On April 30, 1941, a Jewish man here in Amsterdam wrote a desperate letter to an American friend, pleading for help emigrating to the United States.
“USA is the only country we could go to,” he wrote. “It is for the sake of the children mainly.”
A volunteer found that plea for help in 2005 when she was sorting old World War II refugee files in New York City. It looked like countless other files, until she saw the children’s names.
“Oh my God,” she said, “This is the Anne Frank file.” Along with the letter were many others by Otto Frank, frantically seeking help to flee Nazi persecution and obtain a visa to America, Britain or Cuba — but getting nowhere because of global indifference to Jewish refugees.
We all know that the Frank children were murdered by the Nazis, but what is less known is the way Anne’s fate was sealed by a callous fear of refugees, among the world’s most desperate people.
I recently bought Michael Weldon’s book, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. To be honest, until recently, I had no idea where the word came from. I just knew that Movie Madness in Portland specialized in “psychotronic film,” and I loved the films that they labeled in that way. According to Google, the word denotes “a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics.” It’s actually a poorly defined word, but you get the idea. Regardless, reading through the book, I came upon a gem called, Alabama’s Ghost.
One thing that’s interesting about the book is that it lists films that Weldon hadn’t seen. That was the case with Alabama’s Ghost. But you can tell just how excited he is 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 could feel the excitement.
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.
If we have a problem defining what “psychotronic film” is, I think we have a way to avoid the question. If someone wants to know what it is, you can just show them Alabama’s Ghost. The film has it all. The other day, I posted the text of the opening narration of the film, The Interminable Opening of Alabama’s Ghost. I didn’t mean that in a bad way. 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.
The Plot: As Best I Can Make Out
The plot off 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. (See the quote.) it’s not clear why else she created the robot. 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 elephana, 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 bring 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 of 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, based on this one film (and I will see the rest of his fims) 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