Monday, October 9, 2023

“Stories of Aztec Princes, Voodoo Rites, the Living Dead” - Crypt of Dark Secrets (1976)

It is time to investigate Crypt of Dark Secrets (1976), a Louisiana-set film directed by Jack Weis, producer of the great Mardi Gras Massacre (1978) and director of the erotic crime film Death Brings Roses (1975). Crypt of Dark Secrets does not, unfortunately, feature any crypts, but it does feature bayous, snakes, blood money, and voodoo dolls.

Some of your universe's critics are critical of Crypt of Dark Secrets. For example, reviewer Stefano Monteforte writes, "Nearly everything about this regional drive-in putrid." And reviewer Lou writes, "There are many drawn out scenes that are just padding for runtime." And reviewer P3n-E-W1s3 writes, "Crypt is one hell of a stinky film and if you ever smell its stench, run as far away as possible. Do Not Watch this garbage."

Read on for the truth about Crypt of Dark Secrets...

In a forest, a dark-haired woman performs a ritual in front of a flaming brazier and an arcane symbol on the ground.

Eventually, the woman displays magical powers as she levitates over the scene.

The film cuts to a living room, where the local sheriff discusses folklore with a man named Charlie (played by Donn Davison, producer of such classics as 1967's She Freak and 1975's Blood Beast of Monster Mountain). “You know that legend you asked me about has been told in these parts for probably a hundred years or more, about the woman who lives in a lake and turns into a snake. Never thought much about it. We got maybe five or six thousand books in our library. You told me to look so I did, and I had to go through damn near every one of them. But I found it. There’s a legend of a girl called Damballa. She turns into a snake.” He adds, “It’s very interesting. And there are pictures.”

Charlie tells the sheriff he doesn’t know if he believes the legend is true. “The reason I don’t know,” Charlie explains eloquently, “is that there’s two reasons people write books. One of them is to kind of tell a story and entertain people. And the other one’s to record history. I don’t know which one they did in this case.”

The sheriff looks on thoughtfully; clearly, Charlie’s profound words have deeply touched him.

The sheriff and his underling, Sgt. Buck, take a small motorboat through the Louisiana bayou to find the island where the Damballa story reportedly occurred (an island named, appropriately, Haunted Island), due to the fact that a young man is now living on the only house on the island. The sheriff regales Sgt. Buck with his own story about growing up in the swamp with his father and hearing stories about people trying to live in the house (their motivations are never explained). “The longest one of them stayed was one night. And they’d come back with stories of Aztec princes, voodoo rites, the living dead. Everything imaginable.” He further explains that the young man currently living on the island was discharged from the Army with a pension and has stayed on the island for a whole month.

They arrive at a dock to find the man, retired Army ranger colonel Ted Watkins, who wears cutoff denim shorts, sitting in front of the house. “We just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought we’d stop by and give you a welcome,” the sheriff says jokingly. Meanwhile, a snake swims through the swamp, recalling Damballa and the story that she is a snake entity that transports people from the land of the living to the land of the dead.

Over beer and coffee, Ted immediately tells the officers that he has seen a dark-haired woman swimming in the water. Then the sheriff tells Ted to be careful about his pension money, which he assumes is kept in the cabin because Ted has no account with the local bank. Ted says he’s not worried about his money.

Later, Ted wanders the island and sees Damballa, who is also wandering the island but who changes into a snake in a puff of fog.

Of course, the film follows the rules of an effective screenplay, so the next scene involves Sgt. Buck taking Ted to the local bank to set up an account. The scene is a tense one due to two factors. First, the speaking characters are out of focus, while the desks behind them are in focus. Second, the man sitting off to the left, who holds his battered hat in his hands, is listening intently as the bank manager explains how Ted cashing his monthly disability and pension checks amounting to a massive amount of money and storing the cash on Haunted Island might not be a good idea.

The bank manager says, “Now, I’d like you to bring all of your money…to the bank. You know, it’s not like the old days. Banks don’t fail anymore.” The manager also asks Ted quite loudly, “Where do you keep the money? Do you have a safe?”

Ted, apparently as indiscreet as the bank manager due to his time living alone on an island, replies, “Heck no! I’ve been out on that island for three months now without a visitor. I keep the money where the bugs can’t get it. In the breadbox.”

