Everyone Has An Assistant
Horror legend Boris Karloff is forever linked with his portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster or Imhotep in the classic Universal Frankenstein & Mummy films. He’s also well-remembered for a late career resurgence with roles in films such as The Terror, The Raven, & Black Sabbath. Somewhere between those 2 time periods were a string of movies that aren’t quite as well-remembered. Some of them for good reason. Voodoo Island would be one of those films.
As the credits roll across a smoke-filled screen, a puppet zooms towards the camera. What looks like a toothpick stabs it in the side of its head. As we find out later, this is supposed to be a voodoo doll with a spear in its head, but the puppet is just…. well, too “puppet” looking. It looks like a small ventriloquist doll. And in ratio to the size of the head, this is just too small to be a spear. I’ll accept “blowgun dart”.
The actual story begins with a rolling shot of an island resort, in this case just a model used in place of an actual resort. No, really. It’s just a model. They aren’t trying to pass it off as the real thing. I’ve probably wasted time even telling you this.
An industrialist sends an expedition to survey a small island in the South Pacific on which he plans to build a vacation resort. Only one man, Mitchell, returns from the trip, but does so in a state of catatonia. At this point, I find myself curious as to the circumstances of his “return”. The man presented to us is in a trance-like state. I can’t imagine that he packed some luggage and purchased a plane ticket in that condition.
Karloff plays renowned “myth-buster”, Phillip Knight. Knight has been brought in to deduce the cause of Mitchell’s ailment. Knight, a cynic by profession, believes that Mitchell’s condition is part of an elaborate hoax created as an angle to draw tourists to the island. He believes that the “cloud of mystery” surrounding the island will draw people in and that the company is counting on that. Carlton, the investor, insists that this is not a “gimmick” and offers to send Knight to the island. Knight agrees, but only if he can take Mitchell with him, as he hopes that the man will eventually break from his “act”. Knight also take his young female assistant, Adams, along. Carlton’s assistant, Finch, is assigned to the trip as well as the resort’s designer, Claire Winter.
As Finch is calling to ready the plane, the phone line dies out. Some eerie theremin music kicks in, and we all know that “eerie” theremin is the best kind of theremin. As if these 2 things we not enough to signify “bad idea ahead”, the trees in the resort model start to melt, dripping blood. Knight believes this to also be part of the scheme. One of Mitchell’s eyes starts to close, but no one notices that.
Fun fact: The voice of the boarding announcer at the airport would probably be deemed “racially insensitive” by today’s standards.
The film wastes no time in making it apparent that whatever is happening to Mitchell is not part of some act. No, it wastes time in many other areas, but we’ll get to that later. As they ready to board the plane, Mitchell, walking of his own accord, freezes while passing a small child who’s sewing the head of her doll back together.
The plane starts to experience severe turbulence and radios into a small weather station near the island. TV’s “Batman”, Adam West, makes his film debut as the guy operating the weather station’s radio. The pilot reports extreme winds, but the weather station has detected no weather anomalies. It’s actually been a beautiful, clear day. The plane lands anyway.
At the station, the whine of the radio signal provokes Mitchell to movement. Adams sees him and screams. Her scream distracts him and he collapses. Knight makes some comment about Mitchell’s commitment to his “performance”. Mitchell’s pulse is steadily dropping, while at the same time the radio is losing signal. As Mitchell’s pulse returns, so does the signal.
They board the plane again, ready to depart. The child’s doll seen earlier is now found laying on the ground by the plane. The plane takes them to another island near Voodoo Island. I don’t believe the islands are ever given names, but as the movie is called “Voodoo Island”…. well, you get it.
They drive to a resort owned by Martin Schuler, played by genre icon Elisha Cook Jr (Rosemary’s Baby, Salem’s Lot). He not only will provide them with a place to rest, but he also owns the boat that they will need to use to get to Voodoo Island. Schuler is upset by Mitchell’s presence, as it was his beach that Mitchell’s boat washed up when he resurfaced. Well, that answers that question. The offer of a few dollars quickly changes Schuler’s mind about allowing Mitchell to stay.
Rhodes Reason (King Kong Escapes) plays “Matthew Gunn”, Schuler’s boat captain and right-hand man. He spends most of his screen time putting his moves on the female characters. Knight, Finch, and the crew want to rent the use of Schuler’s boat and have Gunn sail them to Voodoo Island. Gunn doesn’t like the idea & Knight basically calls him a poon for believing in myths and superstitions. Gunn tells him that the islanders believe in their magic, even if Knight does not, and will use it against any intruders.
