Monday, August 9, 2010

Snake People (Azteca-Columbia-Horror International, 1969)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Snake People — one of the four-film package Boris Karloff contracted to make at the very end of his life. They were originally co-productions between the Mexican company Azteca Films and Columbia Pictures, but after they were finished (more or less) and Karloff died, Columbia bowed out of the deal and sold their rights to a U.S. distributor called “Horror International” (thereby, as Charles noted, confirming our general-field theory that studios with the word “International” in their names make particularly awful movies). Karloff was scheduled to shoot all four films in five weeks and was originally supposed to go to Azteca’s studio in Mexico City to make them, but since he was suffering from pneumonia and had already had one lung removed due to cancer, his doctors forbade him from going to Mexico City’s notoriously high altitude and thin air, so the plan changed so that he could shoot his scenes in Hollywood (though at independent studios instead of Columbia’s own facilities). The films weren’t actually edited and released until 1970 and 1971, well after Karloff’s death in February 1969 (just a month after he shot them, so he really was working until the end!), and they’ve been listed in Sinister Cinema’s catalog for years but I’d never been sufficiently interested in them to pay Sinister’s rack rate.

This one was included in the Passport International (there’s that word again!) boxed set Boris Karloff: 15 Frightful Films, an unwitting pun given that the word “frightful,” which they obviously used to mean “frightening,” could also mean “very bad” — and that was the case for all too many of the movies included. The box, which presented all but one of the films in chronological order (and that one, a CBS-TV version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, was put out of place because it was a TV show and not a theatrical release), led off with what was by far its best film, The Bells, the quite engaging 1926 silent that co-starred Lionel Barrymore and counts (at least in my view) as Karloff’s first horror film, five years before Frankenstein.

It was pretty much downhill from there with the British production Juggernaut (1936) — actually a crime thriller tricked up with a bit of horror gimmickry — Karloff’s five Mr. Wong films for Monogram, the 1940 Monogram horror (in both senses) The Ape, British Intelligence (Karloff’s 1940 Warners remake of Three Faces East, the first — but not the last — time he’d remake a role originally played by Erich von Stroheim; he did it again in Lured), Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, Sabaka (a quite silly British film set in India and noteworthy only for the marvelous villainess played by June Foray, in quite a departure from her most famous credit as the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel!), The Terror (a bit of nonsense Roger Corman cooked up at American International in 1963 when he realized that Karloff and Jack Nicholson, whom he’d signed for the film The Raven, still owed him two days’ work, so he squeezed out another whole movie from them!) Mondo Balordo (one of those European documentaries about the kinkier sides of life that followed in the wake of the success of Mondo Cane) and this one, which comes off as the nadir of the bunch.

I hadn’t expected any of these Mexican Karloff movies to be especially good (both Donald F. Glut and Peter Underwood said in their books on Karloff that Peter Bogdanovich’s marvelous social-protest melodrama Targets, Karloff’s last genuinely good movie, should be considered his farewell even though he squeezed in five more films, including the British-made The Crimson Cult, in the few remaining months of his life!) but I hadn’t expected them to be as putrid and uninvolving as Snake People — whose title seems to have got progressively shorter with each incarnation. Azteca’s working title was La Muerte Viviende — literally “The Living Dead Woman” — and the original English title was Isle of the Snake People, which got shortened to The Snake People and then got still shorter with the loss of its definite article — starts with a panning shot of a globe being revolved almost at random while a narrator’s voice talks about voodoo and zombies. The camera eventually alights not on voodoo’s real home, the Caribbean in general and Haiti in particular, but on a fictitious (and crudely drawn-in) island in the neighborhood of Indonesia called Korbai.

There seem to have been not only two production locales but two sets of sets and two different casts; the one Karloff is in (shot largely on all-too-familiar standing “Western” sets — the time is the 1890’s or thereabouts) shows Anabella Vandenberg (an actress billed only as “Julissa” who appeared in at least one other of Karloff’s scrappy last films), who’s supposedly his daughter (his great-granddaughter would have been more believable) and who’s also a temperance activist come to bring prohibition to Korbai — though from what we see, alcohol is the least of its problems. The local police, headed by Captain Pierre Labesch (Rafael “Ralph” Bertrand) — that’s how the name is spelled on’s page for the film, though I assumed from the soundtrack it was spelled “Labiche” and was supposed to be French even though his uniform was pure Mexican federales — and the male ingénue, Lt. Andrew Wilhelm (Carlos “Charles” East, actually a quite attractive man within the rather dorky hairstyles and costumes of the 1960’s), are trying to stamp out a voodoo cult headed by a god (or at least a human posing as a god) named Damballah whose high priest is a little person (i.e., what we used to call midgets until that became un-P.C.) and is played by someone billed only as Santanón. (At least two other performers in this film, a dancer played by Yolanda “Tongolele” Martinez and another player billed only as “Martinique” and unidentified with his or her role on, are billed with only one name.)

The other half of Snake People deals with the little person, his tall but scrawny-looking assistant and the mysterious young Black woman they revive from a coffin with their voodoo spells — whereupon the lanky wasted-looking guy gets into the coffin with her and starts making out (and I suggested the midget probably said, “We went to all that trouble reviving the dead just so you could get laid?”) There are quite a few close shots of sweaty Black women’s bodies dancing supposedly “primitive” moves, suggesting that the audience the people who made this movie had in mind was a bunch of horny teenage straight boys who’d be turned on by this sort of thing — and the plots just sit there limply as the film cuts between them like a ping-pong game. The stories don’t come together until the very end, when — in a twist that we probably would have expected even if it hadn’t been telegraphed about halfway through by writers Juan Ibáñez and Jack Hill (who also co-directed) with Luis Enrique Vergara — it turns out that Karloff’s octogenarian character is the mysterious Damballah, or is at least posing as this voodoo god to run the cult like a dictatorship. Charles suggested that Karloff’s last-scene appearance as the voodoo demon was doubled — it’s certainly his voice on the soundtrack but pretty obviously not his body on screen.

Snake People is one of those dull movies that has little to offer — just some nice shots of a dancing girl (if you’re into that sort of thing) and Karloff, as he did so often (especially in his last decade), somehow maintaining his dignity even in a nothing role in a preposterous movie. This would have made excellent fodder for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 but really doesn’t offer much entertainment value au naturel, and the plot description on — “Evil scientist runs a veritable army of LSD-crazed zombies” — doesn’t seem to correspond with anything we actually see (the baddies extract their zombie-making drug not from chemical synthesis, the way LSD was invented and manufactured, but from an extract of a plant).