Well, as I’ve noticed the huge cars with chrome fins, an abundance of poodle skirts, and a titanic hatred of communism, we must have landed smack dab in the 1950s! I thought something was up when I kept hearing Tennessee Ernie Ford on the radio and saw that huge piles of comic books were being burned by easily led parents. So, let’s distract ourselves from whatever the French are going to do about that whole Vietnam mess and check out a Boris Karloff movie!
Karloff in the 1950s was still the horror icon. His name still brought an air of horror respectability to motion pictures, television shows, and plays. This is in stark and sad contrast with Karloff’s contemporary Bela Lugosi. By the 1950s, major studios wouldn’t even look at Lugosi. Only cheaper independent sources like Edward D. Wood Jr. would provide a lifeline to Lugosi with some work. One could say that Wood exploited Lugosi, but I don’t see it as such. Wood was a Lugosi fan and needed a name for his films. Lugosi had a slightly faded name, but it was still a name. Plus, Lugosi needed the work, so both men benefitted.
To complicate the issue even further, Lugosi had fallen into the pit of drug addiction. While he did make a very public admission about his addiction and sought out help, the damage was done. Lugosi died in 1956, buried in his trademark Dracula cape. Fortunately, Lugosi’s legacy is assured with his legions of fans worldwide. History has been kinder to Bela and his incredible talent is appreciated to this day.
Karloff could have easily shared Lugosi’s fate. And yet Karloff seemed to always be in demand. He was successful in many different mediums and aside from a penchant for cigarettes, Karloff didn’t have the demons of drugs that Lugosi contended with or the alcoholism that took a toll on Lon Chaney Jr. Karloff transitioned into being the grand old man of horror, an always reliable charm coming forth amongst the potential menace.
How did Karloff survive while others fell by the wayside? In an interview with NPR, the late Sir Christopher Lee once recalled, “I remember Boris Karloff saying to me, find something that nobody else can do or will do, even if it is a type of role, and you’ll be the only one, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” With this underlying philosophy, Karloff excelled.
Not that every movie Karloff did was an incredible cinematic outing that changed the world of filmmaking. Like so many great actors, he was in some cheap turkeys too. But even as certain budgets dwindled, Karloff was usually not the reason why a film sank beneath the waves. In the 1950s, Karloff did about ten movies of varying quality. Of course, I could pick the easy choices: Corridors of Blood with pre-Sir Christopher Lee or The Haunted Strangler. Both movies were done for producer Richard Gordon and are appreciated more than his other 1950s output. (Truth be told, The Haunted Strangler was going to be my choice until the very last minute.)
Other 1950s Karloff fare consisted of his playing Dr. Jekyll with Abbott and Costello, The Strange Door with Charles Laughton and Alan Napier (Wait…Alfred? Again?!), The Black Castle with Lon Chaney Jr., and 1958’s Frankenstein 1970 where Karloff plays the last of the Dr. Frankensteins. I was also tempted to use any of these but with mere seconds left on my irrelevant self-imposed clock, I instead decided to dip into the B-movie pool and see what treasures could be mined from 1957’s Voodoo Island for no good reason whatsoever.
Voodoo Island was the first film in a three-picture deal that Karloff signed with Bel-Air Productions. Frankenstein 1970 was the second film of the deal. The third movie was…never made, so that Bel-Air/Boris Karloff Trilogy Blu-ray Collector’s Set isn’t coming out soon.
Producer Howard W. Koch produced some fine films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Airplane!, and The Odd Couple. He also produced Airplane II: The Sequel. I mention this for two reasons: 1) please realize that not everything is a winner, and 2) William Shatner is the best thing in Airplane II. He saves the movie. God bless you, Mr. Shatner.
Speaking of glorious 1960s TV icons, guess who made his feature film debut in Voodoo Island? Adam “Caped Crusader” West! The late, always great Mr. West certainly made the most of his role as Weather Station #4 Radio Operator. This means that Karloff not only starred with Alan Napier but also West as well?! Whoa! As I’ve already ranted about the tragedy of never having Karloff as a villain on Batman, I’ll leave it alone for now. But if it turns out that Boris played Burt Ward’s grandfather in some movie, I will scream.
