Sunday, October 17, 2021


A mysterious caped figure is skulking along the waterfront one night; at the same time, a one-legged seaman named Tobias is walking the same ground looking for Bill Martin, a Princeton grad who is down on his luck after failing in business. Bill's only asset now is Morgan's Island, a former pirate hideout he owns. Tobias has an old map showing where treasure is hidden on the island, but before he finds Bill, he is attacked by the caped stranger (who winds up being called the Phantom) who yanks off Tobias's wooden leg and steals the map out of it. Bill and his faithful sidekick Stuff rescue Tobias who tells his story to Bill and reveals that the Phantom only got away with half of the map--Tobias still has the other half. Next, Bill's wealthy cousin George shows up wanting to buy the island. When Bill escapes someone he assumes is a bill collector, he gets the bright idea of turning the island and its small castle into a tourist attraction and sell day-long "treasure trips." Along with Bill, Tobias, Stuff and George on the maiden voyage: Jasper, a map expert who thinks the map is a forgery; McGoon, a representative from a businessman's association worried that Bill's business is a scam; a young socialite named Wendy who accepts the trip as payment for what Bill owes her for a fender bender and her friend Thurman Coldwater, not quite a boyfriend and not quite a chauffeur and who has so little energy that he can barely sustain a conversation without falling asleep; Rod and Arleen, a vaguely mysterious couple. As the group leaves, a package arrives for Bill; it gets accidentally tossed in the water and explodes, leaving Bill and Stuff worried that someone is out to stop their trip. On the island, Stuff has already set up some fake spooky events, but we see that the Phantom is hiding in the castle. Strange things happen: an arrow which almost hits Tobias is fired by an empty suit of armor; a voice rings through the castle warning the guests to leave; Jasper sleepwalks; and eventually, Rod is killed when he tries to leave the island alone, and it's revealed that he was actually gangster Killer Grady. The stage is set for a long scary night for our characters.

Despite its title, this is not really a horror movie--it's a very traditional "old dark house" thriller with shadows, grasping hands, secret passages, people who are not what they seem, and some comic relief. Actually, the tone of the movie throughout is light, and that's what bothered me about it when I first saw it years ago. This time around, I enjoyed it more, though I still resent the title. An online critic noted that this is really three kinds of movie in one: it begins as if it will be an adventure movie (the search for treasure), becomes a mystery (who is the Phantom?), and strays into a horror mood in the last 10 minutes (out of a very fast-paced 60 minutes). It's a B-movie which played as a second feature to Lon Chaney Jr's MAN MADE MONSTER (also an hour long B-picture but Chaney's film always got top billing). The cast is fine, but missing are any of the Universal stalwarts (Chaney, Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, etc.). Dick Foran, better known as a singing cowboy, is nicely relaxed as the confident hero Bill; Peggy Moran is his equal as Wendy. I'm not always a fan of comic relief characters, but I quite liked Fuzzy Knight as Stuff--he stutters on occasion, but he's not portrayed as dumb. Also fine are Leo Carrillo as Tobias and Walter Catlett as the sometimes bumbling McGoon. The character of Thurman Coldwater (Lewis Thomas) is quite strange: though we get evidence that he is a golddigger, he seems to be completely uninterested in his target, Wendy, and his lack of romance and his passivity made me read him as gay (a 40's vesion of a sissy, though he's not exactly effeminate). Decent B-movie viewing for a spooky October evening.

A note on the Blu-Ray: I watched this as part of a Universal/Shout Factory boxed set and the print was in great shape. However, the commentary was terrible. Usually, I like commentaries on older movies since they are typically done by critics or historians who do their research and plan out their comments very well. But Ted Newsom delivers one of the worst commentaries I've sat through. Besides having a personal interest in the movie, he only seems to know as much about Horror Island as anyone with 10 minutes of access to the internet. He frequently gets bogged down in information not related at all to the movie. For example, instead of telling us much about Fuzzy Knight, he spends way too much time on a dumb story about Fuzzy Knight getting mixed up with an actor named Fuzzy St. John. He loses his way, forgetting what he was talking about. He spends a couple minutes pointing out a goof (the visibility of a crew member) that ends up not showing up on screen--the shot was zoomed in on this print to remove the crew member. My advice is, even if you're the kind who loves commentaries, skip this one. Pictured from left: Knight, Carrillo, Moran and Foran. [Blu-ray]

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I remember very little about this one except that I really disliked it. But then I have a real aversion to Old Dark House movies of that era.