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Britain Under The Spell:
Representations of Voodoo in British Films and TV
by Paul Higson
The prominence of Robert Pratten's London Voodoo has resulted in the highest profile yet for a British film with a voodoo theme. In the film, an American couple, Lincoln and Sarah Mathers (Doug Cockle and Sara Stewart), living and working in the capital city, discover bones in the cellar. Possession and suspicion then take up the brunt of the story, through to a voodoo ritual exorcism climax. It makes good use of the pound sterling and displays skills that lay promise for the future, assuming Pratten is granted the opportunity to helm a second feature film. He has certainly earned a break. London Voodoo has collected for Pratten the Best Director prize at the Fearless Tales Film Festival in San Francisco, the Best Horror Film accolade at the New York Indie Film Festival, and the Jury Award for Best Film at the Boston International Film Festival. It arrives amidst a flurry of activity around the theme of voodoo, a new Helicopter Girl long-player titled Voodoo Chic is more than just a title, referencing Scottish lead singer, Jenny Joyce's Ghanaian heritage and continuing holistic spiritual practices. The East Sussex author Ross Heaven was this year served with a voodoo 'fatwa', issued by the Haitian priestess Mambo Racine, he having revealed secrets in his current (last?) read Vudou Shaman. They were also selling voodoo dolls to help England win the European Cup; that went well, so much for faith.
Voodoo made a guest appearance in many a Hollywood horror film, the moviegoers of the
1930s engendering a taste for the vine festooned deep jungles, be it through Tarzan
adventures, big-game hunters, Merian C. Cooper documentaries or the sleazy sideshow
films faking sub-African and West Indian nudity and rituals. Racist America and Britain
were a long way from giving black actors central roles and it was daring enough that
there did exist a black cinema in America (from the silent era there was the Douglas
Company and also the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the latter set up by the Johnson
brothers George and Noble) though they were keener to mimic established themes and
strands and even characters (a black Sherlock Holmes, circa 1918) or, when not that,
boldly emphasising black identity as it was contemporarily jubilantly reinvented taking
on important issues in the black community and daringly in abstract guise criticising
Griffith's recurrent and appalling racist themes. Black Americans had first to establish
themselves in American life before they could enter thoughts of African heritage, more
of a chance in remodelling and modification than any seemingly intractable reconstruction.
It was white Hollywood that would exploit the appeal of the untamed tropics as in the
torrid, exotic, erotic jungle gothic Kongo (1930), in which, a hot and bothered
Lupe Valez is mauled by a chimpanzee and stage magic is employed by the villains to succeed
the native magic.
When it came to British cinema, big themes were more rarely tackled and then with little accompanying high expectation, so obscure religions stood no chance of serious coverage and even popular religions were treated dismissively. Voodoo was never going to get much of a look in. Dull unfunny comedies like Windbag The Sailor (1934) might shipwreck the leads on an island with a witchdoctor but, as idiotic as the crew were, they could still pull a fast one over the backward natives. The first 'British' voodoo film seems not actually to be British. Recorded in David Quinlan's British Sound Films, George Terwillinger's Ouanga wouldn't have been included by so thorough a film historian if he did consider it to have some solid British provenance and yet most other reference points assuredly place the film as an American production. Made in 1934 it is set in the West Indies and is the story of a green-eyed native woman played by Fredi Washington who turns to voodoo to kill the white love interest (Marie Paxton) of her European lover (Philip Brandon). A couple of the supporting players are British born but the stars are American and the original production company was Paramount. Terwillinger had wanted to film in Haiti using actual voodoo practitioners and local dancers, but a succession of weird incidents drove them to relocate to Jamaica where several crew and cast continued to believe the production cursed, though the heat, storm and insects they tried to place as proof of it were clearly par for the course. That relocation put it into British Commonwealth territory and the film was subsequently prevented a general release in America by the nervous Paramount up against the hard-line adjudicating of the Hays Office, the new and evidently terse censorship board. As a result the film was released first abroad and, one presumes, initially in England. The conventionally given running time is 56 minutes whereas the British release is longer at 68 minutes, so it is possible that the given 'production company' in the UK, GT Films, shot additional material or inserted stock footage, making it their co-own. It would appear that Ouanga is British by proxy. Advertised as the "Strange Loves of Queer People" it was eventually released in America as Curse Of The Voodoo and Crime Of Voodoo.
