Saturday, 2 April 2011
(Fredric Hobbs, 1972)
When assessing the work of the select group who comprise cinema’s pre-eminent purveyors of absolute, grade-A blood-curdling lunacy, certain trends quickly become clear.
For some directors – Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jose Morica Marins, Ken Russell say – filmic lunacy functions as a kind of grand ego trip, through which they seek to forcefully impress their strength of character upon the viewer, bludgeoning us with their singular worldview until we cry surrender. And if others in the top tier of weirdness - Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, Takashi Miike, H. Tjut Djalil or Andrzej Zulawski say – are less centrally present in their own work, their MO is equally clear: in one way or another, they seek to freak the audience out, to sicken and terrify us, overload us with information and generally provoke an extreme reaction.
What I think sets Fredric Hobbs – truly a dark horse in the insane-cinema race – apart from his competitors is that he refuses to employ any of these intimidation tactics, yet still makes a powerful run on the great WTF finishing line.
Outside of the handful of feature films he directed in the early ‘70s, Hobbs is best known for his work as a sculptor and designer, and is a frequent recipient of the much-disputed “outsider artist” tag. I’m not going to enter into the debate regarding the correct interpretation of that thorny piece of phraseology, but I will state that the thought-processes at work behind a film like “Alabama’s Ghost” come about as close to defining my own understanding of the term as any other piece of human self-expression I’ve thus far encountered.
In ‘Alabama’s Ghost’, Hobbs – who wrote, directed and produced – makes no attempt to position himself as an artistic visionary or philosophical superman, and I don’t believe that he was seeking to deliberately freak anybody out either. On the contrary, it seems that he was merely trying to tell an interesting story he’d thought up, in a way he thought viewers might find enjoyable. Good for him.
The crucial problem is though: we are not Fredric Hobbs. Every creative decision made during the creation of ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ is different from the one you or I would have made, and when placed within the context of consensus reality, what Hobbs perhaps intended as an easy-going supernatural comedy emerges as one of the most puzzling outbursts of chaotic, inexplicable bru-ha-ha ever committed to celluloid.
Given my morbid preoccupation with trying to reiterate every single noteworthy thing about a given film when writing about it here, I’m afraid that the following review may turn out to be a pretty gruelling experience for both of us. But nonetheless, “Alabama’s Ghost” was a real pinnacle of the kind of stuff I look for in a film, and I owe it to you to give it my best shot. Are we ready? Well ok, let’s go.
“Alabama’s Ghost” begins with an echo-laden monologue, narrated over footage of a darkened cityscape swathed in artificial mist. The monologue is quite lengthy, and packs in a tremendous amount of detail, beginning with a recap of the life and career of an Edwardian magician known as Carter the Great who died in Calcutta in 1935. This much is almost true - Charles Joseph Carter, stage-name Carter the Great, was indeed a legendary California-based magician who died in 1936. The narration then widens its scope to tell us about a female Nazi scientist called ‘Dr. Kirsten Caligula’, who created a substance called “raw zeta” which “when introduced into the human body through Chinese acupuncture techniques” could be transformed into the more malign “deadly zeta”, and could in turn be used as “..a broadcasting catalyst to enslave all humans within the sound of one's voice”. This bit is almost certainly not true.
Eventually, we cut to the film’s opening credits, which take place in a nightclub.
Quintessential Hobbs Moment # 1: Naturally this sequence couldn’t take place in just any old nightclub, so welcome to the end-of-season party at Earthquake McGoons, an Irish(?) bar, in which Mr. McGoon himself leads the festivities backed up by a Dixieland jazz band, singing the film’s somewhat less than melodious theme song as the credits scroll past over his sweaty, former-tough-guy features.
And what credits they are! The cast list promises us groupies, vampires, a sailor, a monkey (played by a human?!), witches, a ‘voodoo drummer’, and one actor who is credited as portraying “Granny/Moxie/Gault”. Plus music from The Loading Zone and The Turk Murphy Jazz Band, and a special appearance by Neena the Elephant! Are you psyched? I AM PSYCHED.
