Voodoo Macbeth (Lightyear, Blu-ray or DVD, NR, 108 min.). During the Great Depression, the government’s Work Progress Administration set up the Federal Theatre Project in October 1935 to give performers and theater staff a means to earn an income. This history-based film tells of the Negro Theater Unit, led by Rose McClendon, a well-known black actress, and producer John Houseman (later an Oscar winner for “The Paper Chase” and who reprised the role in the TV series), who worked to put on a Shakespearean play at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1936. Houseman had the idea to hire first-time director Orson Welles, then 20, for an all-black production of “Macbeth,” an offer Welles initially rejected until he and his wife Virginia came up with the idea of moving the play’s setting from Scotland to Haiti and exchanging witchcraft for Caribbean voodoo. At the time, Welles was working as a radio voice for ads; he would soon make his classic film “Citizen Kane,” released in 1941.

A photo of the original 1936 “Voodoo Macbeth,” directed by Orson Welles. Courtesy Lightyear Entertainment.

 

The embellished story details the production process, including an actor who often is drunk and a too-easily sussed-out gay subplot, as well as opposition from a congressman (a very George C. Scott-looking Hunter Bodine as Martin Dies), who believes the show is too communist. This latter theme also is discussed in the accompanying audio commentary.

Inger Tudor is exceptional as McClendon, while in his film debut, Jewell Wilson Bridges (national tours of “My Fair Lady” and “La Cage Aux Folles”) plays Welles, who does a lot of drinking himself. The all-black cast of “Macbeth” includes Wrekless Watson as middleweight champion Cuba Johnson, Gary McDonald as the oft-inebriated Jack Carter, Jeremy Tardy as Maurice (also the elevator operator in Welles’ building) and Ashli Haynes as Edna Thomas, a nightclub singer.

The show, although also controversial with the Harlem community, became a sensation, running for 10 weeks, before touring the country. A small part of the original production is shown in a brief extra (4:02). The cast commentary includes Bridges, Tudor, co-director Zoe Salnave, co-writer Erica Sutherlin and co-producers Miles Alva and Jason Phillips. This was the first theatrical release from USC Originals in association with Warner Bros. Involved were 10 directors, eight writers and three producers. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Don’t Look at the Demon (Malaysia, Strand Releasing, DVD, NR, 95 min.). Jules (Fiona Dourif of TV’s “Chucky” and 2 “Chucky” films) can detect the supernatural, so she hosts a TV series called “The Skeleton Crew” that investigates paranormal activity. She and her crew — producer Matty (Jordan Belfi), interpreter Annie (Thao Nhu Phan) and cameramen brothers Wolf (Randy Wayne) and Ben (Harris Dickinson of “Beach Rats,” “The King’s Man,” “Postcards from London,” “Trust” miniseries) — travel to the haunted house of Martha (Malin Crepin) and Ian (William Miller) in Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia, for their next episode.

Parts of the house are sufficiently creepy – especially the basement and two hidden rooms – and some of the stunts involving possessed humans are effective, but the characters are rather bland, weakening the overall effect. Writer/director Brando Lee introduces some exposition about a banned ritual called Kuman Thong, which involves unborn fetuses removed from a mother’s womb in order to empower a master. The film’s ending is simply strange.

The only extra is a behind-the-scenes look, with the actors discussing their characters and talking of filming in Malaysia (20:59). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extra 2 stars

Death Knot (Indonesia, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or DVD, NR, 101 min.). This horror film is more of a slow boil and involves a brother (director and co-writer Cornelio Sunny as Hari) and sister (Widika Sidmore as Eka) who both dream of their mother’s hanging death the same night as she died of hanging. They, and Eka’s boyfriend Adi (Morgan Oey), go to the mother’s funeral, but decide to keep her house. The remote villagers believe their mother was a shaman, or witch, who practiced black magic, summoning a red ball and every year villagers started hanging themselves for the so-called “harvest.” Indeed, the next day, two people are found hanging. Soon, Adi starts acting as if he were possessed … and there are small stone megaliths in the woods that supposedly predate humans. The film is heavy on atmosphere. Grade: film 3 stars

Back to the Wharf (China, Red Water, VOD, NR, 120 min.). This is a modern noir by director/co-writer Li Xiaofeng. It begins when top student Song Hao learns he will not be given the direct admission to college he had earned. His distraught father learns the spot was given to his son’s best friend, Li Tang, the son of the deputy mayor. Song Hao goes to confront Li Tang but enters the wrong house and is accused of being a thief by the owner, who attacks him. In an effort to save his own life, Song Hao stabs the homeowner and runs off, but he is seen leaving by his own father, who then enters the house and kills the man so he cannot report Song Hao.

Song Hao skips town and becomes a worker at a stone-carving factory, never knowing that Li Tang had seen, from across the street, both he and his father leave the murdered man’s house nor that his father was the murderer. Li Tang subsequently used this knowledge to force Song Hao’s father to approve all his building permits, after he goes into the construction business.

When Song Hao returns after 15 years in exile for his mother’s funeral, he is forced to do some nefarious business for Li Tang. He also begins a relationship with former schoolmate Pan Xiaoshuang, who works at the tollbooth and pursues him, and he checks up on the teenaged daughter of the murdered man.

Song Hao finally learns the truth of that night and what has happened since, but it leads to tragedy and threatens his new domestic happiness. There is a closing script that is written as if the film were based on a true story. For me, the downbeat ending ruined an otherwise interesting film with some solid acting. Grade: film 3 stars

On the Trail of Bigfoot: Last Frontier (1091 Pictures, VOD, NR, 87 min.). This docudrama from Small Town Monsters, directed and written by Seth Breedlove, lacks some of the recreations of previous installments, but has plenty of interviews with Alaskan residents who claim to have had sightings or encounters with a Sasquatch, aka a Bigfoot. The film was shot over several months in the Alaskan wilderness, concurrently with upcoming Small Town Monsters projects “Land of the Missing” and “Bigfoot: Beyond the Trail: Alaskan Coastal Sasquatch,” to be released later this year. Each production takes a different look at the lore of the monsters believed to be living in the snow, offering the most comprehensive view of the evidence.

Here, audio evidence presented includes recordings that seem to capture a baby crying deep in the remote, coastal regions of Alaska, along with numerous howls, whoops, tree knocks and other sounds. The baby-crying audio is particularly unnerving as it has been referenced numerous times in Alaskan native lore as being a tactic employed by Bigfoot to lure its victims into the woods. One witness’ story goes back to 1969, and, more recently, a strange handprint is found on the side of a remote cabin.

The entertaining film is full of Alaskan landscapes, beautiful but forbidding in their remoteness. Grade: film 3 stars

Tom Von Malder of Owls Head has reviewed music since 1972, just after graduation from Northwest-ern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has reviewed videos/DVDs since 1988.

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