Thursday, June 5, 2014

Film: Drums of Terror - Voodoo In The Cinema

Drums of Terror - Voodoo In The Cinema (Bryan Senn, Midnight Marquee Press, 1998)
Another top notch, entertaining and interesting publication from Midnight Marquee Press, who, after untold years of producing one of the all time best film publications — luckily for people like you and me — went into the production of decidedly interesting film books as well. In terms of research and writing style, Midnight Marquee Press publications usually tend to be miles above and beyond the typical Citadel Press publication, using a vocabulary and sentence structure that reveals that the authors might actually read books themselves. Regrettably, the cover prices are just as prohibitive as those of Citadel (at least for stingy book addicts like me).
Trailer to I Walk with a Zombie (1943):
Bryan Senn's Drums of Terror is no exception, complete with a cover price that takes at least 3 hours of minimum wages to earn and a literary quality that indicates a likely college education on part of the author. Senn's starting point in his study of Voodoo films is that although Voodoo gets a lot of bad press, it is actually a serious monotheist religion similar in structure to Christianity, "a legitimate religion born of genuine spirituality," which, because it is foreign and strange to the "civilised" western world, has an undeservedly bad rap and is seen by most (uninformed) people to be almost a form of demonic worship. Thus, most movies in which Voodoo is featured "take the form of a funhouse mirror," distorting the facts into something completely unrealistic, bizarre, horrific. Senn then proceeds to present and dissect 39 films in depth, ranging from the Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie (1932) to Val Newton's I Walked With A Zombie (1943) to Hammer's The Plague of the Zombies (1966) to the Blackpliotation classic Sugar Hill (1974) to Mickey Rourke's (for a long time) last good mainstream Hollywood film, Angel Heart (1987), discussing both the seriousness and truthfulness of the perspective film's presentation and use of the religion and how the film is or isn't successful in filmic terms. In addition to these essays, the book also includes two appendixes, one entitled Pseudo-Voodoo and the other Boob Toob Hoodoo, full of (not too short) short dissections of numerous other films not deemed as rating the Big Chapter Treatment.
Trailer to Sugar Hill (1974):
Needless to say, few films cut the mustard when it comes to the seriousness of their presentation of the religion. Many of the films relocate the religion to various nether regions of the world, or seem to mix in indiscriminate aspects of other unrelated religions and myths with Voodoo into one bubbling pot, or have the religion being headed (secretly and not) by some white person. Little can be said to refute Senn’s well researched and persuasive stance that "realism" in Voodoo films is pure doodoo.
Trailer to Angel Heart (1987):

In turn, when it comes to how the films succeed on a simply cinematic level, Senn comes across like everyone’s most feared high-school English teacher: a hard grader who tends to tread softly with his darlings. Still, his respect for the classics doesn't prevent him from pointing out the flaws of such classics as I Walked with a Zombie, and unlike most high-school English teachers, he admits that there are some forgotten treasures out there also worthy of respect, renown or at least a revised appreciation, such as The Vampire’s Ghost (1945) or Naked Evil (1966). But if Senn were only a tad less pedantic and had more of an understanding and recognition of the concept of "the guilty pleasure," he would probably be able to appreciate more of the films he denigrates — Zombies On Broadway (1945), for example, is far more enjoyable than he ever lets on, as is the laughable Voodoo Island (1957), even if they get a Double F Minus when it comes to how they represent the religion. (Going by some of the reproduced scene photos, there might be a lot of other unacknowledged guilty pleasures amongst those films Senn so seriously pans.)
Trailer to Voodoo Island (1957):
Senn's essays in Drums of Terror are always readable and informative, as entertaining as they are interesting and insightful. That the reader won't always agree with him is a give fact known in advance, but at least Senn presents his well informed arguments logically and understandably. He stands strongest when he concentrates on the Voodoo aspect, ably seeing and showing where and when the film goes far off into fantasy instead of any semblance of reality in regards to Voodoo as a religion. His other arguments sometimes seem to rely a bit too much on simple personal opinion — but then, that is what all critics do.
Trailer to The Plague of the Zombies (1966):

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