Saturday July 6, 1974: Calling Doctor Death (1943) / Curse of the Voodoo (1965)

Synopsis: Dr. Mark Steele (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a neurologist who uses hypnotism to cure clients of their deepest psychological traumas. In the opening scene, we see Dr. Steele cure a young woman who has been mute since a recent car crash. The girl’s parents are amazed that Steele can identify the psychological root of the problem so quickly. Steele finds his work deeply satisfying; he is a wealthy and respected man, and clearly the top practitioner in his field.

Yet for all his success on the job, Steele is miserable at home. His wife Maria (Ramsay Ames) makes no attempt to hide the fact that she is cheating on him: he confronts her after she returns home at 3 am, only to have her laugh in his face. She tells him that she enjoys the money and prestige that comes with being a famous doctor’s wife, and for this reason will never consent to a divorce.

Adding to Dr. Steele’s unhappiness is the fact that he is in love with his devoted assistant, Stella (Patricia Morison). He has kept his passion for her a secret, but the next day, Steele can’t help himself. He gives Stella the old “let’s stop pretending” speech, and though she indicates that she feels the same way, the fact that he is married makes any relationship between them impossible.

Arriving home on Friday evening, Steele finds that his wife is gone, having told the servants that she will be away for the entire weekend.

For Steele, this is the last straw. He gets into his car and drives around, trying to find her. He awakens in his office on Monday morning, with no recollection of what transpired in the intervening time.

When Stella arrives she commiserates with him and he begins to feel better, but soon word reaches Dr. Steele that his wife has been brutally murdered.

His wife’s lover, Bob Duval (David Bruce), is charged with the crime and eventually sentenced to die in the electric chair. But police detective Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) is convinced that Steele is the real culprit. And when Steele finds a button from his own suit coat at the murder scene, he realizes that the detective must be right….

Comments: Ever have one of those Friday afternoons where you hear some upsetting news, so you get in your car and drive around, and you hear your evil wife laughing at you and see a blurry montage of dark streets and stoplights shifting around on the road ahead, and you wake up on Monday morning at your office, with no recollection of how you got there or what happened during the last couple of days?

For me, that’s just a typical weekend. But it’s a first-time occurrence for Lon Chaney, Jr. in Calling Doctor Death.

Chaney’s Dr. Steele is very similar to Alex Gregor, the morose mentalist he played in another Inner Sanctum meller, The Frozen Ghost. And in many ways the movies themselves are quite similar: in both films he is involved with beautiful women much younger than himself. In both films everyone — including the protagonist — is convinced that he must have committed a brutal murder during a blackout.

And unfortunately, both films end up feeling padded with redundant scenes, in spite of their brief running times.

Thus we have Inspector Gregg wandering in repeatedly to remind Steele that his guilty conscience is going to betray him — yes, it will — any time now! The guy does everything but quote Dostoyevsky at him (Gregg even appears in Steele’s home, presumably without a warrant, though of course this was 1943).

Improbably, Steele is able to conduct his own search of the crime scene and even finds a missing button from his own suit jacket — suggesting that the police forensics experts are such bunglers they could miss the most obvious clues.

But the biggest plot hole is Steele’s conveniently-timed blackout. It makes no sense, since he hadn’t been drinking, didn’t suffer any trauma, and had no history of such episodes. The screenwriters might have been better off revealing that Steele is suffering from a post-hypnotic suggestion to block the weekend’s events, which would have been a clever way to lead us to the real culprit in the third act.

J. Carrol Naish seems to be enjoying himself here, channeling Edward G. Robinson as he chews the flavor out of every last line. Patricia Morison, alas, doesn’t get much of a chance to prove her acting chops, though pretending to be in love with Lon Chaney, Jr. must have been a stretch. Chaney himself has a part specifically tailored to his narrow acting range, and he carries the movie effortlessly.

