From the vaults of United Artists, MGM presents two golden chillers that many grew up watching on late-night TV in the 60s and 70s. Presented as a double-feature disc in an elusive batch (so far, only available in Canada) of the Midnite Movies line, VOODOO ISLAND has never before been available on home video, while THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE was only previously released on laserdisc as part of the “United Artists Horror Classics Volume 1” box set.
In VOODOO ISLAND, wealthy real estate developer Howard Carlton (Owen Cunningham) wants to make a tourist attraction with hotels on a mysterious island in the Pacific. One of four surveyors he sent to check out the locale comes back alive, but is in a zombie-like trance. With notions of voodoo in the air, TV personality Phillip Knight (Boris Karloff) disbelieves the superstitious nonsense, and talks Carlton into financing an expedition with several others to research the island -- Knight hopes to prove that it wasn't voodoo that caused the trance and Carlton hopes to make a fortune developing the island. Strange things start to happen on their journey, as their private plane is forced to land before reaching their destination and the radio suddenly breaks down. Further disaster arrives in the form of death threats from the islanders, as well as man-eating plants that appear out of nowhere.
VOODOO ISLAND is probably one of Karloff’s worst horror vehicles, loaded with talk, a lousy screenplay, and uninspired direction by Reginald Le Borg (who also helmed the far superior THE BLACK SLEEP, made by the same company, Bel-Air a year earlier). Some of the talk involves an unlikely romance between a tough ship captain (Rhodes Reason) and Karloff’s ice-cold assistant (Beverly Tyler), and (would you believe?) there's a lesbian interior decorator played by Jean Engstrom. Not even Karloff or Elisha Cook (in one of his usual sleazeball roles) can save a horror film with voodoo dolls that look more like cartoon marionettes, unthreatening Hawaiian locations, a zombie with a silly grimace (and an even sillier comb-over), peaceful-looking natives that peer through bushes at our heroes and a severely humdrum ending. As bad as VOODOO ISLAND is, it does have its moments, mostly with the outlandish carnivorous plants that attack a bathing beauty in the pond and swallow a little native girl whole! Note that a very young Adam “Batman” West appears as a weather station controller (this would have made a great “Fun Fact” for the back cover).
On the flip side of the disc is the more enjoyable THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE. Kenneth Drake (Paul Cavanagh) dies suddenly at age 60, and on the day of his wake, his body is discovered with the head removed. Brother Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) arrives and is about to suffer the same fate, as he explains that there's a curse on his family where both his father and grandfather, and now his brother have had their heads removed, only to have the skulls neatly returned to the Drake crypt. In the meantime, a police detective (Grant Richards) with nothing better to do is snooping around the estate with the help of Drake’s pretty daughter (Valerie French from THE 27TH DAY). Neighbor Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell) is quickly revealed as the culprit: a centuries-old Indian witch doctor with a white man’s head sewn to his body! Zurich removes the skins from the skulls, sews up the eyes and mouths, and shrinks the heads to miniature size in a boiling pot.
THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE is a real cheapie with soundstage-bound sets (the whole show takes place in two different darkly lit houses), but a moody, creepy little thriller at that. Somewhat resembling a 1950s William Castle effort (especially a sequence with four floating skulls) veteran workman director Edward L. Cahn is able to cram enough thrills into 70 minutes, and the cast does a decent job with the material. Wrinkly Daniell makes a really creepy villain, and as a witch doctor, is able to perform some nasty things (the head shrinking is pretty graphic for the time) in his dungeon-like basement. Probably the film’s most memorable character is that of Zutai (Paul Wexler), a tall, longhaired Indian servant with drawn out features and sewn-up lips. Zutai sneaks around, crawling through windows looking for heads to slice off, and occasionally gasps a doglike howl when wounded.
Both VOODOO ISLAND and THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE arrive on DVD in very attractive, full frame transfers. Both black and white titles look sharp, well-defined, and are surprisingly very low on print damage. Unfortunately, both were designed to be properly matted at 1.85:1, so a chance for OAR or anamorphic transfers have been squashed and the films appear as they did for the television format. The mono audio on both titles is very clear and functional, and come across quite solid, especially for their age. Optional English, French and Spanish language subtitles are included.
Both titles include their original UA theatrical trailers: FOUR SKULLS is most enticing, having a hardy voice-over done by none other than Paul Frees. (George R. Reis)
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