Commonly referred to by fans as one Boris Karloff’s lesser efforts, SNAKE PEOPLE (aka ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE / CULT OF THE DEAD) also remains of interest to horror/exploitation film buffs as one of four movies that Jack Hill provided back-to-back inserts, shot in American studios and featuring Karloff, for Mexican horror movies directed by Juan/Jhon Ibañez that included THE TORTURE ZONE (aka THE FEAR CHAMBER), DANCE OF DEATH, and ALIEN TERROR.
Today Hill’s films have required a cult following due to the appearance on home video of the likes of PITSTOP (1969) and SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975), and a resurgence of interest in 70s blaxploitation star Pam Grier, generated by Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997), who took the lead in four of Hill’s 70s features. Whilst Hill is currently reaping royalties from the re-release of his 70s output, Ibañez appears to have disappeared into obscurity following the release of CHAMBER OF FEAR (1987), the only feature he appears to have directed after the Karloff quartet in 1968. SNAKE PEOPLE begins with a voice-over describing the south seas island of Korbai’s religious practices and association with voodoo, the undead, and the underworld guardian Baron Samedi, a tracking shot follows a dark, masked, spectral figure, bearing a skull headed cane to a mist shrouded graveyard, before it disappears. We then spy a bearded dwarf in top hat and shades (Enano Santanon), and a man in white suit and Panama hat Klinsor (Quintin Bulnes) as they proceed to sacrifice a chicken, and raise a young woman from the dead. A series of shabby credits that exploit Karloff’s image for all its worth before the film begins in earnest.
Anabella van de Berg (Julissa) is a prohibitionist who arrives on the isolated island of Korbai in order to visit her uncle; a plantation owner called Carl von Molder (Karloff) and spread the word of temperance. Escorted by local army Captain Pierre Labiche (Ralph Bertram) and Wilhelm (Charles East), Annabella is appalled to learn that the locals lead superstitious existences and hold regular voodoo ceremonies in order to appease their dark gods. The island is in the grip of a cult that has taken to reviving the dead to do their bidding, and the village has become overrun with zombies, that are taken for slavery purposes, it is strongly hinted, to engage in acts of necrophilia.
The army seem powerless to stop the menace, as the cultists kill anyone who crosses their path with blow darts spiked with the venom of the island’s deadly snakes, that are themselves used in rituals by the Damballah, a masked high priest whose bidding is carried out by snake-dancing priestess Kalea (Tongolele /Yolanda Montes), and the shamanic dwarf figure.
Despite warnings from Molder to stay away from matters, Labiche and Wilhelm conduct their investigations into the cult. Annabella finds herself the intended target of sacrifice, and there follow a number of impressive hallucinatory dream-sequences, and erotic snake-dance ceremonies, with phallic symbolism, that include mild lesbian action, before the film winds to its inevitable showdown between the powers of light and darkness.
The film moves along briskly enough, and Karloff does his best with the limited material he is given. Despite the film’s leering lens (quite a substantial amount of time if given over to Tongolele’s impressive belly dancing techniques, and handling of snakes), SNAKE PEOPLE is surprisingly void of blood and nudity given Mexico’s penchant, at the time, for horror films featuring nude turns by the likes of Isobel Sarli (EMBRUJADA 1969), and Liberta Leblanc (LA ENDEMONIADA, 1967). As a result, its potential to exploit a western audience swiftly becoming accustomed to watching big name horror stars such as Karloff and Christopher Lee (THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, 1969), Vincent Price (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, 1968), and Peter Cushing (CORRUPTION, 1967) appear in vehicles that upped both the gore and nudity quotient, was greatly diminished.
Nevertheless, SNAKE PEOPLE is still worth a look. Exploitation fans into midgets/dwarfs will delight in Santanon’s demonical turn, as a cackling evil-doer, as he cuts open chickens, and stares at the voluptuous charms of Tongele, a far cry from his performance as Stinky the Skunk in Roberta Rodriguez’s outlandish kiddie matinee movies, THE QUEENS SWORDSMAN (1963), and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND HER FRIENDS (1964). Also of interest is director Ibañez’ thematic insistence on convoluting his plots with dialogue expounding Christian values, whilst at the same time playing up the strengths of black magic and the debauched excesses of pagan worship.
Previously available on DVD as a second feature backup to John McCauley’s RATTLERS (1975) from Something Weird Video, this full frame transfer from Electric DVD is, reputedly, an improvement over previous VHS presentations though colours are washed out, and surface nicks and grain are remain. The soundtrack remains relatively crisp, allowing one to detect the varying degrees of dubbing throughout the feature. Karloff’s Mexican double (playing the Damballah) sounds nothing like him, and neither does he look like him, with the shadow-role played by an understudy at least a foot taller! The result reminds one of Ed Wood’s similar treatment of Bela Lugosi in PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), though SNAKE PEOPLE doesn’t quite sink into a pit of total ineptitude.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Juan Ibañez
Mexico & USA / 1968 / 90 minutes.
All region. Dolby Mono
SNAKE PEOPLE (aka Isle of the Snake People)