Saturday, October 27, 2007

Slumming with Karloff on VOODOO ISLAND

It may be hard for some of my younger readers to believe (especially if they have seen THE CRIMSON CULT or THE SNAKE PEOPLE), but, in the 1950s and '60s, the participation of Boris Karloff participation in a new horror picture was the closest thing to a guarantee of greatness. As an editor, he had chosen the finest horror stories to appear in various hardcover and paperback collections, always demonstrating excellent taste; even moreso as an actor, he was able to pick and choose from the best horror scripts in circulation -- we knew this because he so seldom let us down. Consequently, when a new Karloff film somehow failed to deliver everything promised -- see THE CLIMAX, THE STRANGE DOOR or THE BLACK CASTLE -- it seemed far worse than it actually was.

VOODOO ISLAND (1957) is a case in point, if not a classic one. Even the film's one-sheet poster (pictured above) presents us with a haggard, unhappy-looking Karloff who appears to have been bullied into the artwork with a cattle prod. A new blog by Arbogast on the subject of VOODOO ISLAND prompted me to sit down last night and actually watch that legendarily turgid film for the first time since I turned it off, about halfway through, in my discerning childhood. I've always had a special liking for scenes involving women in the clutches of man-eating plants (see KONGA, THE LAND UNKNOWN, and the AIP Karloff film DIE, MONSTER, DIE! for far juicier examples), and Arbogast promised a good one, so I was there. I didn't feel the scene was quite the highlight that he believed, but I'm grateful for his powers of persuasion anyway. You see, I had grabbed TCM's recent broadcast with my Dish Network DVR, and that's the copy I watched -- having completely forgotten that I already owned the film as part of a Midnite Movies "double feature" DVD paired with THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE! Had I not decided to blog about this screening and done a little preliminary online Googling, I would have surely burned a copy of the movie I didn't need.

But to get to the point of VOODOO ISLAND itself... like THE CLIMAX, THE STRANGE DOOR and THE BLACK CASTLE, it's really not as bad as people claim. It's certainly not very good, at least not in the dry manner it was executed by director Reginald LeBorg, but it seems to me that the script by Richard H. Landau hoped for better and the performances (including the always reliable Elisha Cook, Jr.) are decent, though Karloff suffers from miscasting and perhaps also from the rigors of location shooting. Karloff is also clean-shaven here, revealing quite a long upper lip, and the look seems to take more away from him than just a mustache.

Landau's script deserves special credit on two counts, specifically. The first is that the role of Claire Winter, played by Jean Engstrom, is surely the most pronouncedly lesbian character to figure in a horror film of the 1950s; considering how oblique the matter of lesbianism is in movies like DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1935) and VOODOO ISLAND's near contemporary BLOOD OF DRACULA (1958), Claire is possibly the first undisguisedly lesbian character to appear in a horror film, or in any kind of fantastic film since the tuxedoed women in Fritz Lang's DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER (1922). The other point of interest, and it's a related one, is how the script attempts to parallel the character of Karloff's assistant Sarah Adams (Beverly Tyler), a young woman who is all about work, with that of Mitchell (Glenn Dixon) -- a man who has fallen victim to a zombie curse and spends his entire time onscreen in a kind of "living death." The dialogue ventures several comments, some of them in the form of seductive comments from Claire, about how "Adams" (as she's called) shouldn't be so intent on work twenty-four hours a day, how she should let her hair down and live a little. To put it bluntly, her work drone ethic is delineated as another form of living death.

The film buys back some of its bonus points by depicting Adams as someone who, in the course of dedicating herself to work and armoring herself against the temptations of a personal life involving men like our hero Rhodes Reason, might inadvertently fall into the clutches of a same-sex affair... but, nevertheless, I appreciate the time taken by Landau to layer his themes when the project didn't exactly call for it. One thing I wasn't expecting from VOODOO ISLAND was craftsmanship, so its thematic resonance came as a pleasant surprise.

POSTSCRIPT 6:31 pm. Robert Cashill writes: "VOODOO ISLAND was shown as part of TCM's Gay and Lesbian Fest in June. The co-host with Robert Osborne, Richard Barrios, has written a new book on gay and lesbian cinema that gives prominent attention to VOODOO ISLAND... a film that he said he hadn't heard of, much less seen, till a friend alerted him to a TCM telecast some years back."

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