Pam Grier’s Undervalued Career in Witchcraft & Voodoo

I often complain about how much of a shame it is that there are two Pam Grier In Space movies and they both suck. One of the all-time great personalities in genre filmmaking, Grier deserves so much better than the likes of the late career Eddie Murphy comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash and the nu metal era John Carpenter misfire Ghosts of Mars. If we’re only going to launch Grier’s visage into space twice in her career, she deserves a fate far more badass. It turns out, though, that her out-of-orbit sci-fi career isn’t even the most frustrating undercutting of her genre film potential. What’s even worse is the way Grier’s few performances as a witch or a Voodoo priestess have been deflated & underserved, when the idea of a Pam Grier Witchcraft picture should be instant B-movie gold. It’s not even that the movies where Grier dabbles in the art of magic are bad; they’re actually quite enjoyable. It’s that they don’t deliver the full power & glory that a Witchy Pam Grier should be able to command with ease.

My frustration with this witchy deficiency began with our current Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned 1983 Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the film, Pam Grier plays The Dust Witch, a mostly silent agent of dark magic who commands immense power & beauty, but isn’t given nearly enough to do as a character when compared to her overlord, Mr. Dark. Grier elevates every scene she’s in with just her mere presence. An image of her in a white veil overlayed with flying shards broken glass is just as intense & effecting as any of Mr. Dark’s fervent monologues. Still, it’s a shame that for an actor who had proven before in films like Foxy Brown & Coffy that she could hold down a picture on her own, there was no room in the film’s dialogue for her badass, attention-grabbing voice. I love the witchy image Grier strikes in Something Wicked; watching her collect souls of hapless male victims while adorned in gold paint & black lace is enough to get me excited for her performance. It’s just frustrating that she isn’t given much to do outside that physical presence. I would have readily traded all of the film’s other pleasures to watch a movie centered entirely on The Dust Witch instead.

It turns out that wasn’t the first or last time Grier’s career in magic would be undercut. The only other time the actor appeared in a straightforward horror picture, ten years before her appearance in Something Wicked, she was cast as a Voodoo priestess named Lisa Fortier. Scream Blacula Scream, the 1973 sequel to the popular blacksploitation horror Blacula, opens with Grier, as Lisa, preforming a Voodoo ritual on her recently deceased mentor. According to other characters in the film, “When it comes to Voodoo, Lisa has more Natural Powers than anyone in the past ten years.” It’s instantly believable. Lisa’s study of the “extremely complex science of Voodoo,” which she treats with the proper reverence as a religious faith, is unquestioned, making her the most obvious candidate to replace her local sect’s recently deceased high priestess. Unfortunately, one of her fellow practitioners wants to jump the line of succession and raises Mamuwalde (Blacula, for the laymen out there) from the dead to get her out of the picture. The plan backfires, obviously. Mamuwalde builds a new little vampire coven, inducting nearly everyone he meets into his mind slave army, everyone except Lisa. Recognizing her power & beauty, Blacula instead ropes Lisa into performing a ritual to cure him, a ceremony that’s broken up by the cops, who he promptly murders much to Lisa’s horror.

Scream Blacula Scream should be the perfect vehicle for delivery on a Pam Grier With Magical Powers premise, but somehow her Voodoo priestess practices are just as undercut here as they are in Something Wicked. As Lisa, Pam Grier commands a quiet strength & skepticism that perfectly matches the movie’s oddly quiet, somber tone. Outside a scene where she’s walking arm in arm with Blacula like a power couple and the final, interrupted Voodoo ritual to kill him (which looks like the standard dolls, candles, and chants image you’d expect), however, she isn’t given much to do in way of practicing her craft. This is Blacula’s film, after all. The best Lisa could do is wait for her climactic ceremony to test her skills, a scene that isn’t even allowed to fully play out.