Overall, Calling Doctor Death is the kind of mystery that would have been right at home as an episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents program. That show’s 30-minute format would have tightened up the pace considerably. As it was, the Inner Sanctum Mysteries were really proto-television shows, their 65-minute running time the absolute minimum for theatrical release.

And like television programs, these mysteries were somewhat ephemeral. They were forgotten by the cast and crew almost as quickly as they were made, and presumably forgotten by the audience almost as quickly as they were seen. Just as you, gentle reader, will forget this post almost as quickly as you have read it.

No hypnotism required.

Curse of the Voodoo

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Synopsis: Mike Stacey (Bryant Haliday) is a guide to big-game hunters in Africa. During a safari one of the hunters in his party shoots a lion but doesn’t kill it cleanly, so that it crawls away into the territory of the feared Simbaza tribe. Knowing that the animal needs to be dispatched, Stacey prepares to enter Simbaza territory to kill the animal himself. He is warned against this action by native guide Saidi (Dennis Alba Peters), who says that the Simbaza worship the lion as a god. Stacey ignores him and kills the animal anyway.

As the hunters are breaking camp they are visited by Simbaza warriors, one of whom approaches Stacey and hurls a spear into the ground at his feet. At this, the Simbaza tribesman leave.

Upon returning to England, Stacey attempts a reconciliation with his wife Janet, but she is not sure it’s a good idea. At the same time, he is troubled by strange visions: dreams at night of Saidi being tortured by the Simbaza, and visions during the day of Simbaza tribesman following him and appearing at his door. Janet and Dr. Lomas (Dennis Price) believe he is suffering from stress, an injury he sustained in Africa and far too much alcohol in his system, but Stacey believes that what he is seeing is really happening to him.

Janet consults with an expert on African lore (Louis Mahoney) who tells her that the Simbaza have placed a curse upon Stacey that will eventually kill him, and the only way to reverse it is to travel to Africa and kill the one who placed it upon him….

cursevoodoo2

Comments: Richard Gordon was a British producer known for his output of low-budget horror and exploitation pictures, with a number of interesting titles over the years including Fiend Without a Face (1958), Devil Doll (1961) and Inseminoid (1981). Tonight’s movie had the colorful title Voodoo Blood Death in its native Britain, and was renamed Curse of the Voodoo when it was released in the States on a double-bill with last week’s feature Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.

The opening narration spouts a good deal of gibberish about “the country of Africa” and its dark secrets. It’s a taste of what we’re in for: a lot of stock footage and a lot of lazy screenwriting (Africa, it’s hardly necessary to point out, isn’t a country). Anyone who’s ever seen an old zombie movie knows that voodoo is a practice of the West Indies, particularly Haiti; it was never practiced on the African continent, at least in any form that would be of interest to horror movie producers.

But we start out in Africa anyway, a continent evoked with stock footage mixed with the English countryside. The film starts fairly well with these scenes, staking out the initial conflict with admirable economy.

Then the actions shifts to England, and everything slows down. The main problem with Curse of the Voodoo quickly becomes apparent: there’s a profound and debilitating lack of suspense. In England Stacey keeps seeing Simbaza tribesman and hearing the roar of lions and so forth, but we’re never particularly concerned for his well-being. This is partly because Stacey is an almost entirely unsympathetic character, but also because we quickly gather that what he’s experiencing are hallucinations — no one else can see or hear them, and it’s unlikely they will do him any harm. The idea of a big-game hunter returning to England and being followed back by the spirits he thought he left behind isn’t a bad one, but Curse of the Voodoo fails to achieve the Lewtonesque atmosphere it strives for, and in the end we’re just waiting around for the climax of the movie, which is itself somewhat anticlimactic.

The small cast does well enough. Bryant Haliday was a favorite of producer Richard Gordon and he appeared in Devil Doll and The Projected Man as well as this picture, and it’s likely that the part of Mike Stacey was written with him in mind. Haliday didn’t do a lot of film work but was active on the stage. He was also an avid collector and exhibitor of foreign films, and he went on to co-found Janus films, still an important arthouse distributor today.

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