It would be the 1960s and the wave of economic migrants from the West Indies before the voodoo theme would resurface in the UK horror film. Though there was always British television. White Hunter ran for 39 episodes over 1957-8 in black and white instalments of 30 minutes each. The series starred Rhodes Reason (an unfortunate, unbelievable and mock apologetic name for Africa if ever I heard one) as the occupationally eponymous John A. Hunter and Harry Baird as the assistant Atimbu. They told the adventures of a big game hunter, shot in the UK at the Twickenham/Beaconsfield studios peppering the films with stock footage of African scenery and wildlife. A conventional action series it did well to get to episode 35 before succumbing to the voodoo matter in Voodoo Wedding. The actual episode possibly mislaid we will go by one of two synopses for the episode out there: "In Kenya, where she was born and reared, Sally Reynolds (Gene Anderson) has been exposed to witchcraft. When she was 10 years old, she and a neighbour's boy were married in a voodoo ceremony. Now Sally is planning to become engaged to a white hunter, but her servant Napi (Harry Quarshie) tells her that terrible things will happen if she does." In a second synopsis she is reportedly placed in a trance. As an otherwise down-to-earth series it could well have finished with a logical explanation, though with directors and writers like Maclean Rogers, Max Varnel, Maurice Elvey, Ian Stuart Black and Brian Clemens working on episodes it may not and a supernatural conclusion left in. The director on Voodoo Wedding however was Ernest Morris (who directed 18 episodes of the series in all) and the writer was frequent American contributor Lee Loeb. Guest stars in the episode were class acts Edward Judd and Robert Shaw while in a small role could be seen Susan Travers. Screening first in the US, it was aired by Granada on 15 October 1958.
British television would in 1959 bravely couple voodoo with sci-fi for the six-part series, The Voodoo Factor, produced, and therefore directed, by Quentin Lawrence, in which a killer epidemic that may or may not have begun in the Rimor Islands is investigated as either the curse of the Spider Goddess incarnate (Anna May Wong, amazingly still cast as 'a girl' at 50) or contamination from an A-bomb test. Transmission began on 12 December, an odd Christmas present from Anglia Television that ran to 16 January. The other stars in the brew were Maurice Kaufman, Maxine Audley and Reginald Marsh, while Jill Ireland could be found to take a small role.
The second Gordon production was Naked Evil (1966), directly by Stanley Goulder, who had also made The Silent Playground. Based on the play The Obi by John Manchip White, it brought the action to England with the cursing of a student hostel manager by a Jamaican Obi-Man. It takes place in the Midland town of Middlehampton, which has "a large West Indian population and is beset by a warfare between rival gangs." A number of mysterious deaths occur - unconnected apparently, except for the presence of an 'Obi' ("a Jamaican death charm consisting of an old bottle filled with dirt from a grave and [dressed with] cockerel feathers" - quote from the Modern Sound Pictures, Inc press sheet to support its US 16mm distribution). Graves are desecrated in a churchyard close to a hostel reserved for the local University's Commonwealth students. One of the West Indian students, Danny (George A. Saunders) is earning money by delivering the Obi charms for the elderly black caretaker, Amazon (Brylo Ford). When Amazon is found dead having apparently committed suicide it is the hostel warden's assistant, Dick (the late Anthony Ainsley) who shows signs of possession by an evil spirit and black magic rituals are required to exorcise him. Without seeing the film it would be unfair to accuse the film of playing on the contemporary British audience's fears of postwar economic migration from the Caribbean, though as television a decade later in Love Thy Neighbour and Rising Damp was to prove the old colonial racialism was ingrained at all levels of society, and it may have proved a factor in the unspoken side of the promotional push. The original stars also included Basil Dignam, Olaf Pooley and Susanne Neve, while important supporting black roles were taken by Oscar James and Carmen Munroe, both of whom would later become popular TV