Written by: Juan Ibáñez, Jack Hill, Luis Enrique Vergara
Directed by: Juan Ibáñez, Jack Hill
Starring: Boris Karloff, Julissa, and Tongolele
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Voodoo rituals...on an island of evil!
Even towards the end of his life, when he was largely wheelchair bound, his leg in a steel brace, and “operating with only half a lung,” Boris Karloff considered himself “a very lucky man.” While he considered it a “public scandal” that was “still around” even at 80 years old, he felt a duty to “go on performing,” not only for his legion of fans but also for the “fleet of doubles” that producers often employed as his stand-in. But more than that, he insisted that he still enjoyed the work, and if he hadn’t, he “wouldn’t go on.” Truth be told, most of these very late-career productions are only worthwhile because of Karloff’s infectious enthusiasm: a consummate actor to the end, he often found himself the star—or at least the highest billed name—in several disreputable productions, like the four films he appeared in for Azteca Productions, a Mexican outfit that secured a financing deal from Colombia Pictures on the agreement that the stalwart actor would headline.
Of course, “headline” is a relative term in this respect, especially since Karloff’s health limited his participation, leading to a series of janky, jagged films like Isle of the Snake People, the last of this quartet to see release following the legendary performer’s death in 1969. Far from a fitting send-off, this ramshackle production is nonetheless a prime example of this era’s Karloffsploitation: despite only appearing in a handful of scenes, his presence is the most obvious appeal of an otherwise stale, outdated picture that would eventually boast numerous titles, none of which really adequately capture its nonsense plot.
The most common refrain in loglines for Snake People involves a mad scientist using LSD to raise an army of deranged zombies, but there’s a little bit more to it than that. Sadly, it’s also not nearly as exciting as that sounds since most of the plot actually revolves around a police captain’s (Rafael Bertrand) investigation into corruption and mysticism on a remote island. Rumors lead him and a local lieutenant (Carlos East) to seek out the mysterious Damballah, a sorcerer who may be responsible for the disappearance of several girls on the island. During the course of the investigation, the two also encounter plantation owner Carl van Molder (Karloff) and his niece Annabella (Julissa), who offer some further insight into the local rituals and voodoo customs that might be a key to unlocking the mystery of Damballa’s identity.
Of course, sharp-eyed viewers (or, hell, anyone even half paying attention) will recognize that Karloff’s elderly, seemingly kindly plantation owner is masquerading as the mysterious dark priest Damballah. For one thing, it’s Boris Karloff in a horror movie: you typically don’t cast him unless he’s up to no good. For another thing, he’s introduced sharing his experiments that involve unlocking the brain’s full potential or other such nonsense, which provides the obvious explanation for how women are being turned into zombies for a cult lurking in the shadows of the island’s criminal underworld. Or something like that—honestly, Island of the Snake People mostly feels like it’s been inelegantly patched together, with the dialogue mostly providing the pretense of exposition instead of an actual plot. It’s obvious that this one is mostly an excuse to exploit a crazy quilt of B-movie staples—some quite old, some a little bit new, all of them found in better films produced before and after this one.
I suppose there’s some appeal in the anachronistic exploitation of exotic, voodoo-tinged zombie lore that would have felt at least 20 years past its shelf date by the time Columbia finally released Snake People in 1971. Arriving three years after the release of Night of the Living Dead, this one must have seemed pretty dated on arrival, though, to its filmmakers’ credits, it would have felt even more so had they not injected it with some contemporary sleaze. Most of this doesn’t take the form of outlandish gore but rather nudie-cutie style titillation. Famed burlesque performer Yolanda Montes (aka Tongolele) appears as the snake cult’s resident belly dancer, and the film gives her ample opportunity to show off her talents. You really can’t even call it gratuitous or claim it detracts from the plot since there is, in fact, very little plot to be found here.
In fact, Snake People is at its best when it’s just indulging the mysticism surrounding the cult: long stretches take audiences right into the den of this strange cabal, amidst the smoke, flames, voodoo, snakes (hence the title), and the supposed undead horde among their numbers. A dwarf serves as master of ceremonies, heightening the off-kilter atmosphere, as cinematographer Raul Dominguez splashes the voodoo lair with hellish red hues, creating an otherworldly atmosphere that vaguely recalls the phantasmagoric underworld scenes from This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. One particularly striking scene finds the cult abducting Annabella and trapping her in a coffin; though she escapes her entrapment, she encounters a bizarre doppelganger that swiftly proceeds to make out with her in a sequence that truly captures the twisted non-logic guiding this film. The same is also true of the climactic scene, wherein a cloaked Damballah leads a ritual to conjure Baron Samedi himself with a virgin sacrifice that goes quite haywire, largely because Karloff’s double is so obvious and much sprightlier than the man himself. Karloff’s absence from the set also results in a somewhat hilarious overdub for his character’s final moments, which would also mark the last time the actor would ever appear on-screen.
Again, not the best send off for such a legend, but Karloff is, as always, a delight. His investment is never in question, and that signature, devious glimmer flashes in his eyes from time to time to bring a little charm to this low-rent junk. His declining health kept him from actually appearing on set in Mexico, necessitating a separate shoot near his home in Los Angeles under the direction of Jack Hill, who was no stranger to such patchwork filmmaking, having honed his skills on the sets of various Roger Corman productions by this point. The presence of the legendary grindhouse director feels appropriate in retrospect, as he acts as a bridge between eras, ushering Karloff—one of the last of the old guard—into the genre’s weird, wild, and scuzzy future. Isle of the Snake People is a bizarre cocktail, offering both a quaint, old-fashioned tale of mad, voodoo science and the gratuitous sleaze and grime that had become increasingly popular on drive-in screens (case in point: the pseudo-necrophilia involving one of Damballah’s lackeys and the zombie women). Between its inelegant camerawork (best described as a mangy collection of woozy zooms and stodgy framing) and its largely incoherent plot, this is naked, blatant exploitation of a matinee idol in the twilight of his career—not that Karloff saw it that way, of course.
To be fair, Snake People might not be as coherent as I’m letting on, at least in its full 90-minute version. Unfortunately, the version that appears on VCI and MVD Visual’s recent Boris Karloff Collection is the 71-minute Cult of the Dead cut, and it’s in pretty rough condition to boot. It’s essentially the sort of quality you expect to find from the public domain multipacks this title has haunted for years now, and, if I had to guess, it’s probably sourced from the same elements. Scanning around the other three titles—Alien Terror, Dance of Death, and Torture Zone—yields the same suspicion, as each title boasts a much shorter runtime than the ones indicated by IMDb and this release’s own packaging. With the exception of Alien Terror, each of these titles has appeared on DVD in the past, some of which seem to boast the original, uncut versions, so completists will want to research before committing to this set. While it’s nice to have all four of these Azteca productions in a convenient, 2-disc package, there’s the nagging feeling that it’s not as complete as it should be without the complete versions of the films. As such, this is a purchase of convenience and economy more than anything.
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