basically have the plot to John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies. We have a doctor creating zombies that roam the English countryside so they can terrorize a girl who’s man must come and save her from the evil underground laboratory. Plots didn’t really do a lot of diverging from what had (read: could) make money back then. Not that Plague of the Zombies isn’t a much scarier and altogether better film but it was made during an age of the tried and true, especially in British horror. None of the roguish New Wave spirit that produced Billy Liar, Tom Jones and If…. ever trickled down into genre films and let’s face it voodoo films only have so many tricks up their sleeve.

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