“Abondon hope all ye who enter here.
Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain.”
~ From Dante’s Divine Comedy
I’ve always liked that quote from Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. I’ve always wanted to use it as the prelude to a movie review. However, previously, I hadn’t found just the right movie deserving of it’s message. Finally, VooDoo (written and directed by Tom Costabile) is that movie. Finally, a movie goes to truly hellish places, in the recesses of our worst nightmares. Finally, for better or worse, there is a place where one can truly “abandon all hope” and “pass into eternal pain,” all while watching a movie! Therein, the devil will drag us under!
VooDoo begins seemingly recorded by someone with a hand-held camera–someone crazy, demented, possessed (or so it seems), heaving and panting, on the ground. The camera suddenly pans up, walking toward a mother and her child on a playground. Next, something horrific happens, followed by something even more horrific that rarely happens in movies. Bloody, taboo in mainstream cinema, ironically prolonged, it plants more than enough in your mind with events off screen. Do I have your attention…and curiosity? Of course I do, and this is only the beginning! Get ready for a shower at the end. You’ll need it!
What’s next? A lot! Dani Lamb (Samantha Stewart) has just arrived in Los Angeles, excited as ever, to stay for a month with her cousin Stacy Cole (Ruth Reynolds). Dani’s vacation is a much needed getaway from New Orleans and her ever-complicated life at home. Hopefully, at least for the month, she can forget her last boyfriend–who, unbeknownst to her earlier, is a married man. In normal life, that alone could be bad enough. However, since this is horror, it gets a lot worse…of course. Dani’s ex-boyfriend’s wife just happens to be a voodoo priestess, pissed off and looking for revenge, particularly by cursing Dani to Hell. What’s more is that the priestess is “hellbent,” as they say, on making sure Dani arrives on time. As a “homewrecker” beyond forgiveness, can Dani escape? If only running off to Los Angeles could solve such problems, we’d all be better off. But again, this is a horror movie, so don’t count on it! Is Dani’s last name, Lamb, perhaps, something darkly poetic?
The added detail about VooDoo that will make some like it more or less is that it’s another found-footage film. Yes! First, the crazy person in the beginning appears to be recording the event herself. (If not, we’re seeing it first person, directly through the eyes of the character…although a later stationary viewpoint makes me think otherwise.) Later, Dani is recording her whole vacation for Dad to see, the good and the bad (even things Dad wouldn’t really want to see with the boys). Thus, we get the found-footage film, Voodoo. “Seen it all before,” you say? Before you say, “No thanks. I’ve had enough,” think again. VooDoo is off-the-charts different from anything you’ve seen before, in enough ways to make it worth your time again!
Despite VooDoo’s “off-the-charts” distinction, it’s an obvious micro-budget movie. So, rather than judge it by the same big-budget Hollywood standards, I must give it extra credit for doing a lot with, obviously very little. Whats’ more impressive is what the producers of VooDoo set out to create with little money: a big place called Hell. What brave producers, with limitless funds, have aspired to create Hell and failed? Numbers too numerous to count, for sure! For fitting hyperbole, numbers rivaling the souls of failed ambition in Hell. Perhaps.
“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorn’d.”
~ William Congreve, 1697
Yes! It’s always difficult to construct Hell as a physical place, particularly as a visual setting in a movie. Hell, wherever it is, is a place with no exact definition, no definitive location, and no single way it is imagined. Maybe it can be best said that everyone has their own Hell, literally, figuratively, and realistically in the end. What’s worse is that, because everyone has such a different opinion of what Hell is, you’re bound to dissatisfy, disappoint, or even offend someone by depicting it. In books, a general description can leave room for the mind to fill in the blanks, to the reader’s satisfaction…or horror. But, in movies, it’s another story. So, why the hell would anyone try to create Hell, especially with a small budget? Being bold, I’ll say, “Why not?” Who ever said Hell is a big-budget place?
Samantha Stewart (Days of Our Lives, The Mystery of Casa Matusita) is nothing short of amazing in Voodoo! From her arrival at the airport, through her twenty-something life and fateful experiences, her portrayal of Dani is as natural and believable as possible. Her lines are delivered, every time, as if spontaneous and off the cuff, as much as they surely follow the script. Yes! Following the script as if you’re not is truly the mark of the best actors, and Stewart does it like a pro. Transforming from a carefree tourist looking for fun to a young woman facing terrors unknown, she is convincing, utterly! Innocence, in a woman caught, unwittingly, in a love triangle, is exactly what Stewart’s character gives us, as needed. An actress of lesser talent in the key role would have ruined the film, or, at least, made it something far less; with Stewart, VooDoo is more than successful, defying the odds against it. The power of her performance begins with her arrival in LA, relentlessly captivating us to the credits!