Watching from the bar is Alabama, a hep-cat jazz musician who seems to have been reduced to working as a handyman and general dogsbody at Earthquake McGoons. “Yeah man, that was smooth… like a hundred yellow pussycats dancing on jade”, he says in sarcastic appraisal of Mr. McGoon’s performance, before heading down to the basement to tidy everything away (I’ll skip over questioning what kind of bar-room jazz band needs to store its accruements in heavy storage chests in a vast basement equipped with a forklift truck). Whilst ruing his sorry position in life and expressing his wish to “quit this gig, write my own tunes, blow these cats back into the dark ages”, Alabama accidentally manoeuvres his forklift into a partition wall, revealing a hidden chamber containing… the stage props and possessions of Carter the Great!
As someone who has apparently always harboured dreams of becoming a stage magician, Alabama is overjoyed at this find, and when he discovers a Sausalito contact address for Carter’s family in a box also containing the magician’s personal stash of hashish and ‘Khartoum khaki’ (no, me neither), he decides to check it out.
Cut to the Sausalito sea-front, and Quintessential Hobbs Moment # 2, as Alabama momentarily walks past what looks like the frontage of a gigantic, expressionist cathedral made out of driftwood! This building is only visible for a few seconds and plays no part in the film whatsoever, but, well… what the hell? Was this a Hobbs creation that he just thought he’d throw in? Did it originally play a bigger part in the film? Or was it just THERE when they turned up to film, for some inexplicable reason? I mean, is there actually a giant, weird junk cathedral on the Sausalito sea-front? And more to the point, what kind of filmmaker puts an establishing shot of such a breathtakingly extravagant building into their film, then has their protagonist walk straight past it and go somewhere else..? Fredric Hobbs: I’m only about ten minutes into your film and already I love you.
But anyway: when Alabama makes his way to the Carter residence, where he is introduced to Carter’s elderly, bed-ridden sister, who insists on being addressed as “Granny”. Granny is initially fairly hostile to Alabama’s plans to take on the mantle of Carter the Great, reviving his stage-show for a new era. But after a few puffs of ‘Khartoum Khaki’ she lightens up, and instructs her granddaughter to take Alabama to “Moxie’s Museum”. Moxie, it turns out, is a cantankerous, wheelchair-bound former magician who inhabits a dusty museum of mystic paraphernalia, and who reluctantly agrees to school Alabama in the lost arts of magic.
(Oh, and did I fail to mention that after Alabama leaves, Granny pulls off her wig, unveils her vampire fangs and starts cackling like a wrong ‘un? Well I’ve mentioned it now.)
“Hey, this Iron Maiden of Nuremburg would sure look good backed up with a sound-system… yeah, we’d scare the hell out of them… I’d rattle that cage and make the whole act levitate… then I’d turn all the little chicks into a box an’ make ‘em disappear.. until they turned up in my motel room later on..” enthuses Alabama as he looks over Moxie’s exhibits – another fine example of the nonsensical, stream of consciousness diatribes that seem to comprise our jovial hero’s main way of communicating with the world.
Frankly this Moxie guy (played by the same actor as Granny) seems like a pretty dull customer, so it’s a relief that we’re spared the inevitable ‘training montage’, instead cutting directly to Alabama’s debut performance, billing himself rather immodestly as “Alabama, King of the Cosmos” as he takes the stage at (where else?) Earthquake McGoons.
Alabama wears a Napoleonic frock-coat and tricorn hat, and Granny’s granddaughter (I never did catch her name) is his glamorous assistant. As part of the show, Alabama picks a Hispanic man named “Domingo Burrito” out of the audience, and startles him with accurate facts about his ancestry. Mr. Burrito is then asked to stare into the panels on Carter the Great’s spirit cabinet, behind which he sees a vision of his great-grandfather, a Spanish Admiral, suffering in the flames of hell!
Also in the audience is big-time rock promoter Otto Max, who speaks with a completely unrecognisable accent (part Liverpudlian, part Jamaican, part Indian?), and is apparently greatly impressed with this disquieting, racially uncomfortable performance. Max approaches Alabama as he is chilling backstage on a golden throne, surrounded by adoring groupies (jeez, who knew that an off-season gig at Earthquake Macgoons could bring in that kind of action?) and offers to manage him, giving him the opportunity to expand his magic act into a spectacular touring psychedelic stage-show, and to use Max’s connections in the rock world to catapult himself into the big-time.
