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MGM Studios DVD presents
Voodoo Island / The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1957/1959)

"Since you know that I'm dead, you know that you can't kill me."
- Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: September 20, 2005

Stars: Boris Karloff, Beverly Tyler, Murvyn Vye, Elisha Cook Jr., Eduard Franz, Valerie French, Grant Richards, Henry Daniell
Other Stars: Rhodes Reason, Jean Engstrom, Frederich Ledebur, Adam West
Director: Reginald Le Borg, Edward L. Cahn

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild violence, disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 02h:27m:59s
Release Date: September 20, 2005
UPC: 027616920737
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-A-B+ D

DVD Review

The fear of the unknown is always fertile ground for a horror movie to explore. This double feature Midnite Movies DVD pairs two examinations of the anthropological unknown. The first, featuring Boris Karloff, takes on voodoo beliefs, while the main theme of the second is that of shrunken heads. While both have promising materials, only the second really makes good use of them.

Voodoo Island (1957) stars Karloff as professional debunker Phillip Knight. Knight comes across an apparent zombie, Mitchell (Glenn Dixon), who is deep into a trance. Mitchell had been part of a surveying team sent to explore an island for a possible resort hotel, so Knight goes to the island to investigate along with his assistant Sarah Adams (Beverly Tyler), the developer's promotional man Barney Finch (Murvyn Vye) and designer Claire Winter (Jean Engstrom). Along with Mitchell, guide Matthew Gunn (Rhodes Reason) and boat owner Martin Schuyler (Elisha Cook Jr.), they run into more zombie problems, man-eating plants and a hidden tribe that intends to practice their voodoo skills on the investigators.

While the concept and scenario have some merit, the effort falls utterly flat. Even with a cast of ciphers, one would expect there to be entertainment value from the usually reliable Karloff and Cook; while Cook holds up his twitchy end of the bargain, Karloff just does a walk-through to collect his paycheck. It doesn't help that he's stuck wearing a ridiculous-looking baseball cap with the brim turned up as if he were a gas station attendant. There's altogether too much trudging through pseudo-jungle and too little of interest happening. The screenwriter's lack of even basic scientific knowledge is betrayed by some absurd dialogue (the island is placed at 38 degrees west 178 degrees north; Karloff insists that the Paleozoic Era was a mere 15 million years ago). The carnivorous plant effects are utterly laughable and deep in Ed Wood Jr. territory. Worst of all, the story completely falls apart in the third act, with the natives suddenly changing character completely in order to finish off the story. I suppose one has to resort to such antics when the budget won't allow you to take the usual step of blowing up the island in a volcanic eruption.

On the positive side, Les Baxter contributes an effective theremin-heavy score that helps with the tedium but occasionally gets overwrought. The segments with Mitchell are fairly creepy, especially one sequence where he crawls on his belly like a mesmerized lizard. Engstrom also gets a fairly interesting character as a cold-hearted lesbian that's portrayed pretty forthrightly. Gunn's character is so dense he just keeps hitting on her and she keeps ignoring him and pursuing the asexual (perhaps deeply-closeted) Adams instead. Adam West also makes his screen debut with an uncredited but sizable part as a radio operator that leads into an interesting and unique notion that zombies are somehow able to interfere with radio transmissions. But like so many thematic elements in this mishmash, it goes nowhere.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) is a much more offbeat little horror that gives some nasty chills in a low-budget framework. The Drake family is under a curse from the Jivaro tribe of the Amazon for the misdeeds of an ancestor; each male in turns dies at age 60 and their heads respectively vanish. The latest victim is Kenneth Drake (Paul Cavanagh), leading his brother Jonathan (Eduard Franz) to conclude that he is next on the list of the curse. But the curse isn't entirely supernatural, but the efforts of Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell) and his Jivaro assistant Zutai (Paul Wexler), who are shrinking the victims' heads for a plot of their own.

There is quite a lot to like about this picture, starting with its willingness to use the ghastly imagery of the shrunken head, or tsantsas, to good effect. The image is echoed in the visage of Zutai, played by Paul Wexler, a low-rent Christopher Lee clone, whose mouth is crudely sewn shut. It's disturbing and memorable and overcomes the cheesy portrayal of the police lieutenant, Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards), who in best Scooby-Doo fashion jumps to the immediate conclusion of supernatural involvement. There's also the element of burial alive, darkly hinted at but never really discussed expressly. What really makes the film is the archly smug portrayal of Dr. Zurich by Daniell; he gives a visible lunatic glee in his descriptions of the process of shrinking a head; he almost takes it over the top but just stops short, and he's quite enjoyable to watch as he fences with the police. Daniell, a regular in the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, including one turn as Moriarty, clearly had the stuff to be a horror star in the Vincent Price mold, had he chosen to do so. As a result, the briskly-paced picture is by far the best on the disc.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Both films are presented in full frame, which appears to be correct; there aren't any noticeable instances of panning and scanning that I noticed. The black & white photography is crisp and clean with terrific greyscale ranges and deep, rich blacks. Detail and texture are both first-rate, and only the occasional speckling betrays the age of the materials. There is some occasional aliasing, but considering how grainy the film is the compression is quite well done; there's little sparkly effect spoiling the viewing pleasure.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono tracks are also quite well-rendered. There's mild but unobtrusive hiss present. The sound design on Voodoo Island is quite striking, between the piercing bird cries and the whining theremin, against Baxter's brassy score. Nothing to complain about here at all.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The only extras are variable-condition trailers (not advertised on the packaging) for each of the films featured on the dual-sided disc. Chaptering is quite generous.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

While Voodoo Island is for Karloff completists only, its companion film is a delightfully strange little horror that takes its theme of shrunken heads and runs with it. No extras except trailers, but the transfers are pretty good.


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