Ruth Reynolds (Reunion, The Guest House), as Stacy, is a perfect match for Stewart and another awesome actress. The chemistry between Stewart and Reynolds, as cousins, creates a most convincing relationship. Playing off their mutual energy, they are more like sisters who complete each others sentences than the children of related siblings. No! They don’t actually finish what each other has to say, but they certainly give us the feeling that they could. Reynolds, as Stacy, is the kind of fun, playful, witty girl, sassy and sexy, yet tomboyish enough to hold her own. She’s the kind that any guy would love to have for a girlfriend, exactly because she’s a little of everything–glamorous and gritty, looking as good in shorts and a t-shirt with no makeup as she does in a dress and heels. Reynolds’ overtly awesome performance gives VooDoo just the punch it needs, making it far more than the movie it might be otherwise…again. Together, Reynolds and Stewart are a team who synergize, truly energizing the film! (Don’t you just love it when things rhyme that way!)
Are Samantha Stewart and Ruth Reynolds the only stars of VooDoo? Of course not! The movie also stars Dominic Matteucci (as Spencer), Daniel Kozul (as Trey), Lavelle Roby (as the Venice Gypsy), Constance Strickland (Dani’s voodoo priestess wife, Serafine L’Amour), and Ron Jeremy, as Ron himself–a horny bar patron, flirting with Dani and Stacy, even giving them his card, hoping for a call. Honorable mention also goes to Alexandra DeMartini–a possessed girl in Hell, who, in her brief screen time, makes a more than memorable impression! Watch for what she eats! You can’t miss it!
VooDoo gives us our first taste of horror in the beginning, and teases us with morsels of fear thereafter, when we least expect them. What happens to Stacy, while Dani goes to get a snack on the beach, is one of the creepiest moments in the movie…and in many movies I’ve seen. (I won’t dare spoil the fun and the fear telling you more!) Foreboding events, throughout, show glimpses of the evil to come, again, always when we don’t expect it. While the first 50 minutes of Voodoo occurs on Earth, in Los Angeles, showing us the life of a typical young person (as it unfortunately is), the last 30 minutes is a literal Hell that eclipses all else. Yes! The first 50 minutes is mostly the life of fun-loving girls, drinking, talking about guys and boobs (yes, there is a memorable conversation about boobs); thereafter, until the end, violence is truly hellish, bloody…and relentless! Is it all worth the wait? Absolutely, yes! I have no regrets! And, yes! I’ll watch it again!
Speaking of “hellish,” Constabile’s Hell is series of gothic, fire-and-brimstone exhibits, perfect for the medieval pardoner selling indulgences to sinners looking for absolution. More like an R-rated haunted house on Halloween than anything grandiose or otherworldly, Constabile’s Hell is still most effective as a more thrifty place of damnation and punishment. After all, a poor-man’s Dante’s Inferno is Everyman‘s Hell, no less. Here, the place of eternal “woe” and “pain” is not just isolation. Burning in fire is far from the worst of fates. Here, people eat one another endlessly, they are raped and sodomized repeatedly, fetuses are torn from wombs and devoured, while mothers scream, strangled with the umbilical cords of aborted babies. Pedophiles from the past rise from repressed memories and molest victims for eternity, smiling with impunity. Here, the damned are branded with the mark of Satan, as it sizzles in the flesh, cursed to an eternity of slaughter, pain, and suffering. Here, is a literal version of Hell, torchlit and medieval, bringing biblical verses to mind, resonating (yes, I’m going to quote scriptures). Here, Hell is, indeed, a “furnace of fire…with weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:50), “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48), where “he will be tormented with fire and brimstone” (Revelation 14:10). Amen!
The repetition of torture and agony, in a place outside of time and reality we know, is also truly a realm from Dante’s Inferno. Like the quote from The Divine Comedy, Hell is a place where “all ye who enter” should “abandon all hope,” for through [Satan] you pass into the city of woe: through [him] you pass into eternal pain.” Yes! Budget notwithstanding, Constabile gets the the horrifying message across all the same, if only by making us think of such comparisons, biblical verses, and classics. Yes! Hell as a bane of our lives after death may, indeed, also be as banal as a low-budget movie, getting its job done as efficiently, and ironically, as possible. For those who again say Constabile’s Hell is too cheap, I say, again, maybe not. Whoever said Satan was a big spender?
Are there possible problems with VooDoo? As with most micro-budget productions, of course! Some are impossible to avoid because of a big ambition and small funds; some are highly avoidable, but, somehow, occur anyway, honking at you like an eighteen wheeler in broad daylight. First, I am not a woman, I have never been raped, and I have never been to Hell…thank God! However, I don’t think I need such experience to know the answer to a question that involves all three situations in VooDoo. Would a woman, after unexpectedly going to Hell, after being raped by Satan himself, just after pulling up her pants, grab a camera to continue recording a found footage film? I want to say, NO, but honestly, I’m not sure. Would, perhaps, the trauma of such an assault shock a person so much that they no longer do things that make sense? Would they, perhaps, cling to memories of normal, more pleasant things, repressing the brutal reality? Even in small-budget films people can still do things that make sense…unless, of course, people, in general, don’t do things that make sense in Hell. Hmmm. Did I just destroy my argument? Possibly. But, at least I’m honest.
