Bite Size: Alabama’s Ghost (1973)

Of all of the fly by night indie filmmakers who snatched up a handful of genre credits in the wild and wooly 70s, Fredric Hobbs might have one of the most unusually highbrow pedigrees. An Ivy League educated former Air Force officer, he had a long career as both a sculptor and a painter, with his work still in the holdings of several large museums. In addition to traditional fine art, he experimented with self created forms such as his proto Burning Man “parade sculptures”, which reinvented cars as rolling installations covered in elaborate detail. In 1969 he began his experimentation with film, the (comparatively) best known of which is likely his 1973 cinematic swan song, Godmonster Of Indian Flats. Alabama’s Ghost was the second to last of Hobbs’ quartet of feature efforts, and had a limited theatrical release earlier that same year, before vanishing with little fanfare. The film briefly resurfaced on VHS in 1985, as part of Elvira’s Chiller Theater series, before disappearing a second time.

Within the first 3 minutes of viewing Alabama’s Ghost, it is very easy to see why this film quickly joined the ranks of the cinematic mole people. The opening narration is a god tier dump of exposition that reeks of being added in post production to even begin to make sense of the insanely complex plot.

A Nazi doctor of robotics named Dr. Houston Caligula was tasked with hunting down a stage magician named “The Great Carter”, who had gone on a deep sabbatical in the slums of Calcutta. He had discovered a magical substance called Raw Zeta. While bearing a surface resemblance to the “Cartoon Khaki” strain of hashish, Raw Zeta could be combined with acupuncture to create Deadly Zeta. Deadly Zeta is so called because it is a powerful tool of mass mind control. Before Dr. Caligula could locate Carter and his mysterious substance, the magician vanished. He was given a spirit funeral in the mid 1930s, as he was assumed to be dead.

Are you confused yet? Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time to be perplexed, as we cut to the modern day and the main plot, where an old fashioned Dixie band is playing a bleating song (ever so cleverly titled “Alabama’s Ghost”) that provides even MORE plot details.

“Who’s the ghostest with the mostest? Who’s the best from coast to coastest?”

“Carter’s come back to Frisco land, He’s the ghost from Alabam.”

Now that we’ve added a haunting to the 453657567 other plot elements, we finally meet the titular Alabama (Christopher Brooks, The Mack), an aspiring musician working at the club to make ends meet. When he accidentally crashes a forklift into the cellar, he discovers all of Carter’s magical gear, including the Raw Zeta, which Alabama assumes is vintage hashish and smokes. Locating Carter’s aged sister (Ken Grantham) and grand niece Zoerae (Peggy Browne) from an address on one of the treasures, he convinces them to let him learn Carter’s tricks. With the additional help of Carter’s former assistant Moxie (Ken Grantham, again) and a cellar’s worth of magic gear, he begins to transform himself into “Alabama, Ruler Of The Cosmos”.

Despite his nightclub act consisting of shuffling animals about in a cabinet and making a young Spanish boy cry over his dead grandpa, Alabama is successful enough to warrant a personal manager named Otto (Steven Kent Browne), a dizzying array of tricorn hats and lamé turbans, and a car that looks like what Fred Flintstone would drive in a monster truck rally (one of the director’s art pieces).

Otto suggests a psychedelic concert tour of open air rock festivals with a pile of hippie groupies that mostly serve as an excuse to pad the runtime with generic groovy music and the sort of wild bohemian dancing featured in pretty much every exploitation film that even mentions the word “hippie”. Lots of arm waving, hips on the 1 and 3.

As his success grows, Alabama is haunted by Carter’s ghost, warning him not to use the magic with greed in his heart, or else he risks being attacked by vampires, who he has unwittingly already met. Carter’s sister/Moxie is actually Gaunt (Ken Grantham, once more with feeling) the vampire king, whom the audience sees remove “her” wig and bare fangs early in the film. Gaunt then positions himself as a TV producer, offering a big payday if Alabama will do his disappearing elephant trick at a massive music festival, which will be broadcast worldwide. Alabama also has to reveal how the trick is done, another big magical no no, which causes Carter’s ghost to haunt him even harder.

This is more than enough plot for any movie to have, and I commend all of you for reading this far. Needless to say, the TV special is a ploy to unleash Deadly Zeta mind control, and the film has another pile of narrative elements to add to the Jenga stack. The Nazi doctor finally makes an appearance, there’s an entire witchdoctor sub plot, an Alabama doppelganger that is either a robot or a “twin Frankenstein”, and an actual live elephant. The animal is credited by name in the print I watched (Neena), and is as adorable as a creature that large can be. She does not, in fact, disappear.

This sounds like there’s a ton going on, but Alabama’s Ghost is oddly static, with a lot of idly talky sequences and boatloads of music based padding. Fredric Hobbs also wrote the screenplay, and just keeps tossing story elements at the wall in the hopes something sticks, and each new wrinkle is given a ton of exposition that is descriptive, but not in the least bit informative. The story grinds to a halt for every little thing, without ever really painting a clear picture of how any of this mystical flippity flopping actually works.

There is an epic final free for all of magic wand pew pew lasers, greasepaint vampires on motorbikes, and one very bored looking elephant, but the rest of the film takes its sweet ass time to get there. It’s all too silly to be scary, but the scarce bits that are actually funny get buried in the constant barrage of story devices. I genuinely giggled at Alabama ignoring Carter’s dire warnings, not because he’s skeptical of ghosts, but because Carter is a racist ghost who is jealous at a Black man taking over as the world’s greatest magician, so fuck him and his salt fueled warnings. Alabama even advises other characters to ignore the ghost for this reason. There’s also a silly little visual joke of the Nazi vampires making a hippie victim assembly line for more efficient feeding of their gaggle of bloodsuckers.

The few modern outlets that have covered this film at all tend to characterize this as some surrealist Blaxploitation flick, but that’s more reflective of the marketing than the actual film. Christopher Brooks’ Alabama is a jazzy stoner sort, rather than any of that subgenre’s hard edged archetypes. His dialog is written in a dated hep cat affect that makes me wonder if this film sat on a shelf for a year or two, or if Fredric Hobbs just had a tin ear for the slang that was actually hip at the time. At the very least, Brooks puts a lot of energy into his performance, trying to put this jumbled slice of psychedelica over the hump.

Alabama’s Ghost is a unique viewing experience, and cinema rarely gets more textbook definition psychotronic than this. That said, this lacks the aesthetic consistency or daffy energy to really be as much of a bizarre boffo good time as it sounds like on paper. Alabama’s Ghost is certainly a trip, but even the film itself isn’t too sure where in the hell it was supposed to be going.

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