The manager quips, “The breadbox? I guess it’s a good place to keep bread.”

Meanwhile, the man sitting behind them nods sinisterly before another bank officer tells him he’s not getting a loan.

In the next scene, the eavesdropper, Max, meets with his cohort Earl on a boat to plan how to steal Ted’s money. They plan to kill Ted if necessary. They do not see, however, the naked Damballa, who watches them from the water in her human form and then chases them in their boat in her snake form.

After a mishap involving underwater quicksand, the would-be thieves (who continually fail to notice a young naked woman swimming ten feet away from them) go to Max’s house, where they further strategize about robbing Ted with Max’s wife Louise. “What is the best way for somebody to die on the bayou?” asks Earl.

Max waxes philosophical: “With all this damn water around, probably the best way would be drowning. Maybe he could fall down, hit his head, land in the bayou. Have a terrible accident.”

Everyone laughs evilly, unaware that Damballa is peeking through the window.

Meanwhile, Ted visits someone known as The Voodoo Lady, who is performing acupuncture on a wordless, shirtless man, to ask her about the woman he has seen swimming near the island. “Be careful of the water,” she tells him, “for your moon is in Pisces.”

Later, Max, Earl, and Louise jump Ted on the dock in front of his house. The three of them shove Ted into the water, which oddly knocks him unconscious. They drag him to shore and steal his jewelry. “Let’s throw him back,” says Max, and they push him into the bayou. “That’s good. He can drown in that amount of water.”

Max and Earl steal Ted’s money from the breadbox. Earl says, “Did you see that black snake watching us?”

“Don’t worry about the snake,” Max replies. “He can’t testify.”

As the thieves row away, the filmmakers cut to a sequence where Damballa, in human and quite topless form, dances over Ted’s body beside the bayou.

Eventually, she squats over Ted and kisses him, somehow bringing him back to life (or perhaps just consciousness). 

“You…you’re the girl that swims in the lake,” Ted says, flabbergasted. “The one that turns into a snake.”

“Yes,” Damballa confirms, “and now you exist in the world of the living dead.” She announces that she is going to tell Ted her story, “the story of all.”

The film flashes back to Damballa’s childhood, as three young girls participate in a ceremony. A tall man leads Damballa to the High Priestess, who tells her, “Have no fear, for you are the chosen one. You are to cross over and live in the two worlds, this one and the next, because you are the chosen one.” The High Priestess calls forward a blonde woman from a grave beneath a snake-shaped tombstone. The blonde woman fades away, giving her power to Damballa.

The blonde woman tells Damballa that she will be the last of the oracles, and when her job is done she will bring with her a special man to the next world to fulfill a prophecy. After approximately ten minutes of what can only be called mumbo-jumbo, Damballa drinks a potion and lies down on a pyre which is quickly lit on fire. Those in attendance gyrate while Damballa burns.

Back in the present, Damballa rubs Ted’s chest and says, “We must join our souls for eternity. Come. We are now ready for the next part of our journey.”

Back at Max’s house, the thieves empty the money onto the kitchen table, but they have a vision that it is lightly spattered with blood, or perhaps tomato sauce.

Immediately, Max and Earl run to the sheriff. Max says, “We come to give ourselves up.”

Earl explains, “We hit the ranger on the head and we drowned him in the bayou. We stole his money.”

In a fascinating twist, neither the sheriff nor Sgt. Buck believe the thieves. “What’s the matter with you fools?” asks the sheriff. “This isn’t April Fools Day.”

The policemen step outside the office (which is clearly a sheriff’s office, as a small badge-shaped sticker is affixed to the door) to discuss what to do.

They decide to lock up the thieves with no charges until they check out Haunted Island to see if Ted has been murdered.

Meanwhile, on Haunted Island, Ted walks with Damballa until they come across a large rock. “It’s a meteorite,” Ted explains. “I’ve seen it before. They’re very rare. How did it get here?”

Damballa replies, “It was sent by the heavens to mark this place. The island of our people. My island. And, as it was predicted, you were sent to me.”

“All my life, I’ve been very fortunate,” Ted says wistfully. “Just plain lucky. I should have been killed. First Korea, and then Vietnam. Out of 300 men, I was the only survivor. I was badly wounded but now I’m here. Perhaps this is the reason.”