What is Voodoo Island about? That is a good question. It is about 80 minutes long. No, I kid! It starts off with a millionaire seeking to build a hotel on an island. He had sent out a surveying team but only one member of the team returned, stuck in an apparently zombie-like voodoo trance. Karloff plays a well-known personality who exposes hoaxes and demystifies supposedly supernatural occurrences. The millionaire hires Karloff to lead another team to investigate what exactly is going on. Perhaps there might just be some real voodoo to witness in the process.
Karloff is not an antagonist in this film, which is refreshing! Yet I think he is slightly miscast. I just have a hard time seeing an ever-increasingly elderly Karloff running around investigating criminal magicians and swindling hoaxers. He’s not even really a scientist per se, even though that would have been a nice character touch to add. I blame the script more than Karloff in this regard so I can let it pass.
Also joining this cast is the brother of This Island Earth’s Rex Reason, Rhodes Reason. Reason sounds and looks just like his older brother and at times I think that he’s going to be fighting Metalunan mutants instead of voodoo curses. (I know that is my problem to get over, not yours. Thank you for your understanding.)
The reliable character actor Elisha Cook Jr. joined the cast as well. Cook had a lengthy career that extended from 1941’s The Maltese Falcon to being Ice Pick on Magnum P.I. He was in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and many other movies where you don’t mention the director or producer first. Always glad to see him in a movie.
For some reason on this island of voodoo (which is different than a wall of voodoo, which one obviously only hears on Mexican radio), there are also prehistoric carnivorous plants that crave flesh. Some people on the expedition are attacked by these plants, but oddly enough, voodoo did not bring them about. It is one of those plot coincidences that these plants and the island’s voodoo practitioners just happen to both be present at the same time. Perhaps the script was just mushed together and there ended up a “You got sci-fi in my voodoo movie! No, you got voodoo in my sci-fi movie!” kind of result.
Voodoo Island is probably best known today for the discreet lesbianity projected from Jean Engstrom’s character. For 1957, she is rather frank about not wanting anything to do with men, namely the hunky Rhodes Reason male lead. Instead she clearly wants to warm up to Karloff’s assistant, played by Beverly Tyler. Nothing comes of it since Tyler rebuffs Engstrom’s subtle flirting. Granted, if you don’t go looking for it, the lesbian undercurrent isn’t overt and blatant. However, I watched it fully aware this was the filmmakers’ intent and yes, it certainly is there for all to see…before Engstrom gets eaten by carnivorous plants. Anything to get stuff past the censor, I guess.
Ultimately, the voodoo turns out to be real and more people are killed off. Karloff, Reason, and Tyler all return to civilization after promising not to reveal the indigenous people’s habitation of the island to the millionaire. By the way, Karloff’s acceptance of voodoo isn’t the result of a tremendous character arc that leads him from being a hardened cynic to a firm believer. It just suddenly happens by the end of the picture. In this sense, Karloff isn’t the same kind of character he played in Isle of the Dead where you see his deliberate progression into being a full-on convert. Again, I view this as being a limitation of the script rather than a failing on Karloff’s behalf.
Frankly, just cut out the man-eating plants and the movie wouldn’t be the worse for wear. Just have the members of this exploration party get picked off one by one through lethal voodoo means and it would have been just fine. It would fit with the established mood and title of the picture: Voodoo Island. If you wanted to make a movie called The Island of Carnivorous Voodoo Plants, go ahead. It was the 1950s and you could have gotten away with it! But you didn’t, did you, Bel-Air Productions? No wonder that third Karloff film never materialized for you.
Karloff as usual comes off smelling like a rose in this movie and Elisha Cook Jr. is good as always. Voodoo Island is passable entertainment that breezes by quickly. There could have been a bit more with the lesbian subtext just for some character development, but as they killed Engstrom off, that avenue is shut down rather matter of factly.
The bottom line: Voodoo Island helped to provide a wonderful Hawaiian getaway for Boris Karloff and his wife. This is how the film should be fondly remembered. And I’m sure that Elisha Cook couldn’t wait to get back to the islands 25 years later to help Rick and Magnum out on some case. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have been subpoenaed to testify at some House Committee hearing thingy. I’m sure that Joe McCarthy guy will be giving out some fair shakes indeed!