Wednesday 15 July 2015

Voodoo Island [1957]

VOODOO ISLAND is an American horror / adventure film that was directed by Reginal Le Borg for Bel-Air Productions.  It was released in February 1957 by United Artists.  It stars Boris Karloff, Beverly Tyler, Rhodes Reason and Murvyn Vye.  Karloff plays Phillip Knight, a TV myth-buster, who is hired by a property developer to disprove claims that an island he has bought in the South Pacific is cursed.

There is something about island movies which really appeals to me.  I think it is because they are self-contained: the real world doesn’t intrude, there is no traffic, no general public, nothing to distract you from the fantasy unfolding in front of you – the exploration and discovery.  KING KONG [1933] is rightly one of the most famous films of all time but, speaking personally, it loses something for me when they get back to the US from Skull Island for precisely those reasons.

A not terribly impressive shot of the Voodoo Island

I also like ship movies (and for that matter train movies and hotel movies) which share this feeling of self-containment – a world within a world if you like.  And of course with island movies you often get a slice of ship movie too.  A good, if utterly barking, example is Hammer’s THE LOST CONTINENT [1968] which is yer proverbial movie of two halves: ship, then island.  In fact a lot of those adventure movies from my childhood – the Sinbad / Harryhausen, JACK THE GIANT KILLER [1962], WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS [1978] – have that irresistible blend of voyage, isolation and discovery.

Landfall!  The adventure begins!

VOODOO ISLAND isn’t in that class.  It’s a cheap production (c. $150,000 apparently) and looks it.  There is only one monster – a carnivorous plant – which is on the same level as the famously inert octopus Bela Lugosi has to grapple with in Edward D. Wood Jr’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER [1955].  In fact by the time our heroes set foot on the island the film is past the halfway point which means that the producers could shoot the majority of the footage in the studio.  When you've called your film VOODOO ISLAND and you’re resorting to tricks like that it’s a measure of the general laziness and cynicism behind the project.

Jean Engstrom as Claire Winter...

...about to go the same way as Bela Lugosi
It’s a pity actually because the island footage was shot on location in Kauai and looks good enough; I can only assume the shooting schedule was so tight that they only had time (or money) for two or three days of location photography.  Le Borg chucks in as much adventuring as he can – camping, hacking through the jungle, skinny dipping, rope bridges – but the problem is that these are at the lower end of the excitement scale.  What the film lacks is genuine action between these moments; it’s like a thrilling jungle adventure movie from which all the thrilling bits have been removed.  Having said that I did enjoy the sly opening credits sequence which tracks over a jungle scene which is quite obviously a cheap model; and then the camera pulls back to reveal... it is a model, of the hotel the property developer wants to build.  Nice.

I was thinking at this point, 'What a cruddy model'...

...but I was hoodwinked.  It *is* a cruddy model.
It does have a good cast though.  Karloff is Karloff: lisping and intoning and generally being the sort of man you’d find at the end of a search for voodoo, rather than at the beginning.  He has great presence of course, the closest thing the film has to star quality, but in comparison to the rest of the cast his acting style seems old fashioned.  Which, in his defence, it was: he first started acting in the very early part of the 1900s and consequently had been at it for almost 50 years when he made VOODOO ISLAND.  

L-R:  Boris Karloff as Phillip Knight and Glenn Dixon as Vickers, the zombie

His career was so long that it spanned several different eras of film acting but his approach to the craft didn’t appear to change much in that time.  His co-stars in this film act in a much more natural, if slightly hard boiled, style which began to appear after WW2 and Karloff’s stagey manner suffers by comparison.  One other thing about him is that although the film’s in black and white Karloff really doesn't look very well, his skin a very unhealthy dark colour.

Love interest:  Rhodes Reason as Gunn and Beverley Tyler as Adams

The romantic leads – and there is a rather tiresome sub-plot to further dilute the adventuring – are ordinary but there are a few interesting supporting faces.  Foremost among them is an old Cinema Delirium favourite, Elisha Cook Jr.  

The shifty neurotic's shifty neurotic: Elisha Cook Jr

I've written about him several times, partly because he appears in so many films, but mainly because he was the ultimate character actor.  It’s difficult to express what it is he does so well because at times he doesn't appear to be doing anything; he seems indivisible from the role he is playing.  But there’s a moment in this film where – and you’ll have seen such a sequence in countless adventure movies – where our heroes are hacking their way through the jungle, single file.  Most of the cast amble past the camera in desultory fashion but bringing up the rear is Cook, slapping the back of his neck, grimacing, and replacing his floppy hat on his sweaty head.  I guess it’s the attention to detail that sets him apart, the awareness that a character can be built by adding tiny moments such as these. 

