The Disembodied directed by Walter Grauman
Sometimes, all it takes is one decent, interesting and/or sexy performance to salvage an otherwise lackluster film from complete uselessness. To demonstrate the veracity of this statement, I give you The Disembodied, a rather silly and borderline confusing voodoo film that is of interest today solely for the performance of its leading lady, Allison Hayes. When The Disembodied was first released in August 1957, it was part of a double bill, playing alongside the now legendary From Hell It Came, now regarded as one of the worst films of all time, its walking tree monster Tabanga a source of jokes and derision for over 60 years now. In retrospect, though, From Hell It Came is a fun albeit campy experience, and one that this viewer enjoyed a lot more than he thought he would. It is surely the superior film as compared to The Disembodied, a film with no monsters, no real scares or suspense, and more plot holes than the proverbial screen door. But that Allison … oh my goodness! Is she ever something here!
At this point in her life, Hayes’ career was just starting to take off, and 1957 would prove to be a banner year for the then-27-year-old, West Virginia-born actress. That year, she would also star in such “psychotronic” favorites as The Unearthly, The Undead and Zombies of Mora Tau; it wasn’t until the following year, though, that Allison attained true cult status, via her title role in the renowned camp classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Sadly, her cinematic career never really took off, and as her work in The Disembodied demonstrates, that is to be regretted, as she really could be quite sexy and effective when given half a chance.
In the film in question, Allison plays a character with the unusual name of Tonda, whose feelings and intentions are plainly spelled out even before the opening credits have stopped rolling. During those credits, we see the sultry brunette strangling a voodoo doll with a string, while her scientist husband, Dr. Metz (John Wengraf), chokes and asphyxiates downstairs. Tired of living alone with the older man in the middle of the steamy jungle, Tonda is doing everything in her power(s) to get out, and her outlook on life becomes suddenly brighter with the advent of three white men, who appear in their jeep one day from out of nowhere. One of them, Joe Lawson (Robert Christopher), has just been mauled to the point of death by a lion (and the fact that he WAS injured by a lion is the only way the viewer has of knowing that we are in the African jungle; no precise locale is ever mentioned, but lions are to be found nowhere else, I believe, right?), and Dr. Metz tells the other two that he will do what he can, although things look rather bleak.
Tonda quickly takes a hot-blooded fancy for one of the other two men, Tom Maxwell (surprisingly well played by Paul Burke), who, along with his other filmmaker buddy, Norm Adams (Joel Marston), can only sit around and hope for the best. Later that night, the two men are surprised to come upon a native voodoo ceremony deep in the jungle, at which Tonda herself is seen dancing frenziedly in sarong and halter, later using a dead chicken as part of her eldritch rite. The following day, Joe is miraculously better, and although scarred, seems to have been brought back from the brink of death. But what the men don’t know is that one of Dr. Metz’ servants had been killed during that jungle rite, and his soul, via the process of metempsychosis, kerplopped into Joe’s body, which body is now Tonda’s slave! Maxwell is effectively seduced by Tonda’s steamy advances (what red-blooded male wouldn’t be?), but then rejects her when she tries to get him to murder her husband. Thus, our sexy voodoo queen decides to use other methods to get her way, leading to knifings, long-distance voodoo murders, and other jungle shenanigans…
The Disembodied has been directed by Walter Grauman in a relatively styleless manner — he would go on to a career largely in television, his only other major film credit being for the terrific Olivia de Havilland thriller Lady in a Cage in 1964 — but its major problem is its grossly incompetent script, by one Jack Townley. It is a decidedly lazy piece of writing that is — unlike Ms. Hayes — very inadequately fleshed out. Thus, we never learn about Tonda’s background, or her unusual name, or even how she became the local voodoo queen of the nearby natives. And while I’m carping, how it is that Tonda, as adept as she is at the voodoo arts, has not murdered her husband the doctor LONG before the action begins in this film? Simplistic as The Disembodied is, it is yet confusing at times as regards those mind/body switches (no wonder my beloved Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film calls it “fun jungle nonsense” and a “confusing voodoo feature”), and although it is well acted by its uniformly fine and straight-faced cast, it yet manages to achieve some one-liners of hilarious groanability (my favorite: when Maxwell, listening to the native drums in the distance, says “Seems to be coming from the jungle”!). To its credit, Townley’s script DOES make it unclear whether or not Tonda or the doctor is responsible for many of the voodoo happenings early on in the film, but that uncertainty on the viewer’s part is sadly short lived. The use of black AND white actors to portray the jungle natives only adds to the risibility factor, while the noninclusion of any stock footage or actual outdoor photography (the entire film was shot on studio sets) only adds to the hermetic and cheapjack feel of the production.
Thus, as I say, thank goodness for Allison Hayes, whose every body movement and line reading is either a challenge or a sensual come-on, and who slinks and glides her way through this film in her skintight and formfitting skirts, bodices and capris as if she were in a NYC nightclub, rather than in the heart of the Dark Continent. (SHE, happily, is hardly DISembodied, if you get my drift!) Without her vital presence, The Disembodied would surely be a waste of anyone’s time, but as it is, the picture is a fun and entertaining 65 minutes that few will regret sitting through. See it with your 12-year-old nephew, who just might enjoy it immensely … AND get his puberty jump-started by watching Ms. Hayes go through her motions!