Little time is wasted as we cut to a montage of Alabama the Great’s Otto Max supported Psychedelic Spirit Show as it takes America by storm with its irresistible combination of dancing hippie chicks, vaudeville magic tricks, Alabama’s patented blather and the funk-rock fusion sounds of second wave San Fran group The Loading Zone!
To digress briefly, it occurs to me that this ‘psychedelic magic show’ sequence is, oddly, one of the only points at which “Alabama’s Ghost” touches on something approaching the reality of life in California in the early ‘70s. The live music/rock festival circuit in the USA really WAS becoming big business in the later hippie era, and concert promoters in the Otto Max mould really WERE making big bucks and getting big ideas. As a cursory viewing of ‘Woodstock’ or ‘Festival Express’ will attest, this era gave rise to a vast, nomadic audience of field hippies, bikers and miscellaneous drop-outs, all willing to lay down cash to nod out en masse in the open air, being entertained by, well… just about anything really it seems, so long as it involved psychedelic clap-trap and ‘good vibes’. Given the turgid and repetitive nature of much of the era’s bong-addled blues-rock, I’m surprised that some bright spark DIDN’T come up with the idea of presenting a rock n’ roll magic show like the one seen here, if only to liven things up a little.
Recordings I’ve heard in the past by The Loading Zone have never really grabbed me, but, as presented in ‘Alabama’s Ghost’, they’re a pretty tight outfit, noteworthy for a ethnic and gender diversity that is extremely rare for the period. Along with yer standard complement of moustachioed white dudes on drums and guitar, they’ve got a female organist, a female singer (who is oddly never seen on-screen), and a middle-aged black woman who is initially seen playing some wicked soul power style flute, but can later be spotted centre stage, laying down some fuckin’ killer low-end on a battle-scarred Fender bass, as the Alabama-show’s hippie dancing girls gyrate wildly on either side of her. Rock n’ roll!
Anyway, after the completion of Alabama’s first big tour, we cut to another Quintessential Hobbs Moment, as Alabama and Otto Max demonstrate their newfound fame and riches by cruising ‘round town in what can only be described as an elaborate paper mache monster-wagon. It’s the direct analogue of a scene in a more ‘normal’ film when our character might be shown driving around in a brand new Cadillac to signify that he’s ‘made it’, only Hobbs seems to have thought, well, if I was rich and famous, I’d probably prefer to drive an elaborate paper mache monster-wagon… so here we go! This incredible vehicle – a mobile Hobbs sculpture I’m assuming? – is given ample screen time throughout the rest of the movie, but no explanation of its existence is ever offered, and no one seems to consider it unusual, as if celebrity status in this film’s world automatically confers the right to hit the highway in a thing that looks like a parade float built by Clark Ashton Smith! The fact that Alabama and Otto seem to be cruising through an eerily deserted San Francisco suburb that looks like a location from “The Last Man on Earth” only adds to the inherent surrealism of the situation.
The two of them are busy brainstorming plans for Alabama’s next tour, the grand finale of which will be an appearance at a festival at Dune Crest on the California coast, organised by global media mogul Jerry Gault, during which Alabama will for the first time perform Carter the Great’s famed vanishing elephant trick.
Now, making an elephant disappear is a pretty cool trick for a stage magician, don’t get me wrong, but the way people talk about it in ‘Alabama’s Ghost’, you’d think it was some singular spiritual breakthrough for the whole human race – this film’s equivalent of ‘immanentizing the eschaton’ or whatever.
Take for instance the following dialogue exchange with takes place as Alabama and Otto speed toward the nearest hospital in a big, red ambulance carrying a girl who has been injured when one of Alabama’s tricks went wrong;
“I got spooked out there, something happened to me… I’m scared man, what’s gonna happen to me?”