favourites, and Yemi Ajibade (still acting, more recently in Dirty Pretty Things). James began in the RSC, supplementing his living as a recording artist and would return to the genre in Richard Stanley's Hardware. Advertising at one stage claimed that the movie had been shot in 'Multi-Color', suggesting that there is a third version, possibly colour-tinted with ritual sequences one colour and talk sequences another, for a time a few years after the making when black and white movies were virtually impossible to find distribution for. I have been instructed not to make such an assumption but will risk it until conclusive evidence either way emerges. It was in 1978 when the film was distributed properly in America by Independent International, to which the distributors had added new sequences with American players led by Lawrence Tierney and Robert Allen, and re-titled Exorcism At Midnight. This version is generally seen as desecration. Richard Gordon would have his mild revenge by picking up the entire Independent International catalogue for himself in 1992, reclaiming his film for the American market. The original Gordon films were available on tape in the UK in the early 1980s through Kingston Video Distributors.
Cyril Frankel's The Witches (1966) opens in darkest Africa with a Christian schoolhouse for the local children outstaying it's welcome, the schoolmistress (Joan Fontaine) terrified by a knife-come-fetish doll and a native wearing a body-length mask. Recovering from the ordeal in England she takes up a teaching position in a quaint village. Evil pervades the village in the form of coven but some of their practices reflect the African magical practices, particularly the damaged and stuck dollies.
Freddie Francis would return to the voodoo theme in an episode of The Champions entitled Shadow Of The Panther and aired in early 1969. The plot takes place in Haiti where a Nemesis scientist has died, apparently of fright, and the voodoo pointers and villainous Prengo (Zia Mohyeddin) race in. Francis brought Dr Terror's House Of Horrors star Donald Sutherland along for the ride.
A voodoo curse was invoked in Gordon Hessler's 1969 AIP gothic horror The Oblong Box, causing so severe a disfiguring of Sir Edward Markham that he has to be tucked away in the attic of the family mansion. In the clichéd ritual sequences we see a witchdoctor played by Danny Daniels, an actor previously seen in The Curse Of Simba. It has been a well-received film, too infrequently seen on British television in particular. It is overly discussed as the film Michael Reeves would next have made, Hessler originally shipped back into England as the producer and taking over directorial duties when Reeves committed suicide.
The British Horror Films website 'Timeline' includes The Possession Of Joel Delaney, the 1972 film directed by the vibrant, young and intelligent Waris Hussein. It was a particularly impressive period for Hussein who was clearly drawn back to New York following his recent stint on Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx. Hussein's approach to horror is to fill it with genuine, slightly bored characters that are realistically unprepared for what they are up against. When Robert Pratten told me that London Voodoo had been compared to this film, I initially shook my head but, of course, but for the location, the comparisons are clear. Shirley Maclaine is Norah Benson with concerns for her brother Joel Delaney (Perry Lang) who is suffering blackouts and is suspected of being a serial killer called The Chopper, tagged so as a remover of heads. Norah's investigations take her into the Puerto Rican voodoo set in search of a witness named Tonio Perez, who she is to discover is dead, his body dumped in the East River. Joel is the victim of "demoniacal somnambulism," and Tonio, the original killer, is in possession of the man occupying his old flat in order to continue his killing spree post mortem. Intense voodoo rituals and a final disturbing siege at the beach house on Fire Island still continue to add frissons to this superb thriller that is deeply evocative of the 1970s' American cinema to come, raw and real. And there is the rub. It may be an ITC production (interestingly, there is no actual producer credit on the film, only the production company) and a number of the crew are guaranteed to be British but it is hardly a British film in feel and play.
