If horror films have taught us anything, it's to never trust the open road. In 1944's Voodoo Man, a line-up of lovely ladies learn this the hard way when a phony detour sign leads them right into the hands of the demented Dr. Marlowe (Bela Lugosi). For the last two decades, Dr. Marlowe has been obsessed with resurrecting his dead wife, using the life essence of girls he kidnaps to do so only for very brief periods. The snarky Stella Saunders (Louise Currie) is snatched up en route to her cousin's wedding, but luckily, she has the groom, Ralph Dawson (Michael Ames), as a traveling buddy. A Hollywood screenwriter who's seen it all, Ralph is quick on the case when Stella turns up missing, leading the charge to get to the bottom of Dr. Marlowe's witchery and save Stella from becoming a shell of her former self.
Well, kids, I guess they can't all be winners. Lugosi is as revered as classic horror stars get, his name synonymous with terror and the vampire's image for years -- but man, was he in some real stinkers. Everyone knows about Lugosi's collaborations with the infamous Ed Wood, but the cheapie Voodoo Man popped up a decade before the two crossed paths. It's the sort of picture many horror icons of the time made on the fly (or a speedy seven days, in this case). The production's thriftiness sure shows in the all-around crummy quality, but Voodoo Man doesn't reach the epic awfulness of a Plan 9 or a Manos. In fact, for a B-movie, it's pretty low-key, with little to its name other than some traces of nostalgic cheesiness. It even came out while Lugosi was still doing his best work, hitting theaters close to The Return of the Vampire and a year before he tangled with Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher. For a man whose career unfortunately became a joke as it progressed, Lugosi made the best of it and delivered a halfway decent performance here.
Needless to say, Voodoo Man still possesses some quirky aspects that make it an amusingly dumb flick. For one, the voodoo man of the title isn't Lugosi's Marlowe but more so George Zucco's character, a henchman who leads a dark ritual meant to sap the souls of young women. Of course, this being the '40s, the film's concept of "voodoo" consists of guys in Snuggies covered in Lucky Charms symbols and chanting gibberish (and don't even ask me how Marlowe's hypnotism experiments are supposed to help out). Also, in addition to Lugosi and Zucco, horror vet John Carradine shows up in what the Netflix disc sleeve claims was his least favorite role. Carradine appeared in worse flicks in his time, but I do see how it'd suck having to play vacant-eyed, bongo-bashing flunkie to Lugosi's stare-happy madman. The "normal" characters are plenty bland but inoffensive, the actors caring enough so as not to come across like they're ready to take their slim paychecks and run.
Voodoo Man isn't a very good film, but it's not the be-all, end-all of B-cinema, either. You can find it in a lot of those sets of 20+ public domain horror movies, or if you're in the mood for a chuckle, Rifftrax sells a version with its own damn funny commentary track. But Voodoo Man is nothing to get worked up over, not rancid enough to make enemies or endeardingly corny enough to win over Lugosi completists.