There are a lot of things I do not envy the children of today. In fact the number of things I do not envy the children of today would fill a book, and what a dismal, boring book it would be (I should know, I pass dozens of them every time I visit a bookstore). I'm not quite ready to write that book just yet, so let me instead just hand you a chapter heading: kids today do not enjoy The Thrill of the Hunt.
That's an untruth right there, and one major reason a lot of old codger rambling and grumbling is so eminently ignorable. Kids today have the thrill of seeking that perfect card, be it Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, or whatever bizarre neo-mythology they are buying into this week. All the old codger is saying is, they don't have the same Thrill of the Hunt I did.
The Hunt I speak of was one of the few available to a sickly child whom the outdoors tried to kill every time he encountered it: popular culture - in my case, horror and science fiction movies, or, as we referred to them at the time, "monster movies". Ah, monster movies. Such a vulgar, common phrase - yet it makes me smile and feel a warmth that only rarely surfaces in life. The Hunt meant scouring TV Guide or whatever publication was to hand to seek out the Monster Movies that week. Bad weeks had none. Good weeks had at least one. Summers were great because I could stay up late, and in the 60's, up through the 70's, a movie was always shown after the late news. This is how I had my first exposure to Curse of the Living Corpse, Straitjacket, Tormented (which terrified me) - and just to prove I'm not a total yutz, this is also how I discovered The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane.
In early youth, I recall it was a major event when a third television station was built in nearby Corpus Christi, and that increased my chances of a successful Hunt by 33%. When the family was moved to the shadow of Houston, cable became a necessity if we wanted to watch anything beside the two local channels, one a bizarre amalgam of ABC and CBS, and the other a student-run PBS station. It was there I discovered the marvels of UHF stations.. especially the independently-run stations, now just cherished memories, like drive-in movies and trustworthy news programs.
Which is a very roundabout way, I must admit, of getting to this movie; I remember in the early 70s, thinking, "Hey! A Boris Karloff movie I haven't seen!" and afterwards thinking, "Well, now I've seen it... at least I don't have to see it again." Little did I know my adult self would lay a trap for me some 35 years later... something called In Reverse Order, and I would indeed wind up watching it again.
(I actually bought this disc for the co-feature, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, but that's way down in the F's, and I've been stalling too long, anyway).
Boris Karloff is headlined here in one of his non-villain, not-spooky roles as Philip Knight, Professional Hoax Debunker. Yes, apparently it is possible to make a cush living at this, as Knight has numerous books and a TV show to his credit, no small thing in the pre-Discovery Channel days of 1957.
Voodoo Island starts with a gimmick indicative of its fitful cleverness - a large portion of the credits play over what the typical moviegoer would condemn as surely The Worst Miniature Shot ever, a vista of fake palm trees and a model hotel near a lagoon, which trembles as the camera dollies across the floor - and then the camera pulls back to reveal it is a model. Hotel magnate Howard Carlton (Owen Cunningham) has recently discovered that he owns a South Seas island and intends to develop the hell out of it, building the Paradise Carlton Hotel. To this end, he sent a four-man survey crew to the island - and only one came back, washed ashore on a nearby island. The survivor, Mitchell (Glenn Dixon) is catatonic - he simply stares into space, unaware of his surroundings. Or, as least one person puts it - "...like the dead!"
Knight of course poo-poos any possibility of voodoo or hexes, and accepts Carlton's case. Knight will travel to the island, accompanied by his research assistant, Adams (and that is all the name given in this scene, we can be fairly sure that in the next scene Adams will turn out to be a pretty girl, here played by Beverly Tyler), Carlton's right-hand man, Finch (Murvyn Vye), Carlton's Chief Designer, Winter (last name only alert! - yep, it's a woman, Jean Engstrom), and on Knight's insistence - the zombified Mitchell and his attending physician.
The opening scene is fairly good - exposition is handled briskly and rather painlessly and has a nice sting at the end: Finch is on the phone making travel arrangements, and when he says, "Make it six - Mitchell is coming with us," the line suddenly goes dead, parakeets in cages begin to shriek, and the foliage on the model begins to wilt... and one even bleeds.
I said it was a nice sting, I didn't make any promises about it making sense.
Little events like this are going to harass our characters for quite some time. At the airport, Mitchell will be led past a little girl making a doll (surely a... voodoo doll!), causing him to freeze and twitch one eye shut - I sure it was this ability that got Dixon the role. The airplane has to set down somewhat short of its destination when the radio breaks down - they can send but not receive. This is not as noteworthy to the viewer as the fact that the radio operator at the way station is a stunningly young Adam West.
The pilot pulls the radio from the plane and spends most of the evening trying to fix it while the others doze. His repair regimen seems to consist of calling their destination, Wake Island, over and over again, and hoping for the radio to magically begin operating again, A burst of weird static causes Mitchell to make that face again, and start stumbling toward the radio, causing Adams to scream (she wasn't dozing - the wonkette was typing notes). The scream breaks the static's spell, Mitchell collapses and is carried back to a cot - but now his blood pressure and heart rate are falling precipitously. The doctor is at a loss to stop it - until the radio operator from Wake Island bursts over the speaker, begging the pilot to shut the hell up. Mitchell mysteriously stabilizes.