And here he is being the consummate craftsman...

I once read a story about Steve McQueen when he was shooting John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960], the film which of course propelled him to mega stardom.  Obviously it was an ensemble film so the opportunities for an ambitious young actor to stand out; what McQueen did was to ensure that whenever he was in a scene with one or more other actors he could be seen fiddling with his hat or his gun or some other prop so that your eye would be drawn to him first.  It isn't something I can claim to have been aware of but watching it since it’s quite right.  

Werner Herzog says something similar about Klaus Kinski in MY BEST FIEND [1999].
“When you enter the frame from the side, showing your profile and then face the camera, there is no tension, so whenever there was a reason for it, Kinski would make his appearance from directly behind the camera.  Say Kinski wanted to spin into frame from the left.  He would position himself next to the camera, with his left foot next to the tripod. script conference.  Then he would step over the tripod with the right leg, twisting the foot inward.  The whole body would organically unwind before the camera, allowing him to smoothly spin into frame. It really did create a mysterious and disturbing tension.”

Forgive the digression but I love to hear of these technical tricks that the good actors employ.  I think it explains why you notice some actors a lot – as with Elisha Cook Jr – and countless others not.  There are loads of character actors whose names I recognise as the credits role but it takes a long time for me to get to a point where I recognise their faces too.  Not so with Cook.

The brilliantly-named Rhodes Reason who plays the hunky hero Gunn was mainly a TV actor who nevertheless appeared in some Cinema Delirium-approved bits and pieces, including THE TIME TUNNEL, STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE as well as a rare feature role in KING KONG ESCAPES [1967] the barking Japanese sci-fi movie.  He – Rhodes Reason, not King Kong – died last year aged 84.

Friedrich von Ledebur

In a small role at the very end of the film is the enigmatic Friedrich von Ledebur.  He made only fifty-odd movies over the course of a forty year career but, like Elisha Cook Jr, you always notice him.  That’s not because of acting tricks, at least none that I've spotted, but because he’s a very tall, imposing-looking man who looks like he’s been fashioned out of teak.  He’s got a genuinely delirious CV which somehow goes from MR BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE [1948] to William Friedkin’s SORCERER [1977], an excellent remake of THE WAGES OF FEAR.  I first became aware of him when I was still a kid and I saw him as Queequeg in John Huston’s MOBY DICK [1956]; he’s great in it and almost uniquely suited for the role, despite being an Austrian playing a South Sea islander.  Ledebur became something of a Huston favourite actually, appearing in four other films by the great man.  Have a look at his CV: you’ll find it chock full of properly good films and although he may only play uncredited bit parts he’s there in all of them – like a real-life Zelig.

Adam West (L)

Speaking of uncredited parts, I can’t not mention Adam West who makes his feature film début as a conscientious wireless operator.  West is of course instantly familiar to those of us who can remember Batman before Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Christian Bale and, er, Ben Affleck.

Director Reginad Le Borg began his career in the 1930s but never graduated beyond B-movies.  To be frank VOODOO ISLAND is as good as it needs to be and not a jot more, which point to it being the work of a hack.  I've only seen one other movie by him and that isn't very good either: THE MUMMY’S GHOST [1944] one of the increasingly dismal belated sequels to Universal’s THE MUMMY [1932] which starred, of course, Boris Karloff.  As with so many lower grade directors, Le Borg moved into TV in the 1950s but did make a return to features right at the end of his career, most of which are candidates for future Cinema Delirium posts, including THE EYES OF ANNIE JONES [1964] which features the oddest of odd couples in Richard Conte and Francesca Annis.

Screenwriter Richard Landau collaborated with Le Borg five times and has an interesting CV which, while it includes mediocre stuff like this one, also includes THE FLANAGAN BOY [1953] (which stars Barbara Payton), THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT [1955] and THE GLASS CAGE [1955], all Hammer productions, BACK TO BATAAN [1945] the not very good sequel to one of my favourite WW2 movies, Tay Garnett’s BATAAN [1943], and the original story for an underrated sci-fi movie THE BLACK HOLE [1979].

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