The 1957 Boris Karloff film Voodoo Island seems to have a widespread reputation as being one of the actor’s all-time worst, so it was with a feeling of resignation and borderline cinematic masochism that I popped this DVD into the player the other night. Voodoo Island was Karloff’s first horror picture in four years, his only release for 1957; he would rebound a bit the following year, with the releases of the fun shlockfest Frankenstein 1970 and the even better (British) film Grip of the Strangler. Filmed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai on the cheap, the picture turns out to be a modest little B film that, despite its many flaws, still retains a certain strange charm.
In it, Boris plays a character named Phillip Knight, who seems to be a professional debunker of popular myths. Knight, when we first encounter him, has already disproved the legends of the Loch Ness monster and a Nantucket sea creature, and now, the owner of an international hotel chain wants him to hightail it to the Pacific island that the company hopes to build on. It seems that a party of men has already been lost there, the only survivor being in an unqualified zombie state. So off Knight goes, accompanied by his beautiful but prim research assistant (played by Scranton-born Beverly Tyler), a tough blonde architect/designer (Jean Engstrom), the zombie and his doctor, and a hotel chain rep (Murvyn Vye). En route, they stop over at a nearby island, where they charter a boat from its greedy owner (the great character actor Elisha Cook, Jr., always a welcome presence in any film) and his hunky-dude right-hand man (played by Rhodes Reason, who my fellow Trekkers may recall as Flavius from the episode “Bread and Circuses”). And then… it is on to the eponymous Voodoo Island…
So, you might be asking yourself at this point, just how bad IS Voodoo Island? Well, I’m not gonna lie to you: Objectively speaking, the film really IS pretty lame. Not the slightest bit scary and only occasionally suspenseful, the picture also suffers from a weak script and an ending that even the most forgiving viewer would categorize as a letdown… and an overly abrupt letdown, at that. Seemingly inevitable is the halfhearted romantic subplot that we must bear with, as Knight’s lovely but repressed assistant and the Reason character (who I suppose suffers with what today is termed PTSD) squabble, make up and discover love. None of the characters are all that likable, and even Karloff’s is something of a stuck-up know-it-all (or so he thinks). The direction by Reginald LeBorg (whose previous “psychotronic” credits include Weird Woman, The Mummy’s Ghost and Dead Man’s Eyes, all from 1944) is uninspired, the FX are weak, and the beautiful Hawaiian scenery… well, let’s just say that it’s a shame that this thing was not shot in color!
Fortunately, though, there IS some good news, especially for Karloff’s fans. For that special breed (of which I count myself a member), any opportunity to watch this fascinating actor, and to hear that wonderfully mellifluous voice, is a pleasurable one. Simply stated: Boris saves this movie from being a total loss just by his mere presence. Plus, once on Voodoo Island, the picture becomes very much a “safari film,” a subgenre for which I have been a sucker ever since I was a little kid. And then there are those cobra-headed, carnivorous plants, easily the most horrific aspect of the film, and they DO make for some cheezy fun. The acting by one and all is better than this material would seem to demand, and… well, that’s about it. I really cannot come up with any more pluses, no matter how hard I try.
Truth to tell, this film really is for Uncle Boris completists only. I’m not sure if it’s his worst, as I still have never experienced such supposed late-career stinkers as Snake People and Cauldron of Blood, but of the 40+ Karloff films that I have seen, this one is certainly right near the bottom. On the flip side of this MGM DVD can be found the 1959 chiller The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, another film dealing with the subject of voodoo, and this is where the real horrors reside on this disc. “The public loves to be scared,” Phillip Knight tells us at one point; too bad his picture just isn’t up to the task!