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

Ray Bradbury’s Return to Tormenting Suburban Children in The Halloween Tree (1993)

There’s something instantly familiar about the spooky, vintage Midwest suburbs of the Ray Bradbury-penned feature Something Wicked This Way Comes, our current Movie of the Month. Even watching the film for the first time in my 30s, I felt as if it had already been in my life forever, despite my familiarity with Bradbury’s work typically falling solidly under sci-fi, not horror. The spooky bygone suburbs of the film felt very much akin to horror movies I had grown up with as a kid, titles like Jumanji & The Monster Squads, a setting that’s been evoked & praised in so many Ebert reviews I don’t even know where to start citing them. Apparently, it’s a setting Bradbury had mentally returned to often himself, a spacial & temporal locale he had framed many of his children-targeted short stories & novels in, despite only one being adapted to a major motion picture release. Something Wicked This Way Comes does have some Bradbury-penned company in its nature as a feature length adaptation, though, just not anything with the financial backing of a live action Walt Disney production. Instead, its closest spiritual relative in nostalgic suburb horror would be a made-for-TV animated feature, a much cheaper mode of entertainment all around.

The Halloween Tree looks like an animated recreation of Something Wicked This Way Comes’s exact tone & setting, though it feels slightly behind that work in every way. Its fantasy novel source material was written in 1972, ten years behind Something Wicked’s 1962 publication date. It was produced as a late Hanna-Barbera animation, while Something Wicked was working with Disney dollars, which go a long way. Even in its central themes, which more or less amount to a history lesson on The True Meaning of Halloween, it pales in comparison to the much more complex subject matter of its predecessor, which explores intangible subjects like fear & desire. It’s difficult, then, to think of The Halloween Tree as anything but a minor work by comparison, but that doesn’t mean it’s charmless or worth excluding from the Something Wicked legacy. Bradbury himself was at least invested in the work’s value, providing a storybook-style narration for its framing device. The hand-drawn animation is much more complex than most Hanna-Barbera productions are afforded. Speaking from a personal standpoint, I’d also say it was nice to see a plot structure usually reserved for The True Meaning of Christmas applied to a holiday I actually give a shit about. The Halloween Tree feels somewhat like a scrappy echo of Something Wicked (which was something of a bomb itself), but it’s got enough of its own charm & personality to justify its existence outside that superior work’s shadow.

The spooky Midwest suburb setting The Halloween Tree shares with Something Wicked really only serves as a framing device. A group of kids preparing to trick ‘r treat on Halloween night see their sick friend’s ghost running through the woods just outside their suburb. Following his specter, they bump into a creepy old ghoul (voiced by an unrecognizable Leonard Nimoy) who seems to be threatening to claim the boy’s soul as he succumbs to appendicitis complications. In the process of bartering for their sick friend’s existence, the children are mocked for not understanding the meaning behind their various Halloween costumes: a mummy, a witch, a skeleton, etc. Chiding them, “All dressed up for Halloween and you don’t know why,” the old ghoul takes them on a temporal road trip through historical Halloween-type cultural traditions that relate to their costumes. Vignettes touching on Egyptian mummification, Stonehenge, witch trials, Día de Muertos, and so on provide meaning to the children’s various costume choices as they inch closer to saving their friend’s life through bleeding heart negotiation tactics. Much like with Something Wicked, the resolution to the threat of death is much more saccharine than the stakes appear during the conflict but the film could still potentially haunt an audience who catches it at a young enough age. The two movies’ real connection, though, is the way Bradbury makes a small crew of suburban scamps feel as if they’re the only kids in the world, saddling them with the responsibility of waging a metaphysical Good Vs. Evil battle.

To be honest, if I weren’t watching this film on Alli’s recommendation during our Movie of the Month conversation or I wasn’t aware of Bradbury’s involvement, I’m not sure The Halloween Tree would have immediately reminded me of Something Wicked This Way Comes. My mind likely would have gone more readily to Over the Garden Wall, a recent animated story that shares The Halloween Tree’s religious reverence for Jack-o-Lanterns & Halloween costuming. The similarities shared with Something Wicked are not at all difficult to reach for, however. By the time the gang of suburban tykes reach an abandoned circus where the attractions are haunted by an evil magic, Bradbury’s wicked fingerprints are detectable all over it. The most immediately noticeable difference in this version of his aesthetic is that one of the kids is a girl, which feels out of line with Something Wicked’s distinctive boyhood POV. That detail was apparently added in its adaptation from book to screen, a smart choice that helps broaden its appeal. For anyone looking to introduce children to horror as a genre, you could probably do no better than a double feature of these two Bradbury-penned works after a long night of trick ‘r treating under suburban streetlights. He’s got a welcoming touch to his spooky children’s fare that should prove to be invitingly universal, even if the settings are so consistently specific it’s difficult to tell them apart from work to work.

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 and last week’s look at its Bette Davis-starring predecessor, The Watcher in the Woods (1980).