“Shut up Alabama – now you just listen to me will you – shut up and calm down; nothing’s gonna happen to you – the girl’s alright, she won’t talk – she works for me and I’m booking her into a private sanatorium for rich freaks! D’you think I’m gonna blow the deal with the Jerry Gault Worldwide Special just because some chick got a little cut up? You keep working on that vanishing elephant act ‘til you’ve got it down pat like I told ya!”
“But I told you – I’m getting spooked – I promised Moxie I wouldn’t mess around with this elephant stuff, and now weird things’re startin’ to happen to me, like sometimes I think Carter’s ghost is floatin’ around my head… keepin’ a fish-eye on me, some evil fish-eye.. sending bad vibes down around my act..”
“Look, Alabama – if Carter ever shows up, I’ll book him into Miami for the squares, ok?”
Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that the mental and physical strain of preparing himself for the elephant trick has caused Alabama to ‘crack up’ and start seeing visions of Carter the Great’s ghost ordering him around? Well, uh, yeah, that’s happened. The ghost warns Alabama to “beware the vampire’s bloody contract, written in the hand of Gault,” which you’d think would be a pretty clear indication that he should take a second look at the deal with Gault, but Alabama doesn’t seem willing to take the hint.
Maybe this is simply because the ghost is rendered in such classic ‘gory locks’ style – flash of lightning and white face and booming, echoed voice and so on – making it pretty hard to take him seriously. At one point he refers to Alabama as “black man”, prompting our hero to retort, “I ain’t gonna take no shit from no white, racist ghost!” Rumours that this scene provided inspiration for Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters theme until the producers persuaded him to tone it down a little are entirely unfounded, but should start here.
Anyway, between this supernatural hassle, the stress of preparation for the elephant disappearance and the discovery that his glamorous assistant/girlfriend is a flesh-eating vampire, the anxious Alabama eventually suffers some kind of mental collapse, at which point the film finally surrenders it’s last grasp at linear plotting, allowing fantasy and reality to merge into one squelching, boggle-eyed Frederic Hobbs-flavoured mush-swamp…
Alabama is running through some kind of dustball dream landscape, pursued by vampires, chanting “mamma, dadda, mamma dadda” to himself. Eventually he find his way back to his mother, who is rather uncharitably portrayed as living in some kinda derelict, depression-era shack. “Why, there ain’t no vampires living in this town no more,” Mama curiously remarks, trying to calm her son down, “the only vampires I know about moved to the city after prohibition”.
Seeing what a sorry state Alabama is in, Mama takes him to see Doc, the local voodoo witchdoctor guy, who performs a lengthy psychedelic exorcism upon him, calling upon the Loa to rid him of the torment of Carter’s ghost. Perhaps a somewhat less than accurate depiction of voudoun practice, but quite an imaginative one nonetheless, this exorcism involves ‘red Halloween stew’, a strange blue egg, shout outs to “the spooksies, the spooksies!”, and Doc sewing the carcass of a toad over Alabama’s heart.
All this seems to perk Alabama up, and so he, Mama and Doc pile into the monster-wagon and head on down to the festival for the elephant trick.
BUT – as well as a global media mogul, Jerry Gault turns out to be the same vampiric creepo who was pretending to be granny and Moxie earlier on! He has a Bond villain-esque secret lab from which he can monitor all terrestrial communications and beam a live broadcast of the elephant disappearance around the world via satelitte! And not only is he the head of a subterranean vampire cult, but he also fancies himself as some kind of global fascist overlord, and is in league with Dr. Kirsten Caligula (remember her?)!
Terrible, disturbing things happen as Hobbs’ camera spends time probing into Gault’s operations. One genuinely horrifying sequence shows an underground ‘vampire production line’ wherein screaming, naked innocents are tied down on a conveyer belt and chomped upon by hungry, black-hooded ghouls, as gigantic Eraserhead-like industrial machinery wheezes and churns in the background. It really is the stuff of nightmares, operated on a large-scale set with a complement of props and extras that seems far more elaborate that anything that was really required for a quick shock-scene in a movie like this - a more spine-chilling variation on the “I can’t believe I’m actually seeing this” moments that ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ seems to specialise in.
Meanwhile, hippies are converging on the site from miles around, and The Loading Zone are rocking the crowd (I’m assuming Hobbs took crowd footage from some genuine hippie festival and edited in tighter shots of the band playing to a smaller crowd – however it was done, the gathering certainly succeeds in looking impressively huge and pretty authentic).