“Yes. You have passed all tests. I have been waiting. Come.” In a burst of fog, Damballa transforms herself into a snake.

The sheriff and Sgt. Buck motorboat out to Haunted Island, where they see Ted lounging in front of his house. The sheriff sputters, “I got two guys down at the station that confessed to killing you! I got the money here that they say they took from you!”

Ted offers them beer so they join him in the house. “No harm done,” Ted says. “I got a little love tap. I bet they got the scare of their lives.” Then he introduces the two lawmen to Damballa, who enters wearing a tight yellow dress and tells them things about themselves that a stranger wouldn’t know.

Sgt. Buck turns to the sheriff. “What do you make of all this? I just damn can’t believe it.”

“A lot of things in these swamps are unbelievable. I guess we’ll have to let those other two nuts go.”

The lawmen get up and leave the house. As they walk to their boat, Sgt. Buck keeps repeating, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” Inside the house, Damballa tells Ted that the thieves must be punished in kind.

In a puff of smoke, Damballa appears in the window of the Voodoo Lady, who sleeps in a chair.

Damballa tells the Voodoo Lady to make dolls of Max, Earl, and Louise and send them to Damballa. “I am going to give them a pirate treasure of my island.” Then Damballa leaves through the window, again transforming into smoke.

In the next scene, Louise has been summoned alone to the Voodoo Lady’s house. “I’m going to give it to you,” says the Voodoo Lady. “The treasure of Jean LaFitte. To you, and to Max, and to Earl.” She gives Louise a sample doubloon and a map drawn on a piece of leather.

Louise, sensing something is up, refuses the map and the gold, so the Voodoo Lady shows her a doll.

“If you don’t do as I bid you…I’ll fix you,” the Voodoo Lady threatens.

Later, the Voodoo Lady sticks a wooden blade into the Louise doll, and Louise, in her bedroom, feels a stabbing pain. Louise tells Max that the Voodoo Lady wants them to dig up a pirate treasure on Haunted Island, so Max agrees.

The next day, Damballa dances naked in front of a casket.

The three thieves row to a sandy part of the island and start digging. About six inches beneath the sand, they find a wooden chest. “Let’s open it up and see what it is,” says Max. It is indeed a treasure. They carry it to their boat, unaware that the Voodoo Lady is submerging three voodoo dolls in the water.

Weighted down by the treasure, the boat sinks, drowning the three thieves in the bayou as Damballa in snake form slithers through the water.

With all the story elements tied up, Damballa and Ted go to the snake-shaped tombstone to meet the High Priestess. She approves of him, so the film cuts back to the funeral pyre on which Damballa once burned. This time, she leads Ted to the pyre. He lies down and Damballa sets the pyre on fire. Then a variety of women gyrate in front of the flames.

In the end, the sheriff and Sgt. Buck motorboat around the island but see only smoke. Sgt. Buck sums it up: “We searched the entire island. We couldn’t find a single thing…living or dead.”

The sheriff replies, “You know, I’m beginning to believe it.”

The film cuts to a shot of the book illustration for Damballa, which now shows (somewhat confusingly) Damballa as well as Ted.

The bayous of Louisiana are naturally the source of much folklore and mythology, so it is fascinating to watch such an accurate depiction of the region's myths, which (as we all know) focus on white people dancing around giant meteorites and snake-shaped tombstones while invoking Aztec priests and priestesses. While this mythology adds spice to the film, the story is at heart a revenge film, depicting the brutal drowning revenge against Max, Earl, and Louise (which lasts nearly a minute onscreen) in retribution for their brutal drowning murder of Ted (which also lasts nearly a minute onscreen). It is also about people riding in boats and other people dancing naked in a swamp. In fact, if one were to have any criticism about the film at all, it might be that the story includes too many elements to fit into its 71 minute runtime. Why, the nude dancing alone takes up at least fifteen minutes, while the non-nude dancing takes up another ten. Perhaps the filmmakers should have split the story across two films, saving some of the dancing and boating footage for a sequel.

In any case, Crypt of Dark Secrets is an engaging and educational film with memorable performances and excellent photography of swamps and snakes. It is unfortunate Jack Weis directed only three features, but with Crypt of Dark Secrets his legacy as a solid regional filmmaker in the 1970s is assured.