Famously the James Bond series came to Live And Let Die in 1973 under the direction of series veteran Guy Hamilton. It is a memorably wild and comic tale in which Bond's investigation connects Harlem's Mister Big to New Orleans' Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). They are indeed one and the same, and colourful voodoo tied sidekicks Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and Tee Hee (Julius Harris) enliven it to the hilt. It is a long overdue debut for Baron Samedi and key traits of this lwa (spirit) are exactingly incorporated into the plot, from his traditional black and purple, his fondness for black goats and hens and an acting role as 'spirit' of the dead to a preference for cemeteries and generally macabre and obscene gestures and behaviour. It set a new benchmark for the Bond series in wildly exotic highs and made a household name of one of the voodoo practices' leading spirits.
The fifth transmitted episode of the popular series The Hammer House Of Horror was Charlie Boy, aired on 18 October 1980. In the episode, Leigh Lawson inherits an African fetish doll that he and his girlfriend (Angela Bruce) dub Charlie Boy and, when scammed, he curses the person concerned while studying a photograph. The doll is embedded with spikes and death on the sharp end of something is how the victims bow out. I say victims because the curse falls not only on the conman but also upon each person posing with him in the photograph and that line-up includes the couple. It is a brisk horror ride directed by Robert Young from a script by Bernie Cooper and Francis Megahy and was particularly exciting to this young horror fan in its day. The ending is a superbly ironic twist as Leigh Lawson falls onto the fetish idol with the protruding nails embedding in his chest.
It was another ten years when, on 2 February 1991, television's She Wolf Of London reached its 13th episode, inevitably accepting the theme in Voodoo Child, an episode directed by Roger Chevely. The series was inept, adolescent nonsense bar no week. In this story a new student causes trouble for the Professor and Randy with the assistance of voodoo practices. You can write the rest yourself and very possibly improve on it.
In 1994 appeared New Voices, an opportunity for new writers and directors to produce original short drama. Bad Voodoo would be better translated as 'bad karma', as an estate agent Ian McDermott (Matt Bardock) who has struck a deal on properties with a gangster played by Ian Dury. McDermott doesn't think twice about swindling the vulnerable over the value of their house. As one deal in Didsbury is about to be struck, two women, one a strange sexually aggressive younger woman (Emer Gillespie), the other her cackling older companion (Liz Smith), intrude on the transaction. His conscience incarnate or are they something else entirely? It is never made clear and is more interesting for that. The short film was directed by Paul Marcus for Granada TV in Association with Yorkshire TV, Tyne Tees TV and Northwest Arts Board.
For Christmas 1994 Leda Serene Productions under the commissioning power of the BBC and the BFI made four short films of 20 minutes each under the banner 'Siren Spirits', one of which was White Men Are Cracking Up. Jon Finch is the detective chasing what others might suggest is "a figment of his burnt out imagination" a black enchantress called Maisie Blue, her true name is unpronounceable, played by the quite rightly stunning and quote "glorious" Theo Omambala. She presents herself to and dances for white middle aged men of standing, lonely lost men, who magically learn understand that they can never have her, thus deciding to take their own life. She simply feels nothing for them, it is a scary notion, and understandably awful, to hate or hold disdain would be an emotion, but to feel nothing for those falling in love with her nothing could be more terrible. Directed by Ngozi Onwurah, it is hugely better than Welcome II The Terrordome, the science fiction film she made around the same time. It no doubt helped that Bonnie Greer was the scriptwriter on White Men Are Cracking Up, though I am certain she would be appalled to see her work included in this thread.
On the 14 June 2000, episode five of Urban Gothic was aired on Channel 5. Deptford Voodoo as a title seemed to have some local impact and has even surfaced as the heading on a local newspaper article on a completely unrelated topic (not even voodoo itself but voodoo inferring magic and result). In the episode a social worker played by Sean Francis looks into the activities of an elderly woman on the estate named Madame Edie and so becomes a participant in voodoo rituals. The largely impossible series kept the episode clean but there was nothing original in it.
