Thursday, April 2, 2015


Last Friday was one of those days when nothing was going right for me. I was having a bad medication day. I wasn’t liking anything I was writing. I had a minor gout attack. By three in the afternoon, I was running on fumes and so retroactively decided I was taking a sick day.

I had the house to myself. Barb, Eddie and Kelly were all going to some church fish fry with members of Barb’s family. As I am neither Catholic nor fond of seafood, I wouldn’t have been joining them in any case. Our cat Simba was home, but she was fully occupied with running from window to window to keep an eye on any cat, squirrel, bird or Sasquatch who crossed our property line.

Lacking human or even feline companionship and pretty sure eating even comfort food would not end well for me. I decided I would go for mental comfort food. I would watch old horror movies.

Courtesy of my local library system, I had a MGM Presents Midnight Movies Double Feature of Voodoo Island (1957) and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959). Though these black-and-white films were low-budget productions, they boasted surprisingly spooky scenarios and decent performances. I enjoyed them both.

Distributed by United Artists, Voodoo Island was the first movie of a three-picture deal between star Boris Karloff and producer Howard W. Koch. Karloff plays supernatural debunker Phillip Knight, hired by a wealthy hotel magnate to investigate the disappearance of four men sent to an island the magnate plans to develop. A fifth member of the ill-fated team was found alive, but in a zombie-like trance. Knight accepts the assignment.

Knight is accompanied by Sarah Adams, his all-business assistant; Barney Finch, the rich guy’s muscle; Claire Winter, a designer who also works for the rich guy; and the zombie survivor of the first expedition to the island. From an island near to “voodoo island,” the greedy Martin Schuyler and his jack-of-all-trades Matthew Gunn join the group.

Karloff is terrific in his role as a professional skeptic who finds things that can’t be explained by reason. Beverly Tyler plays his assistant, a human recording device who has embraced coldness and solitude. Jean Engstrom is the lesbian designer who clearly lusts after Tyler and whose fine performance left me shaking my head in wonder as to how a gay character showed up in a 1957 horror film without the censors raising a fuss. Elisha Cook Jr portrays the avaricious Schuyler and delivers what is arguable the best performance of the movie. Not a bad bunch of actors for a low-budget flick.

Spooky long-distance voodoo stuff plagues the group as soon as they fly to Schuyler’s island. What they find on the “voodoo island” is both beautiful and terrifying. Human-eating plants suffer from the low budget, but still deliver some frightening moments. While some characters meet their dooms, others find new lives. The ending of the 76-minute movie struck me as rushed and unable to sustain the suspense of the rest of the movie, but the good moments outweighed the bad. It’s not a movie I’d likely watch again, but it was worth watching this first time around.

Production notes: Voodoo Island was directed by Reginald Le Borg and written by Richard H. Landau. It’s set in the South Pacific and was filmed on Kauai, Hawaii, back to back with Jungle Heat.

Trivia note: An uncredited Adam West made his first film appearance here, playing a weather station radio operator. See if you can spot him when and if you watch this movie.


I’d rate The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake as the better of the two movies on this DVD, though I think it might have the lower budget. The film was written by Orville H. Hampton, directed by Edward L. Cahn, produced by Robert E. Kent and distributed by United Artists. Wikipedia says “it was made as a part of a package with Invisible Invaders,” a film about an alien invasion that, somehow, I’ve never seen. But I digress.

The Wikipedia entry for Four Skulls sets up the movie pretty well, so I’m going to quote it:

Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz), a university professor specializing in the occult, is summoned to the home of his brother, Kenneth Drake (Paul Cavanagh), when a family curse threatens Kenneth's life. Jonathan Drake arrives too late to save his brother from a violent death and subsequent decapitation before his burial. The curse is the work of Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell), a Swiss agent who was a member of Jonathan Drake's ancestor's exploration party two hundred years previously. Zurich was captured, thus forcing Captain Drake to lead a rescue party into the jungle. Drake's party massacres the tribe (save for the tribal witch doctor Zutai (Paul Wexler), only to find that Zurich has been beheaded. Zutai is assisting the miraculously resurrected Zurich in his pursuit for revenge and supernatural destiny against Captain Drake's male descendants. Zurich and Zutai lay their plans to murder and behead Jonathan Drake, which will end the curse on the Drake family.

Daniell is unsettling as Zurich, even when he’s not ordering Zutai to kill and decapitate their various victims and even when he’s not cackling over his head-shrinking skills. Wexler, who doesn’t have any dialogue, is more frightening. Heroine Valerie French (Alison Drake) and hero Grant Richards (Lt. Rowan) give decent performances while Frank Gerstle shines in a minor role as a combination police coroner and lab rat.

Four Skulls is very tight at 70 minutes in length. Its main special effect are floating skulls, but, despite a low budget, it maintains  suspense from start to satisfying ending. It’s a better movie than Voodoo Island and worth watching a second time.

Trivia note from the Internet Movie Database: The script is based in part on the Amazonian Indian practice of removing the skulls from decapitated heads, padding them with hot sand and shrinking them to an extremely small size.

While we don’t see the removal of the skulls from the heads in the movie, we do see Zurich and Zutai do the boiling water and hot sand stuff. It’s both cool and disturbing.

I love horror and monster movies almost as much as I love my comic books. Look for more reviews in upcoming bloggy things.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

© 2015 Tony Isabella

1 comment:

  1. If you can see (have time) INVISIBLE INVADERS, I highly recommend it. Big influence on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and every other zombie/undead movie. John Agar does his best John Wayne in this film. And it's got John Carradine, so we know it's good, since Carradine never appeared in a bad film :).

    It's available on a MGM Midnite Movie disc like the one you saw, alone, or on a double bill with JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET.

    Scott Lovrine