Voodoo Island/The Silent Death (1957) **
Considering how often he shows up in horror movies from the 30’s, 40’s, and 60’s, it’s a bit odd that one sees so little of Boris Karloff in films from the 50’s. It isn’t just in the horror genre, either— Karloff pretty much sat out the entire middle of the decade, at least as far as movies were concerned, devoting all of his energy as an actor to television and the stage. By that time, of course, he had a solid enough reputation that he could afford to take a few years off from the cinema without endangering his ability to get back into the game. What I wonder about, though, is why Karloff chose Voodoo Island/The Silent Death to be his comeback film. A relentlessly mediocre evil-island time-waster that often seems to see itself as something like an I Walked with a Zombie for the 1950’s, Voodoo Island isn’t even as good as the same team’s earlier Pharaoh’s Curse/Curse of the Pharaoh. And despite the presence of the word “voodoo” in the title, and of a couple of ostensible zombies in the film itself, this movie’s creators were far more interested in their three different species of man-eating plants than they were in sinister island magic.
They also have their voodoo going on in the wrong ocean. Howard Carlton (Owen Cunningham) is the tycoon owner of a worldwide hotel chain, whose lawyers have recently discovered that he owns some property he never even knew about— a cluster of small islands in the South Pacific. Carlton, upon hearing this news, figured that the largest (and also most remote) of the bunch would be the perfect spot to put a new hotel, the Paradise Carlton. With that in mind, he got in touch with a man named Martin Schuyler (Elisha Cook Jr., from Black Zoo and The House on Haunted Hill), who lives on one of the other islands, to arrange a surveying expedition. The trouble is that only one of the four men Carlton sent out came back, and that one— Mitchell (The Man Who Turned to Stone’s Frederick Lebedur) is his name— returned rather the worse for wear. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that Mitchell still eats and breathes and walks around a bit, you’d swear the man was dead. This is where Philip Knight (Karloff) and his assistant, Sarah Adams (Beverly Tyler), come in. Knight is something of a professional debunker, sort of like what James Randi turned into after he retired from the magic business. He has heard about Carlton’s difficulties with his island, and he proposes to go there with an expedition of his own so as to get to the bottom of what happened to Mitchell. Personally, Knight suspects the whole business is a put-on orchestrated by Carlton himself in an attempt to stir up publicity for his planned resort hotel, but for all his smugness, he’s really too committed to the scientific method to jump headlong into any conclusions. In addition to Adams, Mitchell, and himself, Knight will be accompanied by two more of Carlton’s minions— Barney Finch (Murvyn Vye) and Clair Winter (The Space Children’s Jean Engstrom)— and a physician named Wilding (Herbert Patterson).
Odd things begin to happen before Knight and his party even get near the mysterious island. The small private plane they take across the ocean encounters strange, rough weather and a host of technical difficulties; all in all, it’s enough to make the pilot give up and land so as to wait the storm out. But according to the staff of the weather-monitoring station where they make their emergency landing, there haven’t been any weather disturbances within 500 miles all day. You know, I wonder if that funny-looking doll one of the members of the ground crew finds beside the plane’s landing gear could have anything to do with the freaky weather no one who wasn’t aboard experienced…
At the next stop on the party’s itinerary, Martin Schuyler proves less than pleased to have company; he’s particularly unhappy that Knight has brought the zombified Mitchell along. Schuyler’s ire recedes somewhat, however, when Finch explains to him that Howard Carlton has authorized him to pay his tenant handsomely for any cooperation he sees fit to extend, and suggests that a successful survey of the island where Mitchell met his mysterious fate— the necessary first step toward constructing the Paradise Carlton hotel— will ultimately make Schuyler an extremely rich man. Schuyler agrees to put his hired boat pilot, Matthew Gunn (Rhodes Reason, of King Kong Escapes), at Knight’s disposal. But while everyone is waiting around for daylight so that they can set sail for the mysterious island next door, Mitchell unexpectedly has a jolt of, shall we say “animation,” and staggers out to the wharf where Gunn’s vessel is docked. He drops dead in his tracks for no obvious reason, and Dr. Wilding decides to fly back to the mainland with his body so as to conduct an autopsy.
The next morning brings yet more weirdness. Somebody has come along in the middle of the night and drawn an outline of Mitchell’s body in ashes on the deck of the boat. That somebody also left a voodoo ouanga bag as a calling card; there are six strips of curse-bearing parchment within it, one for each of the people planning to make the excursion to the other island. Later, when the expedition is well underway, the boat is stricken with unexplained engine trouble just out of reach of its destination. Knight and company get to the beach anyway, however, by sitting tight until the tide brings the boat in. This happens well after nightfall, though, so none of the white interlopers notices all the shifty eyes watching them from the underbrush of this supposedly uninhabited land. Still, it isn’t until the next day that the big trouble starts for Knight and his companions— the loss of nearly all the food and water to a maggot infestation, the ever-more-intense struggle against the island’s huge carnivorous plants, the party’s eventual capture by the irate natives. Voodoo Island ends with something really extraordinary for a movie of its type. The boundary-pushing scientist lives to change his mind, agreeing at last that there really are some things that man was not meant to know.
There are really only two reasons to watch Voodoo Island: Boris Karloff and Beverly Tyler. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor take such a total asshole of a character and make him so likeable in spite of himself as Karloff does here. For all his pompous arrogance, Phillip Knight comes across as unaccountably charming, and it’s easy to see how he would have become the famous man that the movie makes him out to be. His relationship with Beverly Tyler’s Sarah Adams is also easily the most interesting in the movie, and that’s in the context of a film whose creators seem generally to have gone a little too far out of their way in an effort to give their characters interesting relationships. Knight is never anything other than businesslike with Adams (he never, ever calls her by her first name), nor is she ever anything but professional in her dealings with him, but it is nevertheless obvious that these two have a profound respect— and even a strange sort of affection— for each other. Of course, such behavior on a woman’s part is bound to meet with at least tacit disapproval— from the other characters certainly, and probably from the filmmakers as well— and Adams ends up turning her back on her “unfeminine” ways after just a little while in the company of Matthew Gunn. It was the 50’s, after all. (You know, exactly the same subplot figures in producer Howard Koch’s earlier Pharaoh’s Curse…) It’s really too bad when that happens, too, because from that point on, we’ll have nothing with which to amuse ourselves but a bunch of crappy plastic plant-monsters.