Horror Island directed by George Waggner
Just recently, I had some words to say about the Universal horror movie Man-Made Monster, a rather pleasing little film that featured some top-notch special effects and is primarily remembered today for the debut horror role of the great Lon Chaney, Jr. The film was first released on March 28, 1941, along with the expected cartoons, trailers, news reel, film shorts and heaven knows what else; the crowds surely got their 15 cents’ worth back when! But also on that same bill, 80 years ago as of this writing, was yet another Universal horror film, one that featured little in the way of effects, and one that is virtually forgotten today. That second film on the fright bill was Horror Island, and my recent, first-time watch has revealed the picture to be a somewhat silly, lighthearted horror comedy that just barely manages to entertain the adult viewer. Unlike Man-Made Monster, the film is fairly undistinguished but yet gets a passing grade largely due to its likeable cast of second-tier actors, a zippy pace, and a screenplay that wastes little time with unnecessaries. Perhaps more suitable for younger viewers, the film is on a frightening par with such exercises as Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost (which was released four months later), in which the laffs dominate the shudders but entertainment value rules.
In the film, the viewer is introduced to the impecunious Bill Martin (the always-ingratiating Dick Foran, who had already appeared in the Universal horror film The Mummy’s Hand in 1940, and would later be seen in The Mummy’s Tomb in 1942), who operates a small vessel called the Skiddoo. He and his sidekick, Stuff Oliver (Fuzzy Knight, a character actor whose filmography includes around 180 films, mainly Westerns), are seemingly perpetually in debt and evading their creditors. Bill also happens to be the owner of a small island that had once been the hideout of the 17th century Welsh pirate Sir Henry Morgan, and so when a peg-legged seaman named Tobias Clump (Leo Carrillo, whose other 1940s horror credits would include ‘43’s Phantom of the Opera and ‘44’s Ghost Catchers) arrives at his boat one day with a treasure map, and claims that this map shows the location of a hidden horde on that very island, Bill is understandably intrigued. (And by the way, in case you were wondering just where in the U. S. of A. Morgan’s Island is located, and thus where this film is set, the answer is … well, actually, I don’t have a clue. One might expect this pirate of the Caribbean to have had a hideout somewhere in that area, but the setting of the film never quite evinces a Southern feel whatsoever.) A local expert on maps and surveying, Jasper Quinley (Hobart Cavanaugh), insists that the map is a phony, but the three men are undaunted.
To raise money, Martin hatches the scheme of making a tourist destination of his island, and giving a mock treasure-seeking tour of the 400-year-old castle on that site. The film spends 25 minutes of its 60-minute running time in gathering together the 10 individuals who will go via the Skiddoo over to the island, including Bill, Stuff and Tobias, naturally; pretty socialite Wendy Creighton (Iowa-born actress Peggy Moran, who, like Foran, had appeared in The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb!) and her drunken cousin Thurman Coldwater (Lewis Howard, whose filmography is a short one, due to his suicide, at 32, in 1951); Jasper Quinley, who decides to tag along at the last moment; Bill’s cousin George (John Eldredge, who would appear in Universal’s The Black Cat just a month later), who had earlier tried to convince Bill to sell the island to him; oafish policeman Sgt. McGoon (Walter Catlett, who would also appear in Ghost Catchers three years later), along for the ride in order to arrest Bill for false advertising; and husband-and-wife bank robbers Rod Grady (Ralf Harolde, from 1945’s The Phantom Speaks) and Arlene (Iris Adrian, a tough-talking dame in the Mayo Methot/Glenda Farrell mold), just hitching a ride on the Skiddoo in order to evade the authorities. And oh…there is one more personage who arrives at the island: a mysterious figure known only as The Phantom (Foy Van Dolsen, whose entire filmography consists of a bare dozen films), a bizarrely visaged man wearing a black fedora and cape, a la The Shadow, who had previously stolen half of Tobias’ treasure map and has been making assassination attempts on Bill & Co. Once arrived at their destination, Tobias does his best to find that darned treasure with his half of the map, while Bill and Stuff endeavor to entertain the others with phony scares, and while The Phantom begins to knock off the others, Ten Little Indians style, in order to eliminate the competition. But as will be seen, The Phantom is not the only source of worry that our heroes will have to contend with…
Horror Island only lives up to its chilling title in one brief sequence, unfortunately, in which The Phantom sneaks into Wendy’s room while she lies in her bed in the gloomy castle. We see his shadowed form, talons outstretched, on the bedroom wall, and it is a most arresting image, indeed. Wendy awakes, opens her eyes, and sees the leering face of this bizarre character staring down at her, resulting in this heretofore cool and snappy modern woman emitting a bloodcurdling shriek of terror. It is a marvelous moment in a film that is otherwise a bit too lighthearted for this viewer’s taste. For the rest of it, the film dishes out the expected creepy-castle set pieces: secret panels, a torture chamber, a suit of armor that falls and almost crushes one of the characters, a crossbow that fires a harpoon seemingly of its own volition, a sleepwalker, a pitfall and other booby traps, trick bookcases and so on. But if the film is hardly ever chilling, it is at least ingratiating and likeable, moving along briskly and with purpose. Director George Waggner, who had also helmed Man-Made Monster and would later that same year direct the eternal glory that is The Wolf Man, brings his film home in a superefficient manner, and the screenplay, by Maurice Tombragel (48’s The Creeper) and Victor McLeod (‘43’s The Phantom), is a brisk and no-nonsense one. (The art of bringing in a film with a running time of just 60 minutes is a seemingly lost one, but then again, not too many modern-day filmgoers would be willing to spend $17 for just a one-hour movie!) And the film itself looks pretty terrific, having been shot in beautiful B&W by British ace cinematographer Elwood Bredell, whose other horror credits include The Mummy’s Hand, The Invisible Woman (1940), Man-Made Monster and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and who also shot such film noir classics as Phantom Lady (1944) and The Killers (1946). Brought in for a cost of a mere $93K, Horror Island looks a lot better than might be expected, thanks largely to this team of pros. Waggner and Bredell make wonderful use of close-up images, and the film’s nighttime scenes are often quite striking to behold. (I particularly like the image of The Phantom fleeing down the streets of the harbor area in which Bill has his boat moored, with his cape flowing behind his back as he scurries back into the shadows.)
As for the rest of it, the film is often quite funny, much of the humor being supplied by Carrillo’s apoplectic seaman character, sporting an outrageous accent (French?); by Fuzzy’s sidekick shtick; by cousin Thurman’s ability to drunkenly fall asleep no matter what is going on around him; and by the snappy patter between Foran and Moran … patter that often seems as if it had been lifted straight out of a screwball comedy; you know, the kind of persiflage that was on display between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in 1940’s His Girl Friday. The film also offers up a secondary killer, as I inferred above, and my advice would be to not even try to guess the identity of that homicidal maniac; trust me, you’ll never see the big reveal coming! Also fun is the fact that one of the killers has a habit of writing taunting messages on the walls of the castle after perpetrating each murder; words like “9 Left,” “8 Left” and “7 Left,” as the number of characters left alive begins to dwindle. So yes, Horror Island manages to conflate Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (which had just been released in the U.S. the year before) with horror elements such as a haunted castle, as well as a treasure hunt, mixing in comedy and noirish photography to create one fast-moving mélange of a movie. So even if the film is not one of Universal’s classic horror films, and certainly not one of its more chilling, it yet remains worthy of a rediscovery by modern audiences, who might find it perfect fare to watch with their little ones. Trust me, for an 8-year-old, this film will likely prove as memorable as can be!