Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Horror Island (Universal, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I ended up running was Horror Island, yet another item in the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive box and a rather quirky exercise in doing an old-dark-house thriller without any real horror stars. It’s the old chestnut about the young layabout who doesn’t want to hold down a normal job, and who happens to have inherited a mysterious island that was once used as a hideout for pirates. The layabout is Bill Martin (Dick Foran) and he’s partner with the comic-relief character, Stuff Oliver (Fuzzy Knight), in what appears to be a deep-sea fishing business but also encompasses any wild scheme Bill thinks is going to make him money at the moment. He’s also in the habit of denying that he’s ever in because most of the people who want to see him are bill collectors or process servers, but one man who does get through his defenses is a one-legged sailor named Tobias Clump — an odd character name for someone who’s made up to look like a Gypsy and is played by a Latino actor, Leo Carrillo — who claims that the island Bill inherited was once the hideout of the legendary Henry Morgan and that there’s a buried treasure worth $2 million.

Bill hits on a brainstorm: he’ll organize a trip on his boat, the Skiddoo, to Morgan’s Island and promise everyone who goes with him a treasure hunt at $50 a throw. He also has Stuff wire up a sound system on the island and put skeletons around the various rooms so people will get the idea the castle is haunted. While all this is going on Bill also crashes his car into a fancy one bring driven by upper-class girl Wendy Creighton (Peggy Moran) and her upper-class-twit boyfriend de jour, Thurman Coldwater — played by Lewis Howard as the sort of effete incompetent John Eldredge usually played, while Eldredge himself is in this movie but in a different sort of role: as Bill’s unscrupulous cousin George who wants to take the island off his hand for $20,000. Tobias claims to have half a pirate treasure map and says that the other half was stolen from him by “The Phantom” (Foy Van Dolsen, the closest thing to an actual horror star in this film), a sinister figure shown only in the shadows and wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a cape to look appropriately sinister. The film takes about 23 minutes of its running time just taking care of all these preliminaries — including a scene that’s supposed to be surprising but would have been a dead giveaway in 1941 to anyone who’d seen The Mummy’s Hand (which used the same plot gimmick) a year earlier: Jasper Quinley (Hobart Cavanaugh), a resident professor who’s an expert on the history of piracy, gets a look at Tobias’s half-map and declares it a fake, so we just know he’s going to be part and parcel of the skullduggery at the end.

The Skiddoo sets sail with a weirdly assorted group of passengers, including Wendy, Thurman, Professor Quinley, a couple of gangster types (one male, one female) who seem to have some sort of design on the treasure, and Our Heroes — who are startled when someone throws a last-minute package to them on the boat and it turns out to be a bomb. They’re even more startled when they arrive on the island and encounter strange sights and sounds that aren’t part of Stuff’s fakery, and after 35 minutes of picturesquely photographed doings (the cinematographer was Elwood “Woody” Bredell, warming up for major credits later) the big revelation is that the professor is the real mastermind behind the plot to do away with the rest of them and grab the treasure for himself — only he’s killed when a booby-trap on the treasure door, an ax that falls when the key is turned on the keyhole along its handle, works and drives itself through his back. Charles was wondering who planted the bomb — my guess was that “The Phantom” was in cahoots with the professor and he did it — and it turns out the “treasure” is just worthless junk but the mysterious man who’s been following Bill around all movie (and who may have been the male “gangster” aboard the boat as well) turns out to be from the U.S. Navy with an offer of $100,000 for the island so they can turn it into a naval base (well, it started as a naval base for the pirate Henry Morgan, so in a weird way this is just returning it to its original function!).

Horror Island is a bit on the dull side — even at just an hour it still comes dangerously close to overstaying its welcome — but the human characters are appealing enough (and well acted by a group of professionals earning their pay without being especially inspired or “artistic”) and what goes on at the island is mildly scary even if hardly “horrific.”