Monday, February 22, 2016

Voodoo Island (1957)

... aka: A Ilha do Terror (Terror Island)
... aka: Isla de sortilegio (Island of Sorcery)
... aka: L'isola stregata degli zombies (The Island of Haunted Zombies)
... aka: Silent Death

Directed by:
Reginald Le Borg

Gazillionaire industrialist Howard Carlton (Owen Cunningham) wants to open a luxury resort hotel on a previously-uninhabited island in the South Pacific and sent a team of engineers and architects there to get started. Of that team, only Mitchell (Glenn Dixon), managed to return but he's now in some kind of zombie-like trance; unable to do much of anything other than blankly stare straight ahead. Doctors are unable to find a sign of anything physically wrong with him. At a loss about what to do and with millions already spent on the project, Howard calls in famous writer, TV host and professional monster / paranormal debunker Phillip Knight (Boris Karloff). Phillip has already managed to disprove many tall tales in his day, including that of the Loch Ness Monster, and welcomes the challenge of traveling to the new island to prove it all to be a hoax... or not. He still recommends that Carlton promote the hotel as being in voodoo country to make it seem mysterious and alluring to future vacationers regardless of the outcome. While they're making plans for the trip, a phone goes dead when plane tickets are being ordered and a plant on a model of the hotel wilts and drips blood. Talk about your bad omens!

Accompanying Phillip on his trip are Carlton's right hand man Barney Finch (Murvyn Vye), Carlton's chief designer Claire Winter (Jean Engstrom) and Phillip's research assistant Sarah Adams (the lovely Beverly Tyler). Carlton also insists Mitchell come along, hoping the trip will somehow flip a switch and get him out of his trance, so physician Dr. Wilding (Herbert Patterson) tags along as well. The group fly to Hawaii and from there take one of Carlton's private planes. Bad weather and problems with their radio equipment force them to land early on another island where Adam West makes his film debut as a weather radio operator. While there, strange static interference blocks communication elsewhere and Mitchell experiences strange spikes and drops in his blood pressure, which enable him to stand up and move.

Another plane trip and they finally make it to Wake Island, the nearest place to stay before venturing on to the unnamed island (we shall call it “Voodoo Island” from here on out) about 4 miles away. There they're greeted by macho, heavy-drinking former Navy boat captain Matthew Gunn (Rhodes Reason) and trading post owner Martin Schuyler (a typically jittery Elisha Cook Jr.), who stands to profit greatly if the resort hotel is actually built. Their first night there, Mitchell crawls off and dies and does so pointing right in the direction of Voodoo Island. The following day, Dr. Wilding flies back to the city to perform an autopsy while the other six head off toward their destination. Not even a “duwanga bag” containing ashes and six “death wish” notes left on the dock can keep them from it. This crew just doesn't seem to give a shit about warning signs, do they? That goes double for Karloff's character, who's convinced there are “perfectly sound and logical answers” to everything.

By the time the gang finally make it to their destination, their ship is out of commission and over half of the film is over. The film then plods along some more with scenes of everyone wading through water and walking and swatting mosquitoes and sweating and machete-ing their way through the brush and finding signs of the previous expedition. Every once in awhile the camera will shoot over the trees where natives spy on them. As far as action is concerned we, uh, get the leading lady almost getting a concussion from a falling crab. With only about 20 minutes left in this 76 minute movie come our first signs of a monster when Claire decides to go skinny dipping by a waterfall and is attacked by some carnivorous, snake-like plants with octopus-like tentacles that can live on land or in the water. The plants show up to scare the cast a few times and also eat a little native girl but that's about it for them. Things end on a pretty anti-climactic note and the whole thing is predictable, talky and painfully unexciting.

The one point of note and perhaps only interesting aspect of the film is the inclusion of a clearly lesbian character with the older and more experienced Claire rebuffing the advances of the studly Matthew while warming up to the repressed Sarah (“I could make you become alive, dear.”) and hoping to bring her into her “exclusive” and “private” world. Once Sarah catches on to Claire, she flees into the night (and eventually and predictably into the arms of Gunn) with about as much fear as she does when a man-eating plant tentacle wraps around her. Sure, this is a gross characterization of lesbians as predatory ice queens, but it's still quite unique for a sci-fi / horror flick of this time period. It's also about the only thing that's worth mentioning and even that angle is pretty much dropped and forgotten after the one awkward scene.

Filmed on location in Kaua'i, Hawaii, so at least the scenery is nice, this was made back-to-back with producer Howard W. Koch's action flick Jungle Heat for the short-lived Bel-Air Productions. Both films were made by most of the same crew, both feature scores by Les Baxter and both feature Reason and Dixon in supporting roles. Bel-Air were also responsible for the underrated, all-star-cast THE BLACK SLEEP (1956) and the little-seen mummy film Pharaoh's Curse (1957).

For its 1962 theatrical reissue, Voodoo Island was re-titled Silent Death and played on a double feature with The Black Sleep, which itself was re-titled Dr. Cadman's Secret. For their 2005 “Midnite Movies” DVD, MGM paired it with THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE (1959).

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