Alabama’s Ghost

Alabama's GhostAn interesting fact about Michael Weldon’s book, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film is that it lists films that neither he nor his partners had seen. That was the case with a little gem called, Alabama’s Ghost.

You can tell just how excited Weldon was to see it, “‘If you dug Blackula, you gonna love Alabama’s Ghost.’ See a vampire rock group on motorcycls battle a ghost. As the ads said, ‘A super hip horror movie.’ With the Turk Murphy jazz band. Watch for it.”

That was written back in 1987 when you were lucky to happen upon a film on late night television or find a tape of it. When I read “Watch for it,” I knew I had to see it.

Alabama’s Ghost on YouTube

Luckily, it’s 30 years later, and I have YouTube. So I went over and checked and sure enough, all hour and a half of this 1973 gem was available. Sadly, whoever did it was not very good: the sound is out of sync with the action and the video quality is terrible. It’s what you would expect of something badly recorded on a VHS tape in 1987 that had been stored in a metal shed for the last three decades. Still, it was good enough to get the experience.

Alabama’s Ghost is one of those films that don’t require us to define psychotronic film. It isn’t a marginal psychotronic. It is one of those films that, if it isn’t psychotronic, then no film is. So, if someone wants to know what a “psychotronic film” is, you can just show them Alabama’s Ghost.

Get Ready for a Wild Ride

The film has it all. The interminable opening of Alabama’s Ghost is amusing, and it provides a pretty good indication of the kind of crazy film that is coming. It isn’t bad — at all. But it is typical of one of the defining characteristics of psychotronic films: the need to over-explain absurd plots to give them a patina of believability that they really don’t need:

While storm clouds gathered over Europe in the years before the war, Hitler’s most brilliant and renowned young scientist, Dr Kirsten Caligula, vanished suddenly from her laboratory in Berlin.

World press received unconfirmed reports that Dr Caligula, an expert in robot technology, had been dispatched to Calcutta, India on a top secret mission for the Führer himself.

Her orders: to interview the world famed magician and spiritualist Carter the Great, at his mountain retreat near Calcutta — there to study his most recent discovery: a rare super-substance known as Raw Zeta.

It was rumored among scientists of the time that Carter’s substance resembled a highly potent form of hashish — known as Khartoum Khaki. Other authoritative sources in the Far East reported that Raw Zeta, when refined electronically, and introduced into a human body by Chinese acupuncture techniques, could result in the formation of Deadly Zeta.

In his last public statement, Carter warned that any mortal wired to Deadly Zeta could be used as a broadcasting catalyst to enslave all humans within the sound of his voice — thus becoming an unwitting tool for the most diabolical forces of evil known to man.

Soon afterwards, Carter vanished forever while visiting his sister in San Francisco — perhaps a victim of his own prophecy.

Seven years later, when Carter was pronounced legally dead, his admirers held a spirit funeral over an empty black coffin.

The Plot: As Best I Can Make Out

There’s no question that Alabama’s Ghost could have used some post-production shooting because some of its transitions are a bit hard to follow. What’s more, there is so much going on in the film that it can be extremely hard to know what’s happening — even in the best quality print publicly available (which I own).

Since there are people who believe in “spoilers” (I don’t) I hide my plot summaries so you can avoid them. Just click the following link to display:

Alabama’s Ghost as Pure Cinema

Santa SangreDespite all of this silliness, Alabama’s Ghost is really an art film. As just something to look at, it works. The camera work is really quite good. The cinematography is by William Heick, who has done almost no work in feature films. I don’t think they had much more than a three light Lowel kit for most of the scenes, so Heick was probably mostly the cameraman. And he kept the whole thing thing lively.

Of course, the writer and director was Fredric Hobbs. Now Hobbs is an interesting guy. He’s actually a successful sculptor — and one who has changed a lot over the years. In 1969, he made the film Troika, followed by Roseland, Alabama’s Ghost, and Godmonster of Indian Flats from 1970 through 1974. And then nothing more. I suspect that he saw it all part of the same project: a serious artist interested in bringing his vision to the masses.

Fredric Hobbs: Idiosyncratic Artist

What results is what I most like to find in any art, an idiosyncratic view of the world. The film is good, yet it won’t appeal to most people because what most people want is what they’ve seen before. And this is something that you’ve never seen before. Our brilliant young Nazi scientist has become a vampire. Where does that lead your mind? It leads Hobbs’ mind to the idea of a vampire feeding assembly line. Of course! The Nazi vampires might have been bad, but at least they made the blood get delivered on time!

What Alabama’s Ghost reminded me of more than anything was an Alejandro Jodorowsky film. But one with a pop art sensibility. They compliment each other. Jodorowsky’s work is more refined and thematically richer than Alabama’s Ghost. But it is also more careful — in a bad way. Fredric Hobbs doesn’t seem at all worried that his audience won’t join him for the ride. Watching the two men back-to-back would be much like watching “Rabbit’s Kin” (Hobbs) followed by “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia (Jodorowsky).

And that, my friends, is pretty awesome. Alabama’s Ghost really does provide you with a unique viewing experience. But you might want to follow it with Santa Sangre

Rotten Tomatoes - Really

What “Critics” Say

Alabama’s Ghost is not a well known film. And Fredric Hobbs is hardly well known for his films. The only one of his films to be released on DVD is the one that was never released in theaters — his last one, the campy Godmonster Of Indian Flats. So there aren’t a bunch of people who have reviewed Alabama’s Ghost.

