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Jungle movies with Tarzan -- any Tarzan -- are almost always entertaining, but Hollywood has a tradition of jungle exploitation pictures that scrape the bottom of the B-picture barrel. I'm talking about movies filmed on Hollywood sound stages jammed with wilting, sickly-looking foliage, where the script was almost always a hoary collection of jungle clichés three creative generations removed from anything resembling reality. I'm also talking about pictures where talented black actors showed up to earn their pay portraying unga-bunga native stereotypes with names like Rami and Tengowa, and who sometimes spoke faux-Swahili with a Texas or Alabama accent. As the civil rights era dawned in the 1950s the flood of jungle adventures thinned out, but the template remained the same.
1957's The Disembodied is a lowly example of the 'white witch doctor' sub-subgenre. Fox made a picture by that title that starred Susan Hayward. It narrowly escaped ridicule thanks to some reasonable directing and acting. The Disembodied is 66 minutes of program filler for Allied Artists promoted as a sexy horror film (dig the headlight art on the poster). It represents a sideways or slightly downward career move for most everyone involved, except maybe first-time director Walter Grauman. His participation might have been a work-for-a-guild-card arrangement, for he proceeded immediately to a busy career in television. Producer Ben Schwalb was noted for other AA schlock hits like Queen of Outer Space and The Hypnotic Eye.
Even genre experts tend to confuse this show with other no-budget jungle horror pictures, like American-International's somewhat similar Voodoo Woman. Just remember that The Disembodied is the one without a monster. What endears it to B-movie lovers is the glorious presence of Allison Hayes, the looker with the 'statuesque' figure, and the star of the next year's undying favorite Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. The Disembodied is loaded with wince-inducing non-PC attitudes as well as terrific non-sequitur dialogue. The male star is roused from his hut by the ominous sound of jungle drums. It's been firmly established that he's out in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but dense overgrowth in all directions. He arches an eyebrow and intones meaningfully: "Seems to be coming from the jungle!"
The remote outpost of kindly Doctor Metz (John Wengraf) is actually a hotbed of sexual tension laced with demonic Voodoo magic. Metz's va-voom native wife Tonda (Allison Hayes) tries to kill him by sticking pins into a Voodoo doll, but her spell casting is interrupted. Metz wants to turn away a pair of white visitors, clearly afraid that that mischievous Tonda will seduce one of them with witchcraft. Tom and Norman (Paul Burke & Joel Marston) are carrying their buddy Joe (Robert Christopher), who has been badly mauled by a lion and is near death. To everyone's surprise Joe makes a miraculous recovery overnight, and his wounds have almost healed as well. Although she keeps it a secret, Tonda is really a Voodoo Queen. She has saved Joe at a midnight ceremony by causing the soul of a native, Suba (Dean Fredericks of The Phantom Planet) to migrate to Joe's body. Suba dies, much to the distress of his beautiful native wife, Mara (Eugenia Paul). The problem is that when Joe regains consciousness, he has Suba's personality. He eventually takes Suba's place and goes off with Mara. Tom first accuses Dr. Metz of dabbling in Voodoo magic, and only later realizes that Tonda is the necromancer. Her plan is to trade-in her aged husband for the much more desirable Tom.
Competently directed and reasonably well acted, The Disembodied's script shows all of its cards early on and then meanders to a predictable conclusion. The vague relationships never seem to change, no matter what happens. Tom soon figures out Tonda's game but keeps behaving as if she can be trusted. The script purposely keeps conflicts unresolved by cutting off scenes where the hero might learn important information. At least twice Dr. Metz halts conversations by simply saying, "I think it's getting rather late". Also happening more than once are scenes where someone pulls a gun with the threat of killing somebody. But after things cool down the characters keep on talking as if nothing important had transpired.
The production is a fall-down hoot. The interior-exterior jungle sets aren't all that bad, although an exit door from the Voodoo altar set might really be the actual stage door. This is one jungle movie without any exotic animals, not even in stock shots. No man-in-a-gorilla-suit, either. The filmmakers seem almost unsure of what Africa might be like. We accept the fact that Allison Hayes' Tonda wears makeup appropriate for a nightclub entertainer, but what sort of tropical gal is she supposed to be? She wears a tight-fitting Chinese dress with a leather belt; a dagger is conspicuously positioned over her navel, like the hourglass on a black widow spider. It's a comic book outfit suitable for Steve Canyon's Dragon Lady. 1 Tonda's Voodoo dance is a collection of showbiz gyrations, flanked by two exotic black dancers and a phalanx of drums. A. E. Okonu gets a credit as lead drummer, and the Voodoo musical number is performed by a group called Okonu and his Afro-Calypsonians. It's likely that producer Schwalb hired them straight from a Hollywood nightclub.
And what is this Haitian-style Voodoo doing in the heart of Africa, anyway? I doubt that the writers spent any energy researching the issue. At one point Tom asks Doc Metz for his thoughts on the subject, and Metz answers by saying, "Voodoo goes back to the Pythagoreans." But, of course when Tom asks him to clarify this statement, he's once again "too tired to talk". Tonda's Voodoo hocus-pocus requires a few talismans, the burning a piece of the victim's clothing and lots of dead chickens. Her erotic dance concludes when she strikes an extreme pose (see that hot-cha cover illustration again). A dead chicken is then thrown to her feet from stage right, perhaps in lieu of a standing ovation.
As in several other Allison Hayes movies, attractive women are evil, plain and simple. Tonda teases Suba into kissing her, and then slaps him. She later tries to smother her hubby with a pillow, before asking Tom to help her get free of her jungle prison. She then tries to frame Tom for the murder of another unfortunate servant, Kabar (Otis Greene). Tom's native guide and helpful sidekick (he sleeps outside the tent) is Gogi (Paul Thompson). Giving the Africans childish names like Gogi, Kabar and Suba seems insulting in itself. The name Tonda will remind movie fans of Hedy Lamarr's famous character Tondelayo, the prototype dusky dame from MGM's laughably sexist jungle film White Cargo.
Nobody fares particularly well in this movie, although fans of Allison Hayes don't flock to her films to see great acting. Paul Burke was just beginning to make it in TV, so The Disembodied was probably a helpful screen credit for him. Coming across quite well in an almost silent role is the second female lead Eugenia Paul, a real ballet dancer that 50s TV fans might recognize as Guy Williams' love interest on the Disney Zorro TV show. Miss Paul's sexy Mara eventually gets her vengeance on that wrong dame Tonda.
Something about this movie makes me want to cue it up to Creedence Clearwater's I Put a Spell On You...
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Disembodied is a picture perfect enhanced widescreen copy of this last gasp of authentic B-picture filmmaking in Hollywood. It probably did the rounds as a second feature for about a year and then got put away permanently after a few 16mm television printing negatives were made. The sound is very clear as well. Allied Artists in the 1950s was not a poverty row studio; a look at the crewmembers for this picture shows that several continued to work on United Artists films, probably crossing over with AA producer Walter Mirisch. I knew prop master Sam Gordon on 1941; he made the jump by working on Mirisch's The Horse Soldiers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Disembodied rates:
1. At one point Dr. Metz says that Tonda belongs in the jungle, or perhaps in that "place where he found her". Uh oh, I think this is the screenplay's subtle way of saying that Tonda might be some kind of fallen woman.
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T'was Ever Thus.