-Brandon Ledet

When Disney Got Cold Feet Over Getting Spooky: The Watcher in the Woods (1980) & Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

July’s Movie of the Month is a jarring entry in the Walt Disney canon, something much spookier, much more adult, and much less financial successful than what the company usually produces. 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a Ray Bradbury-penned horror film packed with enough ghostly carnival attractions, Pam Grier witchcraft, and children-in-danger stakes to distract you from the fact that it’s a Disney movie to begin with. Still, it’s easy to get the sense while watching Something Wicked that Disney wasn’t fully committed to the adult horror waters it was testing at the time. Casting debates, re-shoots, and studio notes softened director Jack Clayton’s nightmarish vision at every turn. Alhough the film still stands out from Disney’s usual saccharine tone, it could have gone much, much further. This kind of post-production backpeddling was a constant theme during Disney’s brief adult horror period too. Much like with Something Wicked, the studio’s tinkering revisions softened & distorted the original vision of its first outright horror picture, 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods. Both films survived their troubled production histories as cult classic favorites, not financial successes, but both also could have been much more memorably strange & terrifying than Disney ultimately allowed them to be.

Before The Watcher in the Woods, Disney toyed with the idea of an outright horror tone with films like Black Hole or the Witch Mountain series, but it kept those urges confined to the bounds of a science fiction aesthetic, focusing on topics like space travel & telekinesis. The advertising for The Watcher in the Woods promised an entirely new, fully committed shift in trajectory. The trailers boasted, “Walt Disney ushers in a new decade of motion picture entertainment with the following invitation to spend 90min on the edge of your seat.” The problem is that the company wasn’t sure it wanted to accept its own invitation to do so. Director John Hough was hired with the intention of producing Disney’s The Exorcist, but the constant barrage of studio notes that tempered its production consistently diminished the wind in its sails. This behind-the-camera tinkering came to a head when the studio insisted that Hough rush its ending to completion so it could screen coinciding with a commemoration of star Bette Davis’s 50 years in the acting profession. The original ending, which includes a monstrous alien puppet that does not appear in the theatrical cut, was left incomprehensible due to the time constraint. It then had to be re-shot into a much more easily digestible conclusion after hundreds of stop & start rewrites. If pulled off well, it could have been a mind-blowing, impressively dark ending to an otherwise mildly spooky picture. In its compromised form, it’s more of an all-too-easy release of futilely built tension.

As much as you can feel the studio notes shenanigans muddling its ending & ultimate severity, The Watcher in the Woods is still an impressively spooky Disney picture & an important precursor to what the studio would soon accomplish in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Strange lights flashing in the woods, blindfolded ghosts appearing in cracked mirrors, haunted English mansions & carnival attractions: The Watcher establishes early glimpses of the same children vs. immense Evil horror that makes Something Wicked such a classic. Bette Davis appears in the full evil old biddy capacity she was frequently typecast in following the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, except with a distinctly tragic vulnerability that had been missing since that role reinvigorated her career. Her instantly spooky presence is admittedly sparse, but suggests much of the film’s horrific tone to come as the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance unfolds. Occultist rituals, alternate dimensions, and, of course, the eeriness of the woods set the stage for a grand supernatural finale that not only was supposed to settle its overarching mystery, but also give physical form to a literal “watcher” in the woods (who appears to be some kind of evil crawfish in the original ending). It’s a shame Disney didn’t afford Hough the patience to see the original conclusion through in all of its spooky glory, but it’s still kind of incredible that they ever toyed with the idea of making a genuine horror film at all, so I guess I should be content with what’s left to be enjoyed onscreen.

Neither The Watcher in the Woods nor Something Wicked This Way Comes are the scariest live-action Disney films of all time. For my money, I’d assume that honor goes to the deeply traumatizing Return to Oz, which was soon to follow. However, as a pair they do make clear that at one point Disney’s plan to revitalize its brand (which was struggling by the 80s, believe it or not) was to experiment with legitimate horror film aesthetics. You can feel that decision lurking in Something Wicked‘s haunted carnival nightmare and, honestly, I do believe it’s the better film of the two. The Watcher in the Woods is a much more naked, deliberate push in the horror direction, though. Besides Bette Davis’s evil old biddy presence, the film echoes plenty of already established horror tropes: The Exorcist’s seances, The Shining‘s backwards mirror writing, the camera’s POV chases through the woods that recall both Jaws & the era’s more typical slashers. It would have been fascinating to see if Disney might have been more committed to this dark path if the success of The Little Mermaid hadn’t ushered in their animated division’s 90s renaissance. Maybe they would have eventually loosened the reins on their hired guns’ dark visions and allowed their live action horrors to run free. It’s literally too good to be true, though, so all we can really do is marvel at the fact that they ever got as close as they did to the horror film deep end before they inevitably got cold feet.

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.

-Brandon Ledet