A better-realized version of Pam Grier’s brief career as a Voodoo priestess would have had her waging a supernatural war against a foe like Blacula instead of meekly attempting to serve him from a victim’s position. There was a moment in the early 90s where that dream more or less came to life, but it unfortunately served a platform much less prestigious than a live action Disney horror or even a blacksploitation horror sequel. Grier appeared again as a Voodoo priestess in an episode of the syndicated horror anthology television series Monsters, a direct descendant of Tales from the Darkside. In the episode “Hostile Takeover” a business dick attempts to take the Reagan-coined term “Voodoo economics” literally, by employing Grier’s priestess to help him cheat his way to the top. Like all EC Comics/Tales from the Crypt descendants, this thirst for power obviously comes with a price and he’s ultimately punished at the hands of the demon Grier’s priestess worships. Here’s where Grier gets to really practice magic, having great fun with the power she visibly commands. She drinks a white businessman’s blood, forms a pact with an all-powerful demon, sends faxes from beyond the grave, hacks computer screens through the power of her Voodoo, etc. The only shame is that the product this witchy Pam Grier free for all serves is sadly short & embarrassingly cheap. Grier only appears in a couple scenes in this Monsters episode and although she looks badass smoking a cigar in the Party City Voodoo priestess costume they afford, even she can’t elevate the show’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level budget, it might just have been the Witchy Pam Grier project of my dreams.

Something Wicked, Scream Blacula Scream, and “Hostile Takeover” are all enjoyable genre fare. Even though her power is undercut in all three instances, watching Pam Grier practice witchcraft & Voodoo is a large part of their fun. It’s just frustrating in each case that her power wasn’t put to better & more prominent use. The good news is that Grier is still working. She seems to have mostly moved on from the genre film roles that defined her career in the 70s & 80s, mostly playing police detectives now, but she’s still out there. If there’s even a small chance that the magic potential Grier showed as The Dust Witch could be developed in a much better realized Witchy Grier project, I’m going to keep the hope alive. Her brief forays into witchcraft & Voodoo have created an itch I didn’t even know I had, but I’ve yet to find a movie that satisfactorily scratches it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the Ray Bradbury-penned Disney horror Something Wicked This Way Comes, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor The Watcher in the Woods (1980), and last week’s comparison to Bradbury’s other suburban horror feature adaptation, The Halloween Tree (1993).

-Brandon Ledet

Reptilicus (1962)

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three star

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It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish old school giant monster/kaiju movies from one another through any means besides the individual visual designs of their respective monsters. The original King Kong & Godzilla films have a distinct look & history to them, but a lot of the giant monster films that followed in their wake are a little more run of the mill. The 1962 picture Reptilicus, on the other hand, is significant as the first & only giant monster movie native to Denmark. Filmed in & around Copenhagen, Reptilicus has effortlessly earned a cult reputation among Danish-speaking audiences because of the novelty of its setting, which gives Tokyo a much-needed break from kaiju-driven destruction.

A crew of Danish miners are shocked to strike blood & functioning organs beneath the frozen tundra of their job site. Once in possession of the anomalous specimen, a group of scientists identify the mysterious genetic material as belonging to a prehistoric reptile they christen “Reptilicus”. They soon discover that as the organic material thaws it begins to regenerate, heal, and grow, eventually returning Reptilicus to its massive prehistoric form so it can terrorize downtown Copenhagen. The mayhem that ensues may not seem all that special in light of the 10,001 Godzilla movies & Power Rangers episodes flouting around out there, but it does have a really cool monster puppet at its center and the film is allowed to repeatedly destroy it with flamethrowers, tanks, and missiles thanks to its reptilian “regeneration” powers. Reptilicus was one fire-breathing, airborne attack away from being a great old school movie about a dragon, but as is it’s a pretty decent kaiju picture with a really cool context in its setting.

There aren’t too many other distinguishing characteristics to Reptilicus besides its Danish setting. Its love story is flat & uninteresting, as is its bumbling doofus comic relief. There’s exactly one sequence where the film is campy in a way that has nothing to do with its “prehistoric reptile” menace. While out on the town on a date, two sightseeing lovers intone inane chatter over Ed Wood/Europe in the Raw-style stock footage of Copenhagen. This sequence is gloriously capped off by a dinner-and-a-show rendition of the swanky tune “Tivoli Nights” in a Danish nightclub. As highly amusing as this moment is, it points to the very simple formula that makes Reptilicus special: giant monster + Denmark. The film’s gigantic reptile terror is great fun to look at, from its dragon-like head to its dumb little T-Rex arms hanging out comically low on its elongated body, but it’s doubtful that would be memorable enough to carry the movie on its own without Denmark as a backdrop.

