The Psychotronic Zone
By Ed Garea
The Disembodied (Allied Artists, 1957) – Director: Walter Grauman. Writer: Jack Townley. Stars: Allison Hayes, Paul Burke, John Wengraf, Eugenia Paul, Joel Marston, Robert Christopher, Dean Fredericks, A.E. Ukonu, Paul Thompson, & Otis Greene. B&W, 66 minutes.
The beautiful Allison Hayes is the only reason to watch this tepid jungle exploitation drama. Alert – or desperate – viewers will recognize the set as one from Allied Artists’ Bomba series, and a few of the situations are almost identical to plot devices used in those films.
Author-lecturer Tom Maxwell (Burke), accompanied by companions Norman Adams (Marston) and Joe Lawson (Christopher) are in the middle of a photographic safari in Africa when the unfortunate Joe is mauled by a lion. As their jeep is disabled, Tom and Norman, aided by native guide Gogi (Thompson), bring Joe on a stretcher to the compound of Dr. Karl Metz (Wengraf). As the doctor attempts to save Joe’s life, Tom and Norman are introduced to the comely Tonda (Hayes), Metz’s much younger wife. What they don’t realize is that they interrupted Tonda’s plan to rid herself of Metz by sticking pins into a voodoo doll made in his likeness.
Metz at first wants to turn them away, but the condition of Joe is such that he lets them stay while he tends to the wounded man. Tonda is immediately attracted to Tom and attempts to seduce him. Caught in the act by Suba (Fredericks), Metz’s manservant, Tonda seduces Suba to keep him from informing to the good doctor. Mara (Paul), Suba’s wife, sees them embracing and is enraged. However, she keeps it to herself for the time being.
During the night, the noise of drums awaken Tom and Norman. Along with Gogi, they steal over to find where the noise is emanating. They find a voodoo ceremony in progress with Tonda as the main attraction, dancing wildly in a tight-fitting sarong with a leather belt and a dagger conspicuously positioned over her navel. Wearing makeup more suitable for an entertainer, Tonda is accompanied by two black dancers and a line of drums. Replete with talismans, and with dead chickens being thrown at her feet, Tonda ends her performance by striking a pose; the whole thing looks like something right out of an L.A. nightclub. Gogi informs them that Tonda is no mere go-go dancer. She is none other than the Voodoo Queen herself.
The next morning, Tom and Norman find Joe completely healed, but still in a state of shock. They question Metz, who cannot explain how Joe's wounds healed completely overnight. Later, Suba’s body is found with his heart cut out. Tom and Norman return to the site of the voodoo ceremony and determine that Suba was killed there as part of the ritual. What they do not know is that Tonda had Suba’s heart cut out in a ceremony to cause his soul to migrate to Joe’s body.
Norman is anxious to leave and takes Gogi with him to try to bring their disabled jeep to the compound. Metz tells Tom that he is actually a doctor of psychology; he wouldn’t know a scalpel from a butter knife. This prompts Tom to ask him if he has any knowledge of voodoo. Tom accuses Metz of dabbling in voodoo, telling the doctor that he experienced it while researching a book in Haiti. Metz states that he has made some notes on the local practices, but warns Tom that further inquiry would prove dangerous. Only later does Tom realize that Tonda is the agent, with a plan to trade-in her aged husband for the much more desirable Tom.
Joe, with Suba’s soul within him, in now in a trance-like state and under Tonda's control. When Joe sees Tom and Tonda kissing, he attacks Tom with a knife, but Tom overpowers him. Tom questions Metz and threatens to kill the doctor unless he explains Joe's condition. Metz replies that he is not responsible for Joe's state. Later, the doctor accuses Tonda of meddling in voodoo and of being romantically involved with Tom.
Norman and Gogi manage to revive the jeep and return to the compound. While they make preparations to leave, Tonda persuades Joe to take her along. However, she insists that Tom kill her husband. When Tom refuses, Tonda threatens him with a knife. He slaps her and tells her to stay away from him. Early the next morning, Tom and Norman find that Gogi has been stabbed to death and all their guns are missing.
