Drums O’Voodoo (Louisiana, She Devil) (1934)
There’s an understandable enthusiasm for rediscovering the works of African-American filmmakers – who had a separate-and-in-no-way-equal film industry throughout the great days of Hollywood. A problem is that it’s hard to distinguish between films made on minimal resources from films made by people with no idea how to make films – the results are often ramshackle, and not infrequently dull, before we even get to assessing what’s being said and what’s going on.
In this case, such woes are compounded by the fact that all that survives is a 48 minute version of a 70 minute film, which is in a terribly choppy state anyway. I suspect some key cuts weren’t made for length but more or less by accident or print damage. We never find out why the godly reverend killed someone and got put on a chain gang for four years. The general tone of the film suggests he’ll have had a good reason (probably self-defence or protecting someone) but it won’t be, say, being framed by a racist white Sheriff since one way race movies got by was barely to mention white people (there’s an ‘even white folks’ line or two) and concentrate entirely on conflicts withing an All-African-American separate world. There’s also business with a voodoo prophecy that stands in the way of young love – it’s foreseen that the heroine will die in childbirth like her mother if she marries – which no screenwriter would have left without a resolution, but in this version the loose end flaps.
A small Louisiana town has three influential figures – Elder Amos Berry (Gus Smith, who also scripted, adapting his own play), that godly man with a secret (he loses more sympathy by not ‘fessing up and making a sermon about redemption) … Thomas Catt (Morris McKenny), the razor-wielding, strutting pimp who runs the local jook … and Auntie Hagar (Laura Bowman), a voodoo priestess who repeatedly chants ‘beat dem drums’ and turns out in a (unintentionally?) subversive touch to be more effective in standing up to Catt – who has wicked designs on the preacher’s niece Myrtle (Edna Barr) – than any of the windy, argumentative Christians who stop the film stone dead in the lengthy church scenes. Voodoo strikes the sinner blind and he stumbles out of church. There’s a hint that voodoo and Christianity together are a positive influence in the community – though, now, it’s hard not to feel that at the jook there’s at least better music and people seem to be enjoying themselves.
No one gives anything like a good performance, and Bowman is especially terrible … but McKenny’s villain is suitably hateful, even moreso in the #metoo era as he won’t take no for an answer while pestering Myrtle in the film’s most unsettlingly creepy sequence. Director Arthur Hoerl, a white guy, had scripted The Drums of Jeopardy (did he want to specialise in drum movies?) and went on to a long career in Bs and serials but directed only four films of which this was the last. Smith, clearly the auteur of this, had been in the earlier voodoo movie Chloe, Love is Calling You and appeared in a few other films (often playing a preacher) – he was also a songwriter, so he might have had roots in the jook as well as the church. The voodoo drummers wear white masks that look (strangely) like modified Klan hoods … but also slightly resemble the headpiece worn by the voodoo-using villain in Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies.
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