Reptilicus is a moderately fun novelty solely due to its monster & its setting. Years ago, it would’ve been the exact kind of B-picture I’d rather watch through the snarky lens of MST3k, but I’m starting to prefer this kind of dinky, antiquated  entertainment without the emotionally-distancing sarcasm. It’s the perfect daytime, background noise monster flick, especially if you have any particular fondness for or personal connection to Copenhagen or Denmark at large.

-Brandon Ledet

Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)

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fourhalfstar

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If anyone tells you that you need something more than just a few cool monsters to make a great film, they’re spreading lies. Sure, over-the-top creature design works best when it’s paired with an intricate narrative structure, as is the case with John Carpenter’s immortal The Thing. It’s not a necessary combo, though. One of my favorite discoveries this past year, for instance, was the creature-laden Monster Brawl, which was essentially just famous monsters murdering each other in graveyard pro wrestling matches with little to no narrative embellishment. The monsters were impressive enough & the premise was silly enough for the movie to work on that bare bones formula. The sensation of watching Monster Brawl brought me back to the days of banging action figures together on the carpeted floor of my childhood home, imagining epic battles between fantastic monsters & superhuman muscle men.

That same childish exuberance for fantastic monsters is what won me over wholeheartedly in the late-60s Japanese film Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (aka The Great Yokai War). The second installment in a series of three Yokai Monsters movies released in just one year’s time (alongside One Hundred Monsters & Along With Ghosts), Spook Warfare was the most popular film of its trilogy, as it focused more on the personalities of the fantastic monsters at its core instead of the humans that live in their presence. For Japanese audiences, the film has a built-in historical context for each of its monsters, but for American audiences unfamiliar with the intricacies of Japanese folklore, the film’s oddball collection of “apparitions” read like psychedelic precursors to the work of such luminaries as Jim Henson and Sid & Marty Krofft. Where I see sentient umbrellas, (literally) two-faced women, and a ladies with snake-esque necks that stretch like Mr. Fantastic, native audiences see very specific legends from the jokingly-titled “Apparition Social Registry” with names like Kappa, Futakuchi-onna, and Kasa-obake.

I say “apparitions” instead of “creatures” because the “spooks” in The Great Yokai War are not quite monsters, but the ghosts of ancient monsters, which adds a whole other fascinating level of awesomeness to their peculiarity. To provide a conflict for these apparitions to combat, the film brings to life a “several thousand years old” monster from the ruins of Babylonia named Daimon. Daimon is a bird-like humanoid wizard prone to blowing himself up to kaiju proportions & possessing the minds of local magistrates in order to turn them into godless tyrants. Daimon is pretty bad-ass, but he stands no chance against the water-nymph bird-fish (who could pass for a bassist in the animatronic Chuck E Cheese band), his long-tongued umbrella, and the ghosts of a hundred of their closest friends. Besides the general disruption of peace & order the ghost monsters are insistent on putting a stop to Daimon’s evil deeds post haste because “Shame will be brought upon Japanese apparitions” if they don’t.

Perhaps the strangest detail about the ghost monsters in Spook Warfare is just how kid-friendly they look. I didn’t use the comparison to the soon-to-follow work of Jim Henson and Sid & Marty Krofft lightly. Many of the creature designs are just aching for plushie doll or action figure merchandise, a sensation backed up by the film’s broad physical comedy & the fact that they befriend children in the film. What’s strange about this is that so much of the film would be a nightmare for certain young audiences. Ghosts take shape from magical, colored mists in spooky swamps. Buckets of giallo-crimson stage blood is spilled in the film’s many brawls. Adult language like “damn”, “bastard”, and “hell” are liberally peppered throughout the script. This is all jarring at first, but when I think back to staging action figure battles on the living room carpet, that sort of violent crassness actually makes total sense. Children can often be goofy & violent in the same breath, so then it’s really no surprise that Spook Wars was somewhat of a cultural hit upon its initial release. Even as an (admittedly goofy) adult, the mere sight of the film’s gang of monsters was enough to win me over as a fan, effectively bringing out my inner child enough to sidestep any concerns with plot or general purpose. Sometimes monsters brawling really can alone be enough to make a great film & Spook Warfare stands as a prime example of that maxim.

-Brandon Ledet