Documentaries covering obscure and extreme nooks in world behaviour are of particular draw today in the UK with Channel Four's bold stabs and the appearance of Channel 5 forcing the other channels' hands. When it comes to documentary filmmaking the BBC takes the far off and instructs something sensible but BBC documentary filmmaking has always been confessedly a touch manipulative. In 2000 the BBC screened Benedict Allen's The Last Of The Medicine Men, in which the anthropologist at one point visited Haiti in his investigation into the spiritual healers in established lore and communities globally. In one series episode he accompanied a New York drummer by the name of Frisner Augustin on a pilgrimage to Haiti for the 16 July Feast of Saut-d'Eau, consecrated to the lwa Ezili whereupon Allen experiences possession. Later he visits a manbo (a voodoo priestess), Edele Joseph, observes her possessed by Gédé, the spirit of the dead then travels with her to the Festival of Ogou Feray. Next stop is Altesse Paul a notorious houdan who conducts sacrificial ceremonies in hidden chambers and is experienced in the zombification of others. Altesse Paul admits to being an "evildoer" who has struck a bargain with Satan and offers to conduct a ceremony for the documentarian during which he will produce fires and voices from hell.
In a separate documentary made in 2002 titled Interview With A Zombie, as part of the To The Ends Of The Earth series, the psychologist and anthropologist Roland Littlewood took cameras to Haiti and questioned Wilfred, a man who made legal history in that country by becoming officially recorded as a zombie. It is a documentary that stretches the story out without enough supporting interest. The documentary avalanche of the new millennium was bound to include more on the subject.
And so to Richard Stanley, who has not been inactive of recent, chiefly occupying himself with documentaries one of which was White Darkness completed in 2002 and struggling for a release. There are polls on the Internet to evaluate interest in the title though the running time differs from 82 minutes down to the more likely 49. Richard declares that it is time he followed in the footsteps of his ancestor, Henry Morton Stanley, by god, and takes himself off to a dangerous tropical zone following a pregnant Manbo priestess. The film is not to be confused with the earlier American fiction feature film of the same title. One of the main problems the film has is that, in being a Haitian adventure, it is French language, which is the reason it is going down a storm currently with French and Canadian festival audiences.
2002 saw the shoot of London Voodoo and the first cut of the film was given a preview screening in the capitol at the Curzon Cinema on 13 September 2003, where a number of those turning up complained of the over-lengthiness and the talky office scenes. The screening served its purpose and Pratten went back into the editing suite. In the meantime early 2004 saw a new supernatural drama series on BBC-1 titled Sea Of Souls, three two-part dramas culminating in two hours of television each. Dark twists did not save the day on the first two adventures, the third, transmitted on 16 and 17 February, carried a voodoo theme and enough action and twists to hold the attention until, again, a far from positive conclusion. A young black woman, Yemi (Rakie Ayola) is concerned when her brother goes missing and the team of investigators led by Bill Patterson and Archie Panjabi are drawn into a story that centres around Yemi's dying father, Chris (Louis Mahoney). Chris is the figurehead of a chiefly Caucasian voodoo cult and they hope to transmigrate him through ritual into the body of one of his children. It was a near barnstormer that showed promise in the future of this series, if only the audience returned after the disappointing first two investigations.
The completion of Pratten's London Voodoo brings us up to date, and those who have seen Naked Evil and The Possession Of Joel Delaney in the film have been acute in their assessment. The budget, bearing in mind this was shot on film, has densely contained the themes out of necessity. It is a successful first film though it is not only up against the two named past films but other voodoo and/or possession themed films from abroad, though most are of distant memory and if it can supersede the recent British TV outings then it is on its own out there currently as a British voodoo feature film and should be able to sell itself on that angle, that is, if the film has the overall drive to win over the distributors and critics. With Wanton Muse in pre-production on the New Orleans set voodoo thriller Bethlehem Gate, there is still fervent interest and British filmmakers keen to connect, and shouldn't that be ever so likely in Britain's increasingly and promisingly multicultural society.
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