The next day, the plane sets off again, and as a native pulls the chocks from under the plane's gear, he picks up from the strip.... a doll.
Wait a minute, that's the same damn doll from the airport, recognizable by the rip in its head. Moreover, I think it's supposed to be the same doll.
Ah, well, we have finally landed on Wake Island, which surely means we are closer to Voodoo Island. Here we meet our seedy excuse for an action hero, Gunn (Rhodes Reason), in the employ of the Island's trader, Elisha Cook Jr. No I'm sorry, I meant Martin Schuyler, played by Elisha Cook, Jr., but you know what I mean. Initially reluctant to let our heroes take his boat and Gunn to the Island - "That place has always been taboo!" - or even let Mitchell stay the night - Schuyler is won over by Finch's promise that the weasel will have exclusive rights to shuttle tourists over to Carlton's new hotel. That, and the sheafs of greenbacks Finch keeps gesturing with.
It's an eventful night. Gunn shows his essential failure as an action hero by hitting on Winter, who is a lesbian. Oh, did I not mention that? Winter makes a play for Adams which is not particularly overt, but fairly obvious - rumor has it MGM's disc is a slightly expanded version of the movie for the more, shall we say, open European market. The pass could easily be interpreted as gal advice to the research assistant about make-up and clothing choices, but the phrases "I could do a lot for you" and "...make you come alive" are heavy with meaning, and certainly serve to freak the younger woman out.
Oh, but we're supposed to be thrilling to a savage tale of voodoo, aren't we? Alright, then, Mitchell gets up in the night and shambles to Schuyler's boat, and once there, he collapses on deck... dead. And, we are told, in the same position he was found when his boat washed ashore... body pointed toward... Voodoo Island!
The next morning we are told Mitchell's heart gave out because he was ... scared to death! and if that wasn't enough voodoo thrills for you, before our heroes start out, a chalk stick figure on the deck is scrawled where Mitchell's corpse lay, and in the head a cloth bag Knight identifies as "An owanga bag". Inside the back, six tiny scrolls : "Death wishes - one for each of us."
To make matter worse, once they finally sight the island, the boat's engine suddenly dies. Gunn and Schuyler take it apart, and Gunn finally finds an insect in the fuel line - ah, not so supernatural after all! But then the engine still won't start, so our plucky heroes wait for the tide to wash them ashore.
And at 41 minutes into a 76 minute movie, we are finally on Voodoo Island.
A gold disc is found imbedded in a coconut tree, and it is mentioned that land survey crews do that to mark their landing point - whether or not this is true, I have no idea, but this is the Internets and no doubt someone will step up to dispel my ignorance. But Karloff's prying at it nearly results in Adams getting brained by a plummeting coconut, and rouses the ire of a nearby fake crab. "Coconut crabs!" Gunn exclaims. "There may be more! Get away from the trees!"
Now here is another educational opportunity from crap films. I had never heard of coconut crabs before - turns out they're the largest arthropods yet recorded , and yes, are powerful enough to rip the husk off a coconut and have been known to dine on small rodents... but of course they look nothing the specimen presented, and I'm fairly certain they can actually bend their prodigious legs at the joints.
But now I'm just being a jerk.
The crew finds clues that lead them deeper into the jungle - surveying equipment pointing toward the previous crew's campsite, for instance. While the men search for a trail, Winter goes off on her own to sketch and get some color design ideas, finds a lagoon, and does what expendable characters must do in crap movies in these circumstances - skinny dip. And here it is where Winter will find out what happened to the survey crew.
Now, in crap jungle movies, it is a given that at some point, a man-eating plant of some sort is going to make an appearance. Usually, they are there for a quick scare and then its back to fending off the Ookabollawonga Tribe, or chasing the guy in the ratty gorilla suit, but nope, not this time. These first beasties seem to be mainly tentacle, and the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that they're actually balloons, and inflation makes them unfold, uncurl, and reach out in a fairly lifelike manner. Past that, they do a pretty bad job of eating Winter. I guess, like a boa constrictor, first they suffocate her to make dinner easier.
Like Captain Ahab, Knight insists the crew keep journeying inland, as he's aware they've been watched from the foliage ever since they've arrived (and not just by the man-eating plants, either) and any attempt they make to leave will be met by violence. Or at least, that's what he tells the others, and they believe him, and trek on they do. Besides, Adams and Gunn haven't fallen in love yet. Oh, wait, they fall in love that night. At least that's out of the way.
In the early morning, Finch apparently believes it's too hot near the campfire and moves away from it, and all those who think this is a bad idea in a man-eating plant-infested jungle can pride yourselves at having seen a Monster Movie or two in your time. Finding one of the more proactive beasties staring him in the face, Finch panics and runs off into the jungle, crashing through foliage but, remarkably, not encountering any more carnivorous vegetation - until he hears the sound of giggling.