Possible problems with Voodoo, overall, do involve its attempt at a found-footage film. As with all such movies, to work, they must find plausible reasons why a person (or persons) would hold a camera and record events, from beginning to end, when all efforts to do so make death all the more likely. Except, possibly, for the post-rape scene, does VooDoo do this? Sometimes yes, and, sometimes again, when it seems ever more important, no. Although it is nice for us to see, for example, the romantic exploits of a character, as she nearly has sex with a guy, documenting events for dad might not be the woman’s best reason for recording. As for whether demons in Hell assist in the filming of found-footage movies, I don’t know. Possibly, as the greatest irony, they do! However, overall, VooDoo‘s greatest problem may be that the found-footage genre doesn’t quite work best with what the movie wants to do–show us everything, everwhere it goes, on Earth and in Hell. Perhaps a movie where the characters don’t hold the camera would have been best. Perhaps. How, I also wonder, was the footage ever retrieved from Hell? Or, are we seeing it all as it happens, in real time, with no found footage film ever produced? Are we, perhaps, the only witnesses?
Are there things I really like about VooDoo, worth special mention? Yes! A lot! While most of what I really like has already been said, there is more. First, director Tom Constabile doesn’t shy away from tabooed subjects and things that may offend people in the worst ways. With this, VooDoo is already said to have “the religious community up in arms over its extreme and controversial view of hades and stance of all things holy.” Yes, indeed, Constabile is surely doing all of this, and all the more awesome he is in doing so! Putting everything in your face, boldly, he takes the risks, going bonkers at it, knowing this is a horror movie best taken to extremes. As for nudity, it is not excessive or gratuitous, but it is there, when necessary, to be realistic. Nudity is also not covered up by selective camera angles and cropping, overtly depriving us of what should be seen. (I hate when movie’s do that!) The key rape scene is brutal, and Samantha Stewart is natural and convincing, as the victim. Her uninhibited screams make it all the more horrifying, haunting, and believable, with the devil himself as the rapist. Again, with an actress of lesser talent, even scenes like this would have fallen flat, ruining the film. With Stewart, vicariously, we imagine her pain and terror! With her honesty, the horror is real!
Are there questions? As in all good reviews, yes! Will Stacy and the sunny beaches of Los Angeles protect Dani from homeless perverts and the bowels of Hell? Will the pissed of voodoo-priestess wife of Dani’s ex-boyfriend ever be appeased by the punishments she inflicts on homewreckers? Will Dani’s ex-boyfriend escape unscathed from his wife’s wrath? Or is he now screaming in hell, bent over and restrained, forever sodomized in a pillory? What happens to Stacy, Dani’s super-cute cousin caught up in it all, only trying to help? Is Hell really, perhaps, somewhere in California, hidden in the basements and bedrooms of beach-loving young people everywhere? Does Heaven really have “no rage like love to hatred turn’d”? Does Hell really have no fury like a woman scorned? (From what I see in Voodoo, I think it does!) Finally, do humans really have the power to “curse” people to Hell? In Voodoo, the priestess does just that. Yes! I always thought you had to earn your own ticket to Hell, so this is all new to me. If this is true, then Hell is certainly a very crowded place!
Like it or not, VooDoo is a twisted soul’s trip through a fire-and-brimstone funhouse, with jaw-dropping torture at every turn. Regardless of the budget, it’s the most horrific vision of Hell I’ve seen anywhere, haunting, as a guilty pleasure, long after the credits roll! Filled with stereotypes of demons, gore, and myriad punishments therein, Hell is what we expect, from nightmares and legends, embedded in our collective consciousness and fear. In a place where Satan is truly a horny bastard, and pentagrams are really branded on the bellies of the damned, check all hope at the door. Being screwed by the devil may, indeed, be your final pleasure!
As in Hell, just when you thought it was over, it’s not. Just when you thought you’d read the last paragraph, you haven’t. While VooDoo is, itself, repetition of what you expect, included is a lot you don’t see coming. Definitely not for everyone, it’s a must-see movie for lovers of the genre. While you may publicly dismiss VooDoo as exploitation, calling it garbage to save your soul, you will likely, in private, succumb to curiosity, watch it…and like it, anyway. Yes! Like a weak soul tempted by the devil, your fate is likely predetermined and sealed already. Whatever your reasons or motives, don’t say I didn’t warn you…and, above all (and below), remember what’s most important. From Hell, there is NO escape!