Rotten Tomatoes

It has a 17 percent rating on Rotten tomatoes. But that’s just user reviews; there isn’t a single “professional” review. That alone should make you move heaven and earth to see this film. Whenever someone tells me they just saw a really bad film, I rush to see it. That’s because I agree with Ed Wood, “All you of Earth are idiots!” When I’m told a film is good, it usually means “good for me” — like broccoli.

The one review on Rotten Tomatoes is refreshingly honest, however:

I still don’t understand exactly what this movie is about, but the over-arcing ridiculousness of it all makes for a fun watch, especially if you have friends around to poke fun at it in between odd moments.

But I’m not sure why someone who admits to not understanding a film feels that they are in a position to comment on it. Is its “over-arcing ridiculousness” intentional or not? I see this a lot: viewers assuming that the filmmakers were deadly serious and that the viewer is oh so clever in figuring out that it’s actually silly.

The Amazon Commenter

Worse is the one commenter on the film (other than me) on Amazon. Her review is based on watching it as a child 35 years earlier. She writes:

For years my brother and I have been joking about this movie! We have been looking for it and figured it was so bad that no one would ever put it on tape or DVD. We saw it at the movies as kids when you could go in and see a double feature and stay all day at the theater. We actually saw it twice as kids because it was so bad and we laughed so hard we wanted to go back and see what bad parts we’d missed so we could laugh some more. I don’t even remember what the main feature was!

If you enjoy Ed Wood type bad movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space, you will enjoy laughing at this horribly made film made back in the “blaxploitation” picture days. One scene I remember is when this guy gets so very frightened he actually runs nonstop back home to Alabama. I don’t mean that he gets in a car or hops a plane—he hot foots it all the way home!

Horrible movie; good laugh.

It’s an interesting review in the sense that the “bad” movie is the one that she remembers. That ought to give her a bit of a clue that the other film was just a standard studio outing that isn’t worth remembering. I commented to her review that perhaps it is a bit arrogant for a child to think they know more than a highly successful artist, and that a review written 35 years after seeing a film is not terribly valid. Not that it will matter. What was it that Ed Wood said?

Online Reviews

Most of the online reviews are just confused. Abby at What Did I Just Watch? has a pretty typical response. But it’s clear she only watched the film once and didn’t pay much attention because she makes many mistakes regarding the plot. I suppose she can be forgiven to some extent given that the plot is bizarre. But I’ll never understand why people think they understand a movie after one viewing.

But among those who know the film, there is a lot of love. I was particularly taken with what laird over at Letterboxd had to say, “This is more a happening than a traditional movie. As with his Godmonster of Indian Flats which he made the same year, I’m not sure what writer/director/producer Frederic Hobbs was trying to do, but I’m sure glad he did it.” So am I!

That’s the whole point of this film. It is Alabama’s Ghost, not some other film. You’ve got to just grab on to it and enjoy the ride! There is a lot in it and a PhD dissertation could be written about its meaning. But the main thing is to have a good time watching it. Or you could watch yet another crime drama.

Alabama’s Ghost has the advantage of being so poorly known that relatively few people have found it necessary to mock. And that is a blessing.

Not Blaxploitation!

One thing I’ve noticed is that it is mentioned repeatedly as a blaxploitation film. It is not. I understand that one approach they used to sell it was to compare it to the more traditional Blacula. But Alabama’s Ghost was not a blaxploitation film. It stars a black man (Christopher Brooks), but that’s about as far as it goes. It’s just a San Francisco film with all the social aspects that this implies.

Credit Where It’s Due

There is no question that Fredric Hobbs was an auteur. I hate to use the word because it is so often applied to Alfred Hitchcock, who is not only a wildly overrated director, but not an auteur. Generally, it is low-budget filmmakers who are auteurs. This, of course, goes completely against the way this pretentious word is used by most people. But the truth is Hollywood directors get so much help that a five-year-old could direct a competent film.

Despite Hobbs really deserving the credit for being the “author” of Alabama’s Ghost, he was really good about sharing the credit. And the opening credits allow me to provide a good idea of the major participants in the making of the film. But as always, there are so many more people involved — especially in this film. It is interesting, however, the credits include the negative cutter — a really important job that most people don’t even know about. (In Hollywood films, they are mentioned at around 5 minutes of the 15 minute closing credits that now seem to even include the brand of shoes worn by caterers.)

  • Production Company: Robert S Benson
  • Director: Fredric Hobbs
  • Producer: Fredric Hobbs
  • Screenwriter: Fredric Hobbs
  • Cinematographer: William Heick
  • Camera Operators: William Heick, Gordon Mueler, Laurence Grunberg
  • Editor: Richard Brummer
  • Composer: Andre Brummer
  • Resident Magician: Pat Lakey
  • Actors: Christopher Brooks (Alabama), Peggy Browne (Zeorae), E Kerrigan Prescrott (Carter’s Ghost), Steven Kent Brown (Otto Max), Ken Grantham (Granny, Moxie, Gault), Karen Ingenthron (Dr Caligula), Ann Weldon (Mama-bama), Ann Wagner Ward (Marilyn Midnight), Joel Noble (Doc), and many others.

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