Horror Island (1941)
Directed by: George Waggner
Written by: Maurice Tombragel & Victor McLeod, based on the story Terror of the South Seas by Alex Gottlieb
Starring: Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran, Fuzzy Knight
As a fan of classic horror, I find that sometimes the only way to get my hands on some of my old favorites on DVD is to pick up boxed sets that include some lesser known and/or less interesting titles. For instance, in order to land a copy of the slightly esoteric Universal silver age title Man Made Monster (1941) – which gave Lon Chaney Jr. his first monster movie role, pairing him with the magnificent Lionel Atwill under the direction of George Waggner, who would go on to direct Chaney in The Wolf Man (also 1941) – I had to pick up the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive set. The set included a few titles I’d seen before and never would have bothered to pick up on their own, as well as another Waggner picture that I’d never seen, Horror Island (another 1941 – busy year for Waggner). As usually happens with boxed sets, I just let it sit on my shelf for years – if the wife and I are going to watch a movie, we’re generally going to pick something that at least one of us is enthusiastic about, not something that’s landed in our collection by pure circumstance. But today, with the wife in school and nothing else I was particularly in the mood for, I decided it was time to give Horror Island a shot.
Shot, edited and scored in just three weeks, the movie’s incredibly rushed production schedule is first evidenced by the recycled music cues, borrowed from The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and Man Made Monster, among others, and immediately familiar to fans of this era – the pieces from Man Made Monster would have stood out even at the time, as it was the A picture which Horror Island was produced to support as a double-feature. However, the quality of Universal’s standing sets, Waggner’s stylish and economical direction, and Elwood Bredell’s marvelously atmospheric lighting combine to give the movie a richer look than one might expect from its schedule and relatively low budget.
Unfortunately, while Waggner keeps individual scenes paced very well, the overall story structure is terribly uneven. At only an hour long, there’s little reason for this Ten Little Indians-style attrition rate murder mystery to suffer lags in tension, and yet it it succumbs to them repeatedly.
The first ten minutes are fantastic, propelling us into an adventure and establishing major characters and dramatic stakes efficiently and with a consistent atmosphere of lurking menace. Then, things drop off as an over-large cast is clumsily introduced for the next ten minutes. Far too many characters seem to be there for comic relief; the problem isn’t that any of them are poor comic relief – any one or two of them would have been exactly what the ensemble needed to keep up a sense of fun – but I counted five comic relief characters among a main cast of eleven. The best of them is Leo Carillo, who plays the treasure-hunter who sets the story in motion.
While the pieces of the plot are all in place by a third of the way through, it’s not until past the half-way mark that the movie establishes a real sense of menace to any of its cast, and we are fully two thirds of the way in before the first murder takes place – and that first death is of a character who served no purpose to the story in the first place. Even more unfortunately, by this point we’ve already gotten a good look at the face of the mysterious villain, known as the Phantom (Foy Van Dolsen). There is almost no time allowed to dwell in the sense of horror that the setting and the style of the movie are suggesting. For instance, the killer’s chalk-on-the-wall countdown of the number of remaining victims (a basically effective if unoriginal device) is little more than a throw-away used in one or two scenes.
Dick Foran and Peggy Moran provide perfectly likable leads, basically creating a more caricatured variant of the opposites-attract relationship they played together in The Mummy’s Hand (1940). Unfortunately, in this case, the pairing feels a little too randomly contrived to make any sense. In fact, most of the characters are brought into the plot by clunky, contrived methods.
It was definitely director of photography Elwood Bredell who contributed the most to Horror Island’s effective sequences. Bredell was a veteran of both The Mummy’s Hand (one of the best photographed Universal horror films of the silver age) and Man Made Monster, and he really understood the low-key, shadow-rich look that could elevate a quickie horror programmer into something really atmospheric.
The most eerie vision of the Phantom, which unfortunately comes well after we’ve seen the character’s face
Horror Island is a minor work, largely forgotten not because it is bad, but because it is mostly unspectacular. However, for anyone who’s picked it up in a boxed set, and is just looking of an hour’s worth of good atmosphere and quality recycled sets and a handful of passable jokes, it does its job.
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