Voodoo Academy (2000): One From the (Rapid) Heart

Matty explores David DeCoteau’s groundbreaking LGBTQ+ chiller and the impact it had on the auteur’s remarkable career.

Although Charles Band was unsure of the project, adamant they’d covered similar ground with their trippy Romanian chiller, Talisman (1998), he soon relented. David DeCoteau wanted to make a more personal movie, and Band owed his friend and longtime collaborator a favour. 

For the last eighteen months or so, DeCoteau had helped keep Band’s Full Moon Entertainment afloat almost single-handedly, belting out nine programmers — well, seven and two halves — across two continents in quick succession. First came Shrieker (1998), then Curse of the Puppet Master (1998), Talisman, The Killer Eye (1999), and Alien Arsenal (1999). In between, DeCoteau tackled Frankenstein Reborn (1998) — an episode of Band’s aborted Goosebumps-esque TV show, Filmonsters! — in Bucharest in tandem with Talisman, and the first four days of Micro Mini Kids (2001) in L.A. before departing the production (‘creative differences’) and jetting to Romania again for Witchouse (1999) and Retro Puppet Master (1999).

It was on the plane back to Los Angeles when DeCoteau came up with his passion project, VOODOO ACADEMY (2000).

Conceived as ‘Zombie Queen’ and designed as a vehicle for Alien Arsenal’s Riley Smith, DeCoteau pitched Voodoo Academy to Band. The maven gave the film the greenlight ostensibly as a thank you for his trusted lieutenant’s efforts. Band’s sole stipulation was that DeCoteau shepherd a little quickie, Totem (1999), when Voodoo Academy wrapped. In exchange, DeCoteau had autonomy to shape Voodoo Academy as he saw fit; a decision Band regretted when he clapped eyes on the helmer’s director’s cut. 

Budgeted at $60,000, Voodoo Academy was shot in Pasadena over four days in January 1999. A fifth day for inserts, VFX material, and the film’s striking, Blood and Black Lace (1964)-aping title sequence followed six months later, shooting simultaneously with DeCoteau’s pick-ups for Retro Puppet Master. Shortly thereafter, DeCoteau and his editor, Tom Vater — who DeCoteau credits for accentuating Voodoo Academy’s eroticism — presented the film to Band. In the abridged account of its making Band was aghast. 

Voodoo Academy wasn’t just gay.

It was Gay with a capital G. 

According to DeCoteau, Band didn’t talk to him for a week — but the producer’s concerns weren’t rooted in knee-jerk homophobia as lore suggests. A genuinely progressive guy, Band tacitly encouraged DeCoteau to push the rainbow-coloured envelope on his last batch of Full Moon assignments, and knew the sort of singular, heavily stylised pictures his Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) compadre was fashioning now his metamorphosis from journeyman to artiste was complete. Curse of the Puppet Master, Talisman, and The Killer Eye throb with the same kind of seductive homoeroticism that defined DeCoteau’s earliest Band opus, Dreamaniac (1986), and celebrating the male form and probing the nature of homosexual desire and assorted LGBTQ+ issues had become DeCoteau’s priority in the wake of his ‘Coming Out Trilogy’, Skeletons (1997), Leather Jacket Love Story (1997) and Absolution: The Journey (1997) — a triumvirate that found the filmmaker reconciling his sexuality with his art. Supposedly, Band even shielded DeCoteau when an unnamed Full Moon executive lobbied for the “blasphemous” and “perverse” Voodoo Academy to be scrapped, telling them to “let Dave do his thing” and giving them their marching orders. What worried Band was how to market the film. An evocative and unapologetically thirsty gay mood piece about black magic, manipulation, abuses of power, and religious hypocrisy wasn’t going to fly with the primary distributor of Full Moon’s wares, the ultra-conservative Blockbuster. That, mind, was DeCoteau’s point.

He wanted to ruffle feathers.

An incredibly potent experience, Voodoo Academy is artisanally crafted to shock. It’s neither gory nor especially frightening or even that sexually explicit — but it is arresting, strange, and wickedly salacious. On a purely superficial level, it succeeds as impish sacrilege. DeCoteau is a cinema savvy, pop-culture vulture and Voodoo Academy serves as his knowing entry in the sex-and-faith stakes; a deliberately debauched distillation of such eclectic yet thematically tethered texts as Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus (1947) and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), the nunsploitation pictures those classics inspired, and Mary Lambert’s video for Madonna’s 1989 hit, Like a Prayer.  The eroticism — which, again, eschews gratuitous nudity — is delivered in a manner akin to the stream of consciousness wank-fantasies of a closeted and sexually frustrated Catholic school boy tipped over the edge by a Calvin Klein boxer shorts commercial. DeCoteau’s robustly composed images — all sculpted abs, bare chests, and Leni Riefenstahl-esque muscle worship — unspool with an increasingly libidinous rhythm lending them an authentic air of lost-in-the-moment carnal frenzy, and he twists various bits of Christian iconography into double-ended visual gags as humorous as they are profane. In his terrific 1988 teen comedy Dr. Alien, DeCoteau used the extraterrestrial antenna on top of Billy Jacoby’s head in lieu of an erect penis. In Voodoo Academy, it’s the crucifix that Mike McReady (Ben Indra) sucks as the sinister Reverend Carmichael (Chad Burris) questions his masturbation habits in the confessional booth.