Once again, Alabama is freaking out – somewhere along the line, he seems to have acquired a ‘proper’ girlfriend, called Midnight, to replace his previous treacherous neck-biting one. She is first seen escaping from the vampire production line, but then just seems to hang out with everybody as if she’s known them all for years…? Anyway, as some other people start to lead a rather sickly looking elephant toward the stage, she’s getting worried that Alabama won’t be able to perform the trick…
“Never mind that,” says Doc, “help me unpack this robot”.
It was there I think that I just gave up. The rest of the movie’s finale is just a blur.
See! An army of dirt-bikes crest the hill like an echo of Charlie Manson’s mythical dune buggy attack squad, only to be blasted to pieces by lasers from Robot-Alabama’s fingers!
See! Neena the Elephant beat Vampira to death with her trunk!
See! Alabama’s Mama make a daring escape as the monster-wagon careens into oblivion with the nazi-vampire overlord at the wheel!
See! The desert landscape strewn with vampire-hippie corpses, as the human attendees flee for their lives!
A right weirdo-movie hootenanny, basically.
The only thing that could have made it better would’ve been if the film ended with Alabama making a dismissive hand gesture, going “shee-it”, and walking off-screen.
In the tormented paragraphs above, I have tried to communicate the thoughts and feelings that accompanied my initial viewing of ‘Alabama’s Ghost’. But in concentrating wholly on trying to make sense of the events of the film, I don’t think I’ve quite succeeded.
I’ve not told you about the fact that, despite the wealth of extraordinary imagery on display, the film is composed in an extremely plain, matter of fact fashion, almost completely devoid of the kind of stylistic flourishes and audacious psychedelic tomfoolery you might have expected from far-out material like this. As a director, Frederic Hobbs is broadly competent, but never really shows his hand. Like a TV guy, just telling the story seems to be his main concern – a curious approach for a man clearly blessed with such a prodigiously beserk imagination.
Similarly, for a film so stuffed to bursting with unnecessary characters, absurd situations and insane ideas, ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ has an oddly slow-moving, lapsidaisical feel to it, wondering absent-mindedly from scene to scene with no particular hurry. The acting sticks closely to the declamatory, ‘local theatre group’ style that I so love in oddball low budget movies – an almost surreal mixture of careful intonation and exaggerated gesture that it’s hard not to warm to… well, if you’re me, at least. In the role of Alabama, Christopher Brooks (who scored an ultra-weirdo double-whammy by also appearing in Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place”) acts like a one-joke jazzbo beatnik caricature from a sit-com episode who somehow ended up starring in his own movie, and if I say I found him a hugely likeable and engaging protagonist, well, that should probably be measured against the fact that I’d happily watch a three hour movie about life and times of Maynard G. Krebs.
As some of the extracts I’ve quoted above will demonstrate, the dialogue in ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ is long-winded and discursive in the extreme. To give one example, whilst explaining the workings of her robot-Alabama, Dr. Caligula somehow ends up sharing her thoughts on the lifelike nature of the Abraham Lincoln dummy in Disneyland. In fact, all the characters tend to communicate in a kind of vague, repetitive babble that, if it’s not actually THAT far removed from actual human conversation, certainly makes for an odd experience when combined with the unnatural performance style favoured by the cast.
The orchestral score used in ‘Alabama’s Ghost’, by the way, largely sounds like a bunch of crackly, bombastic music cues that could have been pulled straight from an overwrought ‘40s b-movie.
Needless to say, none of the above should be taken as criticisms.
It’s probably redundant to say as much by this point, but ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ really is one of the strangest films I’ve seen in my life. That it manages to touch the very highest echelons of weirdness whilst also maintaining a good-natured, utilitarian earnestness, a simple desire to enthral and entertain, is pretty remarkable.
Frederic Hobbs’ other directorial efforts are “Roseland” (1971), “Godmonster of the Indian Flats” (1973) and the impossibly obscure experimental opus “Trioka” (1969).
God willing, they will all pass before my eyes before too long.