That night, when Tom attempts to steal some of Metz's weapons, Metz surprises him, gives him a gun and requests to accompany them. When Metz tells Tonda that he’s leaving, she stabs him. Soon after, Tonda kills Kabar (Greene), another servant, and tries to frame Tom for the murder. As Norman is about to leave to get help for the wounded Metz, he props up Kabar's body in the jeep to make it appear that Kabar is still alive and that Tonda's voodoo has failed. Confused by her apparent failure, Tonda conjures up another ritual, commanding Joe, who is still under her spell, to kill Tom. But just as Joe is about to attack and dispatch Tom, Mara appears and conveniently stabs Tonda to death, thereby releasing her control over Joe. Later, as Metz recovers, Tom, Norman and Joe head back to civilization.
There are some pictures with bad reputations that, at second glance aren’t as bad as their reputations would have one believe. However, The Disembodied is just as awful as its reputation warrants. A standard B-jungle exploitation following in the tracks of MGM’s White Cargo (1942) and Fox’s White Witch Doctor (1953), the film features an uninspired screenplay that shows its cards way too early and must depend on creating tension between the characters to lead it to a conclusion. (Hayes’ character of Tonda seems to have been named after Lamarr’s character of Tondelayo in White Cargo.) But nothing like that occurs as the script slowly meanders to an unsatisfying end.
Even though it’s only 66 minutes long, the movie contains too many dull stretches where there’s nothing happening. Dependent on action after telling us what’s coming so early in the film, The Disembodied is loaded with characters just sitting or standing around talking about what they’re going to do, with the result that the audience is bored to tears. It was the first assignment for director Walter Gruman, who later went on to a long career, mainly in television. He was best known as the director of Barnaby Jones. The producer was Ben Schwalb, who took over the producer’s reins for the Bowery Boys franchise after original producer Jan Grippo left the series. Schwalb also has other films like Queen of Outer Space, The Hypnotic Eye, and Tickle Me on his resume.
The Disembodied is unusual for its genre in that it uses no stock footage of animals in its establishing shots. It’s clear to see that the film is firmly set on a backlot, as one can easily spot plastic plants among the foliage. Also, the film features both black and white natives. I know it’s supposed to be Africa and the white natives were placed there so that any hint of miscegenation can be avoided. It’s all part of the beauty of a bottom-of-the-barrel B-jungle adventure.
In fact, it seems so generic that film buffs sometimes confuse it with the AIP bottom-of-the-barrel jungle feature, Voodoo Woman, made the same year, but released earlier (March as opposed to August 1957). But Voodoo Woman (originally titled Black Voodoo) at least boasts a monster, even if it is Paul Blaisdell in his She-Creature suit sporting a blond wig. For the trivia fans out there, Otis Greene appears in both pictures.
Unlike Voodoo Woman, however, The Disembodied is reasonably well-acted, boasting a cast that was a Who’s Who of psychotronic actors: Paul Burke (Psychic Killer, Valley of the Dolls), Allison Hayes (The Undead, The Unearthly, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman), John Wengraf (Gog, The Return of Dracula, 12 to the Moon), Joel Marston (Point of Terror), Robert Christopher (Spook Chasers, Creature of the Walking Dead, Frankenstein Island), Dean Fredericks (The Phantom Planet, Jungle Jim TV series), Paul Thompson (Jungle Man-Eaters, The Leech Woman), and Otis Greene (Voodoo Woman; Pretty Maids All in a Row).
The odd one out is Eugenia Paul, who began her artistic career as a ballerina, but who ended up mainly guesting on television in addition to doing a few B-movies. The Disembodied was her only venture into the psychotronic. She was married to Robert Strauss; not the actor, but the heir to the Pep Boys auto store chain.