Written by Matthew Jason Walsh [1], Voodoo Academy’s story is structured as a mystery. However, in keeping with both of DeCoteau’s preceding joints, Absolution and Talisman (the latter of which also penned by Walsh), and the slew of queer horror epics that DeCoteau and Walsh assembled when this ultimately game-changing film redefined their careers, it’s clear from Voodoo Academy’s throat-grabbing opening that Carmichael and the College’s slinky house ma’am, Mrs. Bouvier (Debra Mayer), are up to no good. True to Voodoo Academy’s original ‘Zombie Queen’ title, Bouvier is the arch villain. She’s really a horned demoness who needs six souls to raise an army of ghouls, and the beguiling temptress is performed with an irresistible menace by Mayer. Forceful, captivating, brilliant — yet as grandiose as the sorely missed starlet’s turn is [2] — and as stilted the handsome Burris is as an actor — Bouvier is slightly less interesting than her minion. It’s a comparatively minor gripe given the fact the devil-bitch is still a deliciously ghoulish creation, and as strong a woman as any of DeCoteau’s signature femmes (see: the eponymous Lady Avenger (1988) and the titular Nightmare Sisters (1988) and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama). Nevertheless, she’s a comic book baddie whereas Carmichael invokes something infinitely more truthful and terrifying.

He’s drawn from real life. 

Lensed with voyeuristic glee by DeCoteau’s regular DP, Howard Wexler, Voodoo Academy bubbles with a sweaty, predatory edge indicative of the inherent homoeroticism of its all boys’ school setting — a locale employed in identical fashion in Absolution and Talisman. Rounded out by Billy (Kevin Calisher), Rusty (Huntley Ritter), Paul (Drew Fuller), Sam (Travis Sher), and Riley Smith’s lead, Christopher, the six young studs under Carmichael’s phony tutelage watch Bouvier as her leering, rubber glove-sporting disciple watches them and we watch him. Though the character drifts in and out of Voodoo Academy, leaving passages to be carried by Christopher and co.’s copious scenes of chatter, the verbal exchanges tighten the film’s crotch-quivering hysteria, and appear ripped from Carmichael’s wildest twink-obsessed fantasies. Walsh’s mannered dialogue fizzes with innuendo and code, and topics of conversation include repression, pleasure, pain, and uninhibited lust as the sexual tension builds to fever pitch. Triggered by Bouvier’s sorcery, the electromagnetic pulses of the weird mind-melting gizmo plugged into the confessional booth, and — in a fabulously silly flourish — corrosive ceremonial wine, two thirds of Voodoo Academy’s boys transform from besuited and relatively strait-laced bible students to outlandishly dressed omnisexual submissives susceptible to Carmichael’s advances. Seizing any opportunity to grab and grope them, their bodies are the prurient padre’s reward for his devoted service to the diabolical Bouvier, and a plot point at once kinky and creepy.                

It was Carmichael’s penchant for fondling that raised alarm bells for Band. The Full Moon chieftain cited Bouvier’s lascivious lackey as too close to the bone. The implications were incendiary: here was a thoroughly warped individual abusing his power, motivated by a mix of sexual proclivities and questionable ‘religious’ practices, hiding behind a dog collar and a cloak of respectability. It didn’t matter that Voodoo Academy boasted a rich vein of dark humour beneath its earthy temperament and surreal flights of fancy; and it didn’t matter that the chance of a Full Moon flick gaining mainstream exposure was, frankly, slim at best. DeCoteau coupling the film’s queerness and horny disposition with swipes and pokes at evangelism, Christianity, and crackpot cod ‘religions’ like Christian Science and Scientology (Carmichael’s sessions invoke the auditing process and Bouvier hilariously refers to the rev as “a dime-store L. Ron Hubbard”) was dangerous in an age where being loud and proud and calling out shitty people and institutions weren’t commonplace in American genre movies. Thus Band shelved Voodoo Academy while he figured out what to do with it. 

Despite DeCoteau proposing that they mask the homoeroticism by touting the film as “the first horror movie for girls” and surmising that, if they didn’t openly acknowledge it, Blockbuster’s acquisition brass probably wouldn’t notice anything inflammatory, Band demanded Voodoo Academy be re-edited. DeCoteau reluctantly acquiesced and excised a whopping twenty-three minutes of footage from his intended ninety-three minute version. Branding it with an ad campaign reminiscent of the by-then released Witchouse — which was becoming a surprise rental smash — Band shopped the truncated cut around as ‘Subhuman’ before reverting to Voodoo Academy when Blockbuster mentioned that the new art and nomenclature didn’t match the film’s content. With the big blue home entertainment giant accepting DeCoteau’s “horror movie for girls” smokescreen, the one hour n’ ten iteration of Voodoo Academy shipped an impressive 30,000 VHS units in the U.S. ahead of its eventual release in May 2000. 

