Director – Alfredo B. Crevenna, Screenplay – Julio Albo & Julio Alejandro, Producer – Ruben A. Calderon, Photography (b&w) – Raul Martinez, Ritual Music – Obdulio Morales, Music Director – Ian Adomain, Makeup – Armando Meyer, Art Direction – Salvador Lozano
Raymond Guy (George), Ninon Sevilla (Yambao), Rosalind Dunhill (Beatrice)
It is the mid-19th Century on a Caribbean island plantation. The plantation master George discovers that Yambao, granddaughter of the witch Caridat who was killed by his father, is stirring trouble among the slaves by reintroducing voodoo rituals. He dismisses these as superstitious nonsense. A plague then hits the area, killing many of the slaves. The slaves blame Yambao and go to burn her at the stake but she is saved by George’s intervention. Afterwards, Yambao decides that she is in love with George. She steals some of his clothes and casts a spell to make him hers. He comes to her, only to collapse with the plague. Yambao is the only one able to free him from the fever. However Caridat, who is still alive, has decided that George must die for what his father did to her. A war between the two ensues as Yambao desires to protect George from her grandmother’s vengeance.
This Mexican-made, Cuban-shot voodoo film is an absolutely fascinating find. It was originally made under the title Yambao but in the US it was retitled Cry of the Bewitched and released in black-and-white on a B movie double-bill. All comments by genre reviewers that one has been able to find dismiss it as no more than a B programmer. Located however, Yambao/Cry of the Bewitched proves to be rich in all manner of themes. It is, for example, one of the few films that discusses voodoo as a cultural phenomenon and, up until Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), one of the only films to do so with an authenticity of cultural detail and a sympathy for the religion (as opposed to casting it as evil and sinister in contrast to Western culture).
There is the undeniable influence of Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943). In particular, both films have a middle section where the voodoo practitioners draw someone to them under the influence of a spell. There is also a point in both films where you cannot be sure whether what is happening is due to the effects of voodoo or illness. All of Val Lewton’s films sat in a delicate place of uncertainty between whether one could dismiss what was happening as being purely mundane in nature or of supernatural cause. It is quite possible to imagine Cry of the Bewitched as being a Lewtonian film and it sometimes hovers on the edge of being so – the scenes where Raymond Guy’s master is drawn to Ninon Sevilla’s witch and collapses with plague and she is the only one who can save him sit with a certain ambiguity between whether it is magic or fever – although this is all conducted with far less subtlety than in I Walked with a Zombie.
The most fascinating scenes in the film are those dealing with the voodoo rituals. These scenes have an undeniable ring of authenticity to them. Like The Serpent and the Rainbow, Cry of the Bewitched makes a direct contrast between the dual religions of Central America – Catholicism and voodoo. There is one striking shot that cuts between the master’s wife and servants in the house praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary and the voodoo rituals out in the field. There is a fascinating scene where Ninon Sevilla steals some of the master’s clothes and then conducts a ceremony, where we see her writhing about on the ground in torrid passion, before the zombified, bare-chested Raymond Guy comes to her and then collapses in fever. Although the most amazing sequence in the film is the one set on a riverbank, which choreographs a piece of music with the washerwomen as a chorus and Ninon Sevilla singing/dancing on the opposite bank, while the scrape of the men sharpening machetes as they cut the crops on the other side acts as percussive accompaniment on the soundtrack.
There is a fascinating torridness to the film. Ninon Sevilla was a Cuban-born dancer who emigrated to Mexico and gained fame in various films for her particularly sensual dance moves. Sevilla is not a particularly great actress but this is more than made up for by director Alfredo B. Crevenna’s playing her presence for the maximum sexual allure that censorship of the day allowed him to get away with – skimpy outfits that reveal much in the way of cleavage and bare leg, tantalising looks across her shoulder. She is cast as a force of desire and temptation and smoulders whenever she is on the screen. Moreover, the film clearly deals with miscegenation, featuring interracial kisses and, it all but said, sex between white master Raymond Guy and the dark-skinned Ninon Sevilla (although this would be less striking in Mexico where both actors were actually Latino, but more so in America where Raymond Guy looks very much a Caucasian. In that interracial relationships were entirely verboten on screen in American films in 1956, it is striking just how much the film can get away with simply by being released as a B horror movie). On the minus side, the character of Yambao seems to vary wildly – at first appearing a calculating and sinister temptress and then in mid-film all of this suddenly being dropped as she becomes little more than a lovesick teenager. (Even more amusing is Raymond Guy’s wife Rosalind Dunhill who manages to spend the majority of the film in a state of pregnancy without ever showing the slightest outward sign of such).
One of the fascinating aspects of Cry of the Bewitched is that it seems to treat slavery sympathetically. This is something that is by implication justified by the film’s stance – the master/plantation owner is cast as the hero of the film, while the villainness of the show stirs up trouble among the otherwise docile slave populace ie. upsets the cosy status quo of master and slaves. Raymond Guy’s slave owner is portrayed as benevolent and good, while the slaves are shown as dumb and happy, even accepting of their rightful place. In one amazing scene, we see them being whipped for their disobedience. At one point, the master’s means of dealing with the native unrest and desertion over the plague is to order “Put them [back] to work” – an attitude that the film does not seem to take much objection to.
The film also seems to adopt a Fatal Attraction (1987) attitude towards the master’s philandering with a native girl. At the end, she is despatched without much in the way of sympathy, while he returns to his longsuffering wife and repents for his straying where, like Fatal Attraction, he is accepted back and forgiven as long as he demonstrates he is a caring father and husband; whereas for the sexually forward temptress, the only fate is death.