The writing is generally dull and filled with cliches. There’s one point in the film where our heroes, Tom and Norman, are roused from a peaceful sleep by the sound of drums. They come outside to investigate, stuck as they are in the middle of nowhere with nothing but vegetation around them. Tom looks around and with all the seriousness he can muster, says, “Seems to be coming from the jungle!” No kidding.
But as I said before, it’s the performance of Allison Hayes that makes the film watchable. Femme fatales don’t come any better. It’s actually fun to watch her as she changes from a malicious wife sticking pins in a doll supposed to be her husband to a sultry seductress to a scared innocent and finally to an enraged woman bent on revenge when her plans go awry. She brings more than her share of conviction, which combined with the intensity of her performance, makes her character all the more believable. She could have simply gone through the motions and it wouldn’t have mattered a bit. Decked out as she is through most of the film in a leopard print sarong with a halter top, and with every motion, every movement, reeking of sexuality, Hayes has us entranced right from the beginning.
This may come as a surprise to some out there who go by the old adage that only bad actors are in bad movies. And Hayes had done more than her share of her bad movies. But in her case it just isn’t true. She came along at a rather awkward time in Hollywood history. The twin punches of the Supreme Court anti-trust ruling against the studios and the advent of television caused the studios to cut back. In the ‘30s and ’40s, new talent was openly welcomed and allowed to flourish. However, in the ‘50s, newcomers had to come with a loaded resume – a proven track record on Broadway or other theater cred. Hayes was a beauty contest winner: Miss District of Columbia, which she represented in the Miss America pageant. With no real resume, she wound up in bit parts for Universal, who released her in 1955 as the outcome of a lawsuit she filed against the studio for injuries received while filming Sign of the Pagan (1954), starring Jack Palance.
She then signed with Columbia and actually had a decent role in the Civil War drama Count Three and Pray (1955), but the reviewers ignored her performance and concentrated on the film’s star, Joanne Woodward. She was loaned out for a few low-budget actioners and signed with Roger Corman for her role as Erica Page in his Western, Gunslinger, opposite Beverly Garland, with whom she is often compared for the title of “Queen of the B’s.” However, a broken arm sustained when she fell off a horse on set kept her inactive for a period of time. After recovering, she began appearing in supporting roles in television productions. Her last film for Columbia before they released her was a supporting role in the low-budget, ridiculous thriller, Zombies of Mora Tau (1957).
After appearing in MST 3000 favorite The Unearthly (1957), and needing work, she freelanced at several Poverty Row studios in a slew of films that can be described as “wretched” at best. She began to expand her horizons into television and became a frequent guest star in several series, with a recurring role as “Ellie Winters” for seven episodes of the Gene Barry Western, Bat Masterson (1958-59). She also parlayed a friendship with Raymond Burr, whom she met on the set of Count Three and Pray, into several guest shots in the ‘60s, while also earning a paycheck as “Priscilla Longworth” for two years of the soap opera General Hospital (1963-64).
But as the ‘60s rolled on, her health began to give way and she was eventually unable to walk without the use of a cane. She landed a very minor role in the Elvis Presley film, Tickle Me (1965) and made her final screen appearances as a guest on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1967).
Hayes had traced the origin of her illness to the ingredients of a calcium supplement that a doctor had prescribed. When she hired a toxicologist to examine the ingredients contained in the pills, he replied that the calcium pills contained extremely high levels of lead and concluded that Hayes most likely was suffering from lead poisoning. The actress later began a campaign to have the FDA ban the import or sale of the food supplement.
Reduced to an invalid, Hayes moved to San Clemente, California, as her condition continued to get worse. In 1976, she was diagnosed with leukemia, for which she was treated regularly at La Jolla. While at the hospital receiving a blood transfusion, her condition unexpectedly and rapidly deteriorated as she experienced chills, combined with flu-like symptoms and intense pain. She was transferred to the University of California Medical Center in San Diego on February 26, 1977, where she died the following day, one week before her 47th birthday. Ironically, in a letter that arrived after death, the FDA informed her that amendments were being made to the laws governing the importation of nutritional supplements, largely as a result of her situation.