Archive for August 22, 2012

Hot Voodoo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by dcairns

Now, if that title isn’t an open invitation for David Ehrenstein to post a clip from BLONDE VENUS in the comments section, I don’t know what is.

The scene is the West Indies. OUANGA, or THE LOVE WANGA is a 1936 “race film” — a lot more sophisticated, filmically and philosophically, than SON OF INGAGI. My ex-VHS copy of it is so bad it’s hard to tell how good some scenes may be, lost as they are amid hissing murk, but some moments are very good indeed. Long stretches obviously aren’t, though.

The main attraction is the remarkable Fredi Washington, star of the original IMITATION OF LIFE, which is less progressive than the Sirk in many ways, but they did cast a genuine light-skinned black woman, not a Mexican/Jewish girl. Washington was so pale-skinned she would sometimes be “blacked up” for the cameras, but she declined to “pass” and play white roles, thereby limiting her career but preserving her integrity.

She’s alluring and domineering as mixed-race plantation owner Klili Gordon, ex-lover of a white guy from the neighbouring plant. When he ditches her for an insipid blonde, Klili turns to voodoo for vengeance, casting hexes and raising a couple of zombie abductors, whom she commands with a whip. (The idea of zombies as the next stage down the racial-social ladder, the slave class of the slave class, is intriguing.)

On the one hand, this is a horror film about miscegenation in which miscegenation IS the horror. One the other hand, the story is structured so that Klili knows more about what’s going on than anyone else — she becomes the audience’s eyes and ears and therefore our substitute. It’s impossible not to root for her evil schemes to succeed, especially as nobody else in the film is particularly intelligent, attractive or interesting. The closest is the (supposedly) mixed-race guy who loves Klili and sets out to thwart her plans…

This is the only talkie made by George Terwilliger, whose career began in 1912, and seems to include some other racially-themed tales. He hadn’t directed in ten years, gets pretty bad work out of his actors, but delivers consistently interesting visuals. (Washington is very watchable, but in IMITATION OF LIFE you see how good and honest she can be, compared to her hoaky melodrama here. Still, she’s the bright spot.) Melting mists of multi-layered lap dissolves, expressionistic floor-level lighting, striking graphic compositions, and yet the dialogue scenes  are left to lie where they’ve fallen.

I guess Terwilliger packed it all in to pursue his dream of building a very long piano.

Some striking shots — acres of darkness, with night scenes apparently played against black cloth — comedy relief negritude that’s slightly less disturbing than usual, but only slightly — at it’s best, though, this evokes the stilted, oneiric crackle of WHITE ZOMBIE. We just need a better copy of it to be sure.