Wednesday, 1 February 2017
HORROR ISLAND (1941)
George Waggner continued directing for Universal in the genre with two more releases in 1941 after Man Made Monster. Before his second outing with Lon Chaney Jr in the career-making The Wolf Man there was the lively if formulaic B-movie Horror Island.
Working with a script by Maurice Tombragel and Victor Mcleod based on Alex Gottlieb’s story, it revolves around an island owned by Bill Martin (Dick Foran) and the search for $20m worth of treasure hidden on it as a rumoured hideaway of famous pirate (Captain) Sir Henry Morgan. A playful light-hearted tone is established by the tall, cool Foran. Though he had just played Steve Banning in The Mummy’s Hand (1940) he was properly known in the industry as a singing cowboy of various films such as 1935’s Moonlight on the Prairie and later Rodgers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee (1943). Short of money but not on charm, Bill is an Ivy League graduate – of Princeton as Foran was in real-life – who handles his penury and constant escapes from creditors with easy-going good humour. His costume signals from the start that he’s also the possessor of a ship, denoted by the captain’s hat he wears in every scene, even indoors.
Wry and whimsical humour abounds through the film actually. Bill and his faint-hearted partner Stuff Oliver (fellow musical comedy specialist Fuzzy Knight) are offered a business opportunity to secure the second half of a treasure map for the island by colourful Tobias Clump, a leaden name for the very Spanish Leo Carillo sporting a suitably piratical bandanna and ear-ring. He has been attacked and robbed of the other half by a sinister black-caped figure he calls the Phantom.
Bill’s shady cousin George (John Eldredge) attempts to buy the land for two thousand dollars, only succeeding in increasing Bill’s enthusiasm for finding the hidden fortune. Bill, Stuff and Clump decide to monetise a trip out to the island by selling weekend places to the public. Along the way, a party is recruited comprising the sassy, well-heeled club owner Wendy Creighton (also in The Mummy’s Hand and 1942’s The Mummy’s Tomb), her idle cynic lover Thurman Coldwater (a name aptly reflected by Lewis Howard’s performance), Hobart Canavaugh’s bookish Jasper who switches from prosecuting Bill for advertising fraud into coming along for proof, crooked couple Rod and Arlene Grady (Ralf Harolde and Iris Adrian) and Walter Catlett’s splendidly named P.I. Sgt McGoon.
The merry band’s voyage is eventful right from the off as a delivery boy throws them a bomb that detonates safely in the water and a magnet is found that was placed to sabotage the ship’s compass. Once on the fog-bound island and into its desolate castle, the group are repeatedly besieged by traps that Bill thinks have been set by Stuff until his pal protests he didn’t set any of them. A suit of armour fires crossbow bolts and a voice teases the party mercilessly over a tannoy, later revealed as the incessant taunting of the Phantom who has arrived here before them.
The second half of the film is heavily reminiscent of The Cat and the Canary (both versions reviewed in my site); the booby-traps, of shadowy menace and the heroine abducted by the assailant’s hands through a bookcase-cum-door have all been done many times, yet Horror Island’s pace and light comedic quality amongst the chills and escalating body-count are handled amiably enough by Waggner and atmospheric cinematography by Elwood Bredell A darker edge is supplied by the unknown killer bumping of the Phantom and inscribing the number of potential victims left as he culls the cast of its more dubious members: Rod, then George.
Look away, spoiler-haters - the eventual identity of the murderer as the meek, nerdy Jasper is a nice twist, and grants Cavanaugh a display of greater range as his hard ruthless reality is unmasked.
Overall, Horror Island is a fun and functional afternoon’s time-passer, the treading of water for Waggner as he geared up to reunite with Lon Chaney Jr for The Wolf Man…