Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

July 12, 2020

THE ISLAND MONSTER (Italy, 1954), starring Boris Karloff

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THE ISLAND MONSTER (Italy, 1954) starring BORIS KARLOFF

directed by Roberto Montero

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First of all, THE ISLAND MONSTER is not a horror film. The “monster” of the title is a monster in the broader sense—a narcotics kingpin whose organization is run from an island not far from the Italian coast. This film gets a bad rap, with people pointing out that it’s Boris Karloff’s worst film. Maybe it is. However, attacking a film such as this is like shooting fish in a barrel. Forgetting BK’s presence for a minute, it’s no better or worse than the average early 50’s low-budget crime programmer from Spain or Mexico or France or the UK….it’s kind of like an Italian version of a Lippert crime film. It’s competently photographed, the editing is not lazy, it mixes location shooting with interiors, the musical score is adequate, it has a convincingly seedy atmosphere as you’d want in a crime film about the drug trade, it has nightclub sequences (always a plus in a crime film), and it moves well. If you lived in Italy and this was at your local low-priced neighborhood theater on a double bill, it would be a good way to kill 85 minutes after a long work-week. People who complain about the film have probably not seen the bread-and-butter crime films of the period from low-budget producers in Latin America or Europe.

Then people complain about the dubbing. Yes, the dubbing sounds like a radio drama overdubbed onto an already existing film, which in a sense it is. However, dubbing was still a bit crude in the early 50’s, and again, this is typical of what you got in the period….no better, no worse. Anyone who watched old European B-movies on late night US television in the 60’s and 70’s can deal with the dubbing. For me, it does not get in the way. I’m used to it.

The reason most people have heard of THE ISLAND MONSTER is that Boris Karloff is in it. The reason the producers put the word MONSTER in the title is that Boris Karloff is in it. Undoubtedly, the producers felt that paying Karloff for 10 days work (or whatever) was worth the money in that the film could get overseas play dates it would not otherwise have gotten, and they were probably right, as it did get a US theatrical release on the drive-in circuit in 1957 (three years after its release) and from lobby cards I’ve seen, it was also released in Mexico. One problem of course is that the producers did not keep Mr. Karloff around to dub the English track, which would have added another 3 or 4 days work to his fee. With an actor with such a unique voice, this was a mistake. However, to the dubbers’ credit, they DID have someone do a Karloff imitation, which I suppose is better than a bland and anonymous voice. The ”imitation” is about as good as someone at your workplace doing a Cagney impression at the last office party, but at least you can tell who is being imitated. For someone watching this at 3 a.m. on a small black and white TV in 1965 on a UHF station in Great Falls, Montana, after a can or two of Olympia beer, it probably worked OK.

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Karloff gives a very enthusiastic, PHYSICAL performance in the film, perhaps knowing that he would not be heard. When we first meet him, the kindly older doctor who helps the poor, he’s all charm and warmth, with just a slight something “off.” Then he vanishes for about 25 minutes, and when he’s back, he’s a brutal, child-kidnapping drug lord. The main story follows a police investigator on the case of a drug ring whose trail seems to follow the travels of a certain nightclub singer. His child is kidnapped by the criminals. You’d think that they’d blackmail him, but that angle is left undeveloped after being briefly introduced. Also, the real climactic “work” on breaking the case is done by a dog!

More than anything, THE ISLAND MONSTER reminds me of some of the 1950’s Mexican crime programmers I saw on Spanish language TV in the early 80’s, in the early days of cable when networks had many hours to fill, and cheap older films were the perfect filler. My Spanish was just enough to follow the plot (unless you had a fast-talking character who used a lot of slang!)—it’s not like there is much originality in a crime film, so you weren’t thrown many curves. Those were also competently made, featured the usual character types, had nightclub sequences, and moved with a good pace.

Anyone who loves Boris Karloff’s work would probably enjoy watching THE ISLAND MONSTER, in the same way that Christopher Lee fans can watch the German SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE, in which he’s dubbed by someone else, and still appreciate the master’s presence and whatever good elements the film has (that one had excellent atmosphere—like the German Edgar Wallace adaptations of the period set in a Germanic faux-England). I’d enjoy this film for what it is—an entertaining way to kill 85 minutes—if it did not have Boris Karloff in it because I enjoy low-budget crime programmers, pulp crime stories, crime comics, etc. WITH Karloff in it, it’s just icing on the cake. In an interview, BK stated that he had a great time in the beautiful area where the film was shot. The hard-working Karloff deserved a nice vacation.

The 50’s were not the greatest period in Karloff’s career in terms of movie visibility. He worked primarily in television (though he had a lot of credits there), and his film credits were spotty—the odd SABAKA after this, the low-budget VOODOO ISLAND and FRANKENSTEIN 1970. It wasn’t until the British double-header of THE HAUNTED STRANGLER and CORRIDORS OF BLOOD that he started riding the wave of renewed attention that lasted until his death…and continues today, where he’s still revered as both one of the all-time greats of horror AND a first-rate character actor in non-horror films, even this one.

Oh, one nice touch…for those who make it to the end…is that in the final scene, Karloff is carrying the body of the kidnapped girl, running near the sea, and the scene is clearly a homage to the original 1932 Frankenstein, where the monster carries the girl who trusts him alongside the lake….and then drowns her.

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