Knight goads Schuler by telling him that Carlton would be competition if he opens his resort on the next island. By letting them use the boat, Schuer would play a part in debunking the “superstitions” about the island, preventing Carlton from cashing in on the gimmick. Finch states that Carlton will offer him rights to all taxi service to and from the island in exchange for the use of Schuler’s boat. Either way, Schuler wins.
My question at this point is this: Why not use one of these other islands to build the resort? They are a hell of a lot easier to get to, and there is no worry about voodoo cults. You could always lie and still say that the island is a place of magic. Disney does that every day with the Magic Kingdom.
While they are talking, Mitchell has disappeared. Knight takes this to just be another part to the elaborate scheme that he’s envisioned taking place. Karloff is forced to continue playing the role of non-believer even though we are now 30 minutes into the film and it’s been made very clear that all the incidents are indeed happening, and not as part of some script written by Carlton and his people. The fact that Knight has not flinched in the slightest from his viewpoint starts to wear thin fairly quickly, and shows an amazing lack of depth to the character. Up to this point, Karloff’s role almost feels like a recurring cameo with the others characters trying to solve the mystery and Knight occasionally popping up just to remind them that they suck.
Outside, Adams and Winter are chatting as Mitchell staggers past them towards the dock. Mitchell boards the boat and begins to crawl along the ship’s deck. Finally, he dies. Knight calls his death “emotional suicide”, meaning that he was “scared to death”. Mitchell’s death is not enough to deter them, and they set sail the next morning.
Before boarding they find a bag of ribbons representing “death curses” waiting on the deck of the boat. Knight dismisses this too, throwing the ribbons in the water. He spends the trip interrogating Gunn as to his involvement in the scheme. As I said early, it’s getting a little annoying seeing Knight never budge in the role of the arrogant, doubting fool.
As they approach the island and the film approaches the halfway mark, the boat stalls. Sadly, the movie stalls with it. If you call your film “Voodoo Island“, you can’t afford to wait more than half the movie to show us the damn island!
The film’s first real scene of anything passing as “action” finally comes 45 minutes into the film when the adventurers encounter a large crab. And we aren’t taking Island Claws-like mutated giant crabs. This is just a normal crab, albeit a large fake one. They quickly run from the crab, although I am sure that walking would have been just as successful. Thrilling!
Reviewer’s Note: By this point in the film, Boris has taken to wearing a ball cap with the bill flipped up. He looks quite ridiculous in it. More so than a “legend of horror” deserves to look.
Knight is now willing to accept that this is not all part of some elaborate publicity stunt, but he’s still looking for rational reasons for why everything has happened. The group sets up camp for the night. Almost an hour into film, we finally see our first island natives.
Around this same time, the obligatory love story elements pick up steam. We gets a speech from Gunn telling Adams that she needs to allow herself “to be a woman”. In other words, it’s her obligation as a woman to “put out”. He’s quite drunk at the time. And sweaty. And he looks like he hasn’t showered in over a week and probably smells. It’s the look that Norman Reedus has made popular. Well, at least on TV and in movies. In real life, it’s just called “homeless”.
While skinny dipping, Winter is attacked by a giant waterborne plant. A giant plant that we can see quite clearly, but that she can’t until she is literally touching it. She screams out, but is dead by the time the group finds her. Gunn, playing the “gentleman”, walks Anne out of the area so as to not see the body being fished out of the water.
As with most “gentlemanly intentions”, it’s not very thought out, for Gunn leads her to a clearing filled with man-eating plants. One latches onto Anne. Gunn chops it with a machete and they make an escape. Because of this, Anne dismisses her integrity, and probably her career, and falls for Gunn. It’s worth mentioning Reason’s gift for over delivering his lines in this scene.
What little action the film has is compacted into the last 10 minutes. We get an incredibly dark-natured scene of a young girl being devoured by a flesh-eating plant. One of the cast members dies a death that REALLY should not have killed them. And Knight finally changes his point of view, not through some major events or incredible feat of island magic, but through a mundane conversation. The bizarre occurrences he experiences up till now were just happenstance. This 1 minute “talk”?. That’s the “proof”, y’all!!!
Voodoo Island is not a good movie. The presence of Karloff is really all that is saving it from complete obscurity, a belief furthered by the fact that the film received no home video release until 2005. The movie’s biggest downfall is that it takes far too long to get anywhere, the titular island included. By the time the ball does get rolling, the film is almost over and is forced to squeeze not only its action sequences, but also it’s conclusion into the final 15 minutes. Ultimately, by the time the characters have made it to Voodoo Island, most viewers will be looking for a boat out.
Recommended (barely) to Karloff fans, but for everyone else, this is no Gilligan’s Island.