An 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:
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:
The plot of Alabama’s Ghost is actually quite a bit more bizarre than Weldon made out. Alabama (played with admirable gusto by Christopher Brooks) comes upon a bunch of lost stuff left behind by the stage magician Carter the Great. In exchange for delivering a message from Carter to his sister, Alabama is taught Carter’s act from Carter’s one time assistant. But the woman he thinks is Carter’s sister is really Gault, the leader of a tribe of vampires.
Their plan is to use Alabama, who becomes very famous doing Carter’s act, as a way of turning all of humanity into its slaves. (If you want to know how that would work, see the opening narration that I quoted before.) But for some reason, Dr Caligula (who is also a vampire) creates a robot that looks just like Alabama, thus providing an ending to the film. But what’s most impressive about all of this lunacy is that it’s all kind of secondary to the main thrust of the plot.
The Vanishing Elephant
The film is mostly about Alabama’s big performance: he’s going to make an elephant disappear. He will do this on live television and it will be watched all over the world. Now why the world would care so much, I can’t say. It’s an old trick. As I told a friend of mine many years ago when he saw David Copperfield make a Learjet vanish, “There’s really no difference between making a Learjet vanish and making a quarter vanish.” But elephants are nice animals. And this is a psychotronic film and if the world wants to see an elephant vanish, the world gets to see an elephant vanish!
But after doing the trick, Alabama is going to show the world how the trick is done. That’s the really big deal. That’s more understandable: people always think they want to know how magic tricks are done, but they don’t really. What limited enjoyment one might get from seeing an elephant vanish is destroyed by finding out that the “trick” is not very impressive. By the way, here’s Doug Henning making an elephant
move beneath the stage disappear:
Carter Is Alabama’s Ghost
This is the key to the whole plot, because the ghost of Carter the Great is really angry that Alabama is going to break the “magician’s code” that you never tell the prols how tricks are done. In fact, this was something that Carter’s assistant explicitly discussed when he first met Alabama — not that Carter would haunt him, but that you never explain tricks.
Alabama himself isn’t happy about this either. But his manager, Otto Max (played with wonderful 1970s British hipster flair by Steven Kent Browne) thinks this is the way that they will get a performance contract with Gault, who is actually, as I noted, the head of the vampires. Regardless, the ghost of Carter keeps showing up and hectoring Alabama about this. And with the ghost and the vampires and generally feeling like revealing the elephant trick would be wrong, Alabama runs home to Louisiana where his mother takes him to a witch doctor.
The whole thing ends on the beach in Alabama, with an elephant, Alabama’s doppelganger, flower children, vampires on motorcycles, and the real Alabama and his mother happy as they stare into the sunset.
Alabama’s Ghost as Pure Cinema
Despite 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
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.
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:
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:
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?
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.
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.