In a clearing, he sees two native girls playing a game of tag. The sight stops him since, to this point, the natives have remain unseen to our heroes. The more astute viewer - or simply one that has not given up on the movie up to this point - will note that one of the girls is carrying that damned doll. But then, the smaller of the two girls stumbles upon yet a third type of man-eater, that closes around her with a scream.
Now, to digress a bit, if there is anything we can take away from Voodoo Island, it is that any movie - even such a bland outing as out current film - is still capable of at least one good, horrific image. Here, as Finch watches, his panic now punched up another notch, a child's moan is heard from the plant as the leaves draw tighter, and the edge of her skirt, sticking through the leaves, is drawn deeper within. Finch's mind snaps, and he becomes as Mitchell - staring, unseeing, into space.
Meantime, the natives have decided to come from the bushes and capture our remaining crew, taking them across a rickety rope bridge to their village, where a suspiciously caucasian-looking chief (Friedrich von Ledebur) tells them his people travelled from island to island, hoping just be left the hell alone, and when they found this place full of hostile plant life, they figured they finally found the right spot. This hut also has four voodoo dolls in it, representing the four members of the earlier survey crew, and the first thing you are going to notice is that they are not the same as that damned doll that has been following us through the whole movie - no, these are like little carved caricatures of the people in question. These folks take their voodoo seriously.
Knight promises to keep their secret, but Schuyler starts yelling that no way, he was promised money and he's going to get it - lets face it, you only hired Elisha Cook if you needed a Designated Idiot - and the chief remands them all to another hut for the night, while their fate is considered. The crew uses twine - source unknown - to tie their wrists to each other, so that nothing can happen to one without the others knowing, I suppose. Doesn't much matter, since when they wake in the morning, Schuyler is gone, in his place - still tethered to the person on either side - a voodoo doll.
Knight leaves the unguarded hut and finds Schuyler on that rope bridge, apparently in some sort of trance. Knight calls to him, but Schuyler sees the ghostly image of his own voodoo doll on the bridge, causing him to scream and fall into the river below - an apparently fatal distance of fifteen feet or so.
Chief von Ledebur makes another appearance, and Knight confesses he was lying the night before, but now realizes - and believes - that the Chief's magic can strike them, no matter how far away they might be. The Chief acknowledges that this is good, and sends his men to guide the remaining four - Knight, Gunn, Adams and the catatonic Finch - back to their boat, which will now magically work. The End.
As I mentioned before - the educational benefits of the crap movie are boundless, and besides the few things I learned from Voodoo Island , I would add this: writing reviews for terrible films is quite easy, good films is actually difficult, but for a mediocre film like this - it is a grind - just like watching it.
Now this, I will admit - if you are going to watch Voodoo Island, this is the way to do it - uninterrupted, as God intended. Watching this with a break every ten to twelve minutes for commercials was deadly. At least, viewed as an unbroken line, the bits of weirdness can mount, undimmed by manic calls to visit your local used car lot. The movie seems to wish to bend toward the Lynchian in its march of unusual phenomena, but this is a good two decades (at least) before that term could even be coined. The movie does get points for that.
But where it loses any goodwill thus gained is, alas, in the characters. Karloff is good as always, bemused by the superstitious suppositions of his traveling mates, but then the script keeps giving the hoax-buster lines that indicate some things might have more sinister purposes - in short, he is given these lines because he is Karloff. The worst instance of padding is the apparently required romance between Adams and Gunn, starting with the requisite hatred between the two, changing polarity in one scene full of soul-searching confessions (with a man-eating plant leaning toward Adams in the background, for pete's sake), and culminating in a thoroughly unrealistic campfire-side clench.
None of this is at all aided by the quality of the lines supplied the actors. The sneering disapproval is all on Gunn's side, in the beginning, referring to Adams as "a machine" or "a calculator", all the while in clumsy pursuit of Winter. When the two future lovers finally have it out in the first night of their stay on the island (pre-maneaters), Gunn's question of "Have you ever thought like a woman? Felt like a woman?" would be better received if he hadn't revealed himself such an utter lunkhead viz women - and a drunken loser, to boot. For God's sake, he's working for Elisha Cook, Jr - you can't fall much lower than that.
Glimpses at the filmographies of those involved does reveal quite a lot: director Reginald Le Borg's previous horror outing was the Lon Chaney Jr./David Carradine vehicle, The Mummy's Ghost, and writer Richard H. Landau's best known work, is likely the WWII movie Back to Bataan. But their body of work goes far beyond that, and is composed in large part of TV work, particularly in the 50's-60's, when anthology series ruled the airwaves. That, too, is where a lot of the actors' body of work lies. Voodoo Island feels very much like a longer, more expansive episode of one of those series - mostly inoffensive, but then, not terribly exciting, either.
We could go into the fact that voodoo arrived from Africa via the slave trade, into the Caribbean and the Americas, and thus has no real place in this South Seas setting; but the grind has gone on long enough, and I will close simply by stating that fatally, the movie itself contains the two most powerful metaphors to be used against itself ; the somnambulant Mitchell, shambling from one non-event to the next; and the cast, stuck on a drifting boat, becalmed and hopefully waiting to be carried to a place where something - anything - might actually happen.
Even Karloff completists may cry foul.
- August 29, 2007