THE UNLOVED DEAD: VOODOO ZOMBIES, Part Three: Isle of the Snake People - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

THE UNLOVED DEAD: VOODOO ZOMBIES, Part Three: Isle of the Snake People

Gordon Hopkins travels to Korbai.
To understand Isle of the Snake People (assuming such a thing is even possible, which I doubt) you first need to understand where this film came from.

The year, 1968, saw the release of Targets; produced by Roger Corman, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and written by Polly Platt. It told the story of an aging horror-movie star baffled by the terrors of the modern age and served as a sort of transition from the old-timey gothic horrors of its star Boris Karloff's heyday to the grittier, nastier horrors to come. It could have been the ideal capper to an illustrious career, but Karloff was, by all accounts, something of a workaholic. Despite age and significant health problems, he was determined to keep acting.

In steps Azteca Films, a Mexican company that managed to procure funding from Columbia Pictures for four horror movies, each starring Boris Karloff.

Okay, “starring” is probably overstating things a bit. The movies were shot primarily in Mexico but Karloff's doctor put the kibosh on any travel for the legendary monster. All of Karloff scene's were filmed in Hollywood, sitting in a wheelchair and breathing bottled oxygen in between takes.

Karloff's scene were directed by the great Jack Hill, who gave the world such cult faves as Spider Baby, Foxy Brown and The Big Bird Cage. The bulk of the movies were shot by the somewhat less great Juan Ibáñez.

Karloff made all four films back to back at $100,000 per film. You can't fault Karloff for his business acumen. That's a total of four hundred grand for a few week's work. Alas, Karloff didn't live to see the movies released or even collect his paycheck.
For the longest time, these were some of the most obscure of Karloff's oeuvre. They were rarely seen or even heard of. It was the rarity that made the films so desirable to fans. It certainly wasn't the quality. Of the four films, Isle of the Snake People was the best, which ain't saying much. The other four are Fear Chamber, House of Evil and The Incredible Invasion. Actually, the films were all released under multiple titles. Isle was also known as just Snake People, Cult of the Dead and La Muerte Viviente in it's original Spanish title.

The story revolves around a pair of newcomers to the small island of Korbai. The first is a hard-assed police captain who arrives intent on whipping the corrupt, lazy police force into shape and cleaning up the island's crime problem (and, hoo-boy, is there a crime problem on that island). The second is a young lady from the temperance movement, who notes that, “Modern science has shown that alcohol is responsible for 99.2 percent of all the world's sins.” (That number seems low to me, but I haven't checked the math.) At this point, it should be noted that Isle of the Snake People takes place roughly in the time period when it was shot, meaning the late sixties. By then the temperance movement was nothing more than a quaint anachronism. This is just one of many elements of the film that don't make a lick of sense.

As in the previous films discussed, Voodoo is being used to bring dead women back to life and turn them into submissive sexual slaves, although this time the point is made much more explicitly.
If you are wondering where the title comes in, one of the Voodoo practitioners is also a snake handler/belly dancer, portrayed by singer and exotic dancer Yolanda Montes, credited here as “Tongolele.” I have to give the filmmakers props for guts. Rather than casting a twenty-something ingenue in the scantily-clad, overtly sexual role, they gave the part to Montes, who was was 38 at the time and wore a broad streak of gray in her hair. She came across as genuinely sinister and her performance was a rare highlight in a film with few notable performances. The only others are Karloff, himself, and Santanón, a little person who serves as an avatar for the villainous, unseen Voodoo master, Damballah.

Oh, yeah. About that Damballah guy. He is, of course, unmasked at the end of the film. I won't say who it is because, you know, spoilers, even though you've probably figured it out already.

Karloff had reportedly rejected the original script for Isle, and the others as well. Jack Hill did a rewrite that Karloff approved. However, it is unclear how much of Hill's work ended up up in the final movie. Part of that may have to do with the year it was made. Though officially released in 1971, most of the shooting was done in 1968. That was the same year another obscure little zombie flick you might possibly have heard of was released. Night of the Living Dead, completely rewrote the rules of zombies and zombie movies and it is possible the filmmakers tried to alter Isle of the Snake People to fit the new format. There is a bizarre subplot about cannibal women who go about attacking men and eating them alive. Okay, that certainly seems inspired by Night of the Living Dead. Only, these women aren't zombies. At least, I don't think they are. Some online descriptions of the plot claim that these cannibal women are what happens after being zombified. Well, I re-watched the film and, if that is indeed the case, it is not very well explained. But, then again, neither is anything else in this mess of a movie.
Isle is, first and foremost, an exploitation movie. White Zombie and Plague of the Zombies, while possession some exploitative elements, are still artistic achievements that use the concept of the zombie to ell a significant story. There are a lot of words you can use to describe Isle of the Snake People but artistic sure ain't one of them.

Indeed, there is a lot of exploitation going on. Aside from zombies and cannibalism, there is a lot of violence and also a lesbian dream sequence where Miss “Lips That Touch Wine Shall Never Touch Mine” makes out with herself.

Of course, the most blatant exploitation is that of Karloff, himself, who plays a scientist who also happens to be the uncle of the puritan temperance lady who apparently lusts after herself.

Karloff looked ancient and wizened, even compared to his appearance in Targets earlier that year. His health was obviously in rapid decline, yet he manages to give a strong performance as good as anything he had ever done. Like many other horror stars (Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, etc.) Karloff had a talent and professionalism that often rose far above the material he was given to work with. That, more than anything else, makes this movie worth watching, brief those his scenes are.

While this is an exploitation flick, it has to be said Isle of the Snake People does something the others I mentioned does not. It acknowledges the exploitation.

Movies about Voodoo are about white men exploiting another culture. When I called this an exploitation movie, I meant that quite literally. It is cultural appropriation (to use a modern buzzword) in it's most overt form.

Unlike the previous films, this one not only admits that is what's going on but it warns against it. When the gung-ho captain declares war on Voodoo, it is Karloff who cautions the captain against interfering in the island's religion and religious practices. Unfortunately, Karloff's role as the island's cultural defender is sabotaged a bit by the director's decision to dress him in a white suit with a black string tie and sit him in a high-backed wicker chair, looking for all the world like a plantation owner. All he needed was a mint julep in his hand. Well, at least in this movie, the zombies are actually black.

I don't mean to be too harsh on Isle of the Snake People. It has it's moments and it is certainly worth watching as Karloff's swan song. If it does not burnish his place as a horror icon, neither does it detract from it. It is also makes more clear than a lot of other movies the problematic (to use a word I hate) issue of Voodoo in cinema.

Up next...Things Get Real (ish)

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad