EDITOR’S NOTE This podcast is dedicated to Universal Monsters. This season is focused mummies and we have several seasons coming up, each devoted to one of the iconic Universal Monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man … you get the idea. But, as most fans know, there are many more excellent (and some awful), vintage Universal Horror films out there that don’t feature any of these classic monsters and so won’t be featured on our show. They are absolutely still worth covering, so we’ve invited some guest writers to share their thoughts on these non-monster Universal Horror films and they’ll be occasionally posted here on the site, in the regular feed. Posts will range from film or Blu-Ray reviews, to historical insights and think pieces. Enjoy the first of those posts, a review of Horror Island (1941), by longtime Horror Movie Podcast listener and friend of Universal Monsters Cast, Sal Roma.
Title: Horror Island . Studio: Universal Pictures . Writers: Maurice Tombragel and Victor McLeod . Based on the story “Terror of the South Seas” by Alex Gottlieb . Director: George Waggner . Released: March 28, 1941 . Country: United States . Rating: 6.5/10
With yet another business venture deemed a failure, struggling businessman, Bill Martin (Dick Foran, star of The Mummy’s Hand), decides to turn his one asset, a mysterious island inherited from an uncle, into a potential business by promising paying customers a hauntingly fun ghost experience. Joined by his buddy, Stuff Oliver and Tobias Clump, sailor who believes there’s buried treasure on the island (Leo Carrillo, star of 1944’s The Phantom of the Opera), Bill and his customers quickly realize that there’s a mysterious Phantom that is set on doing anything it takes to get his hands on the believed gold on the island, even if it means by killing all that arrive at horror island.
In 1941, Universal would release to the world yet another iconic monster in George Waggner’s The Wolf Man. Although The Wolf Man would remain Waggner’s most well known horror movie, it would hardly be his only horror movie. In fact, Waggner released four films in 1941, three of them horror. Released simultaneously with Waggner’s own Man Made Monster, Horror Island was shown for the first time on the big screen on March 28, 1941, nine months before The Wolf Man. The most impressive aspect about Horror Island has nothing to do with the actual film, but rather shooting for the film only began on March 3, 1941. That means there was a whopping twenty-five days between the start of shooting until the film was shown to audiences. Even for a small budget picture like Horror Island, that is an astonishing fact. The question is, “Did Universal manage to create a good movie in such a limited amount of time?”
Given the time restraints and limitations of such a small budget, I’d say Universal mostly succeeded. Horror Island is hardly an Universal horror classic, but with a running time of just one hour, it is a quick and fun watch. One thing I was not expecting to find in Horror Island was so much comedy. Indeed, when checking IMDb, they list the three genres as being horror, mystery, and thriller. I would argue that comedy should either be first or second. The good news is that I enjoyed all of the comedy, with Horror Island causing me to chuckle throughout. Although one such character, Stuff Oliver, is the one who brings the majority of the comedy to the screen, nearly all of the characters brings a few laughs as well. Despite his small part, Thurman Coldwater, always stole any scenes he was a part of with his portrayal of a gentleman whose sole care in the world is getting in additional nap time.
While it takes the film awhile to get to this point, I also greatly enjoyed the mystery of who was the one behind all of the disappearances and killings. Keeping in mind that Horror Island was released in 1941, the film has a very strong body count gang feel where the movie purposely adds characters just to be killed off. You never knew which character would be killed off next and although I was able to accurately guess the identity of the evildoer, it was still a satisfying reveal. The body count gang does also expose part of the biggest flaw in Horror Island. As the film is a mere sixty minutes long, there isn’t a lot of time dedicated to each of the characters. With how many characters were killed off and how many managed to survive, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that the film should have just reduced the amount of characters some. Rather than having eleven people at the potentially haunted castle, that number could have easily been shaved off by four or so. It would still allow for a handful of deaths, but all of the characters would receive enough time to properly become emotionally invested in. Either the numbers of characters needed to be reduced or the film needed more time to properly flesh everyone out and devote enough time to each portion of the story.
Besides having a body count, the fun of the film comes from multiple traps, designed to either scare off the guests or to just kill them, multiple trap doors allowing the Phantom to move from room to room, a treasure hunt through this surprise filled castle, and the killer having some fun with the guests by leaving a running tally of how many survivors are left after each kill. This fun value is all the more important as there isn’t much more to offer beyond that. It’s very lite on horror and it certainly isn’t a notable Universal horror. There is some fun of seeing the two leads of The Mummy’s Hand, Dick Foran (Bill Martin) and Peggy Moran (Wendy Creighton) back again as the romance that develops while on a horror based quest.
Overall, I’d give Horror Island a rating of 6.5/10 with a rental recommendation if you have interest in seeing what else George Waggner can do besides create an amazing werewolf picture. Horror Island is available on a standalone DVD as part of the “Universal Vault Series,” released in 2014, or included in the “Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive” DVD box set, released in 2009.