Voodoo Academy was DeCoteau’s baby. Rightly believing it to be tied with Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991) as the best film he’d orchestrated for Band, the director was dejected enough by the post tinkering to employ a pseudonym on the compromised cut. Thinking it done and wanting a last defiant ‘fuck you’, DeCoteau chose the name he’d used for The Killer Eye, ‘Richard Chasen’ (get it?). But Voodoo Academy wasn’t done. Quite the opposite. 

Artistically, Voodoo Academy was the catalyst for the single greatest achievement in DeCoteau’s career. He’d already fronted his own shingle, Cinema Home Video. When that outfit folded in 1994 amidst declining sales and inferior product, DeCoteau supervised several Full Moon subdivisions for Band — erotic imprint Torchlight, the short-lived Pulp Fantasy — and tried to launch a couple of others (notably, the sadly never-to-be Full Moon Cyber). Convinced that the unexpurgated Voodoo Academy could have been the start of something new and exciting — and, crucially, plug a gap in the market for the horror genre’s underrepresented queer audience — DeCoteau decided to go it alone and founded Rapid Heart Pictures in December 1999. With lessons learned, Voodoo Academy scaffolded the Rapid Heart template. Anything controversial in terms of theme was to be scaled back until the company built a loyal and hungry fanbase, and the films had to look snazzy and polished in order to catch the eye of potential investors and buyers, meaning that Voodoo Academy’s gritty 16mm aesthetic was nixed in favour of slick 35mm Scope photography — an idea DeCoteau ported from Shrieker. But stories of spooky sects, evil organisations, freaky fraternities, and arcane rituals, buoyed by gorgeous young casts and a healthy dollop of homoeroticism — basically, everything DeCoteau had experimented with across Dreamaniac, Absolution, Talisman and Curse of the Puppet Master, and refined come Voodoo Academy — were to be the Rapid Heart trademark. And unlike Voodoo Academy, DeCoteau would control Rapid Heart’s output from inception to delivery; a God of his own kingdom.    

Operating from his dining room table, DeCoteau was busy mounting his inaugural Rapid Heart opus, Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy (2000) — which, of course, was written by Walsh — when he locked Totem and started prepping Prison of the Dead (2000) for Band. Upon learning of his intentions, Band was immediately intrigued by the Rapid Heart battleplan and realised that DeCoteau could well be onto a winning concept. With presales of Voodoo Academy’s toothless ‘Chasen’ cut doing OK, the Full Moon bigwig was going to hedge his bets and unleash DeCoteau’s director’s cut as a DVD exclusive. The format was ballooning and the more extras-packed a disc, the better. It was a win-win situation: the director’s cut DVD could be promoted to a different crowd (the gays!), sold via Full Moon’s website and in retailers open to stocking spicier, boundary-breaking fare (Hollywood Video, Tower Records, Amazon), and its bountiful spread of supplementary material would provide a near scholarly level of context, circumventing potential scandal. DeCoteau was delighted, and the uncensored Voodoo Academy debuted as part of Full Moon’s innovative Lunar Edition DVD range — a brief but brilliant label spearheaded by Devin Hamilton and the company’s then-post production wiz, J.R. Bookwalter — on 26th September 2000 [3]. Perhaps anticlimactically, there was no major controversy. There was, mind, cash — and boatloads of it. Voodoo Academy’s Lunar Edition sold like hot cakes, and DeCoteau was proven correct.

Queer horror wasn’t just an unexploited market.

It was needed.  

In Voodoo Academy’s wake, Rapid Heart Pictures exploded, and the pioneering — if maddeningly unacknowledged — DeCoteau unloaded queer horror masterpiece after queer horror masterpiece — The Brotherhood (2001), Final Stab (2001), Leeches! (2003), Speed Demon (2003), and Beastly Boyz (2006) among them.  

[1] As ‘Eric Black’. Incidentally, Walsh was keen to put his proper name on it but was advised against it by DeCoteau for fear of an anti-gay backlash if Voodoo Academy didn’t catch on.
[2] Having played the love interest in the video for country singer Toby Keith’s 1999 track How Do You Like Me Now?, Mayer was a Full Moon staple in the early to mid ‘00s, appearing in Blood Dolls (1999); Stitches (2001); Hell Asylum (2002); the company’s infamous William Shatner folly, Groom Lake (2002); the wildly underappreciated Dr. Moreau’s House of Pain (2004); and a few others. Prior to Voodoo Academy, Mayer paired with DeCoteau on Micro Mini Kids. Post Voodoo Academy, she teamed with him again on Prison of the Dead. In that film’s wake, Mayer was scheduled to take a role in the mooted ‘Subspecies 5’ — a long gestating project that’s recently been revived as part of Band’s Deadly Ten slate. Sadly, Mayer retired from acting in 2013 and took her own life on 5th May 2015. She was forty-six years old.
[3] The other Lunar Editions releases were: Witchouse II: Blood Coven (2000), HorrorVision (2001), The Vault (2001), and Vengeance of the Dead (2001). In the U.K., Voodoo Academy was released by Prism Leisure in spring 2002. Annoyingly, Prism’s DVD was extras-free and an NTSC to PAL conversion. 

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