Psychotronic Ketchup: The Voodoo Island of Lesbos (Shhh... don't tell your parents...)

Voodoo Island
Dir: Reginald Le Borg // United Artists, 1957 (TCM)
Cinema 4 Rating: 3


Last week, Jen and I were flipping through the cable guide on the DVR to find out if there was anything worth recording over the next few days. Naturally, I stopped by TCM to see what was coming up, both that night and the next. To my surprise, I stumbled upon what I thought was a night full of generally excellent horror films: The Uninvited, The Haunting, The Seventh Victim and The Picture of Dorian Gray. But, in the middle of this decidedly higher-brow fright fare, there sat an odd title indeed: Voodoo Island, a Boris Karloff B-flick from 1957, which from all of the accounts that I have seen or read is not even good enough to be considered a middling attempt at zombie horror. Since I personally had never seen the film, I had no real choice but to record the film for a later viewing, but I was left wondering whether I had just heard wrong about the film, and that it did indeed merit its inclusion in this field of far more austere flicks, or if there was simply an insane programmer running amok at TCM.

It turns out neither course was correct. Voodoo Island is a crappy film, and even worse, a mostly boring and confusedly crappy one. But, it was being shown that particular night on TCM with those far, far better selections for a very good reason, and not due to the shaky hand of Mr. Crazed Programmer: the night was one of several that TCM was devoting to a film festival on Mondays and Wednesdays in June called Screened Out, which showed films that displayed representations of gay and lesbian characters, influences or stereotypes in them, hidden from the censors or otherwise. Once I saw the opening promo before this film, the other titles shown on that particular night made sense to me instantly. But Voodoo Island? Even if it indeed has gay or lesbian imagery, is this enough to allow it to be shown with the rest of these films? My resources really didn't say anything at all about this aspect, so how provocative could it be? Here is the complete, uncut review for the film in Weldon's Psychotronic: "In one of Karloff's worst movies, he investigates the island of the title, sees some of his men turned into zombies, and discovers "women-eating cobra plants." There is a slight mention after the cast list that it was filmed in Hawaii, but that's it for details. Here's the Maltin version in his Classic Movie Guide (it no longer appears in the listings for his main guide): "Boring horror-thriller has Karloff asked by businessmen to investigate strange doings on potential motel-island resort." (A note: Lenny still gives it two stars.) If neither of these two widely cast movie books didn't pick up on the gay/lesbo vibe in the film, then how overt could this angle be?

Very, very overt in actuality. Probably the most overt lesbian behavior out of any genre film in the "classic" period. Claire Winter, played with an appropriately chilly calm by Jean Engstrom, and whose seasonal surname is remarked upon by Rhodes Reason's character for this very aspect of her nature when it blizzards down upon his advances, is the rather predatory interior decorator who only has eyes for young and pert Sarah Adams (Beverly Tyler), the computer-like assistant to the detective portrayed by Boris Karloff. Reason's Gunn, a phallic-derived name is ever there was one, puts the moves on both women in the film's fact-finding expedition and is rebuffed in differing but equally effective ways. Even after she initially shoots him down, Claire can't help but tease the poor jerk stiff. She asks Gunn for a light, with which he happily obliges, edging his shoulder as close as possible to her in the action. After she puffs away for a second, she tells him to scram and insists that she no longer has need of him.

Sarah is no easier for the guy, especially after Claire starts making her move on the brainy but emotionally unaware girl. Gunn calls Sarah a "push button control system" and a "machine" for her personal aloofness, at least towards men as he calculates, but he needn't have afraid. In true horror fashion, Claire will be punished triply for her assumed sluttiness (she is the one who decides to go skinny-dipping), her homosexuality, and also for daring to come between the hero and the ingenue. She is doomed to die the moment she first lights up in the film and casts her eyes on Sarah. Whether or not the fact she betrays no remorse over her behavior plays a part in this death, or it is simply the machinations of filmmakers who will go to a certain point only with their provocativeness, but no further, is hard to tell. But certainly, the lust triangle between Claire, Sarah and Gunn is the only thing that distinguishes or gives any interest to this film at all.

Which is sad, because there are a couple of good moments in this film, outside of the lesbian intrigue. It starts out amusingly actually, with a voodoo doll in the guise of the great Karloff getting pinged in the noggin with a voodoo pin. The resulting sound effect and font of the graphics makes this begin like a horror comedy, but this is a grandly misleading impression, as there is basically zero comic relief in the film, not even a character who stands in for such a concept. The film even tries to trick us into thinking we are getting a slow flyover of the island, but anyone even casually familiar with the properties of water can tell instantly we are looking closely at a model of the island from which the camera will eventually pull away to reveal a room filled with people overlooking it. Karloff does what he can with a humorlessly written role, but the camera never even seems to care that he is in it, and there are large gaps where the viewer forgets he is in the film as well.

And then there are the carnivorous plants, which never seem all that threatening, which is a shame since the film pretty much does away with its zombie theme about halfway through. When it comes time to let the plants shine as the villains, they are clearly not up to the task, even if they do manage to kill "Claire the Hetero-Threatening Lesbian" (how dare she?!) as they are scripted to do. However, the film's sole successful horrific scene comes courtesy of this plant life on the island, when a couple of small native girls playfully wander too close to the opened leaves of one plant. It is a scene that, had I seen it as a child, would have guaranteed that I would never venture near a garden for the rest of my youth. The plant's giant fronds close over one of the children (who actually seems to fall down into the monster) and swallows her whole. The scene is far enough removed from the unremarkable action of the rest of the film to actually be surprising when it happens. This death is witnessed by one of the research party's wayward members, and the horror of this vision causes him to crack up and literally turn into a zombie. Wow... didn't know that was how the whole zombie thing happened. I'd always heard it was a drug. Or maybe some mystical voudoun spell.

Or bad movies like Voodoo Island...

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