Despite having “horror” in the title, Universal’s 1941 film Horror Island (George Waggner) isn’t particularly horrific. Sure, some people get murdered off-camera and a corpse gets shoved into knight armor, but precious few viewers—either then or now—would ever suffer nightmares from this film.
In short, Horror Island isn’t scary, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer horror fans. In fact, it’s an immensely watchable hour of entertainment. Why? Because it’s spooky.
Scary gives you nightmares. Better yet, it keeps you up at night. Spooky is a little different. Spooky combines all the trappings of Halloween and graveyards and ghouls without all the scary bits. Think Scooby Doo. Think Haunted Mansion. Spooky is scary’s fun younger brother. And boy, is Horror Island spooky. Here’s the film:
After an (admittedly protracted) first act that gathers up a cast of disparate types—the gangster, the pirate, the fast-talking dame, the crusty academic—the movie steps back and watches its characters wander through an abandoned castle on an island.
How many trap doors are there? At least four. Are there booby-trapped suits of armor? Oh yeah. Is there a cloaked stranger named “The Phantom” that creeps through the house and tries to scare everybody? Indeed, there is.
The plot itself doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s almost part of the charm. For a movie just over an hour long, it has more ulterior motives than a soap opera. There’s the phantom, who’s trying to scare everyone away. There’s a mysterious government official trying to track down our main character. There’s the gangster who’s trying to steal something, and his girlfriend who may or may not be helping him. There’s the cousin who probably plans to swindle his relatives out of a fortune. And on top of all that, there’s a murderer who’s picking everyone off one-by-one. All of this is crammed into an hour-long film. Less than that, actually, because the group doesn’t even arrive at the island until twenty-five minutes into its runtime.
Modern audiences have probably seen TV shows that spoof this sort of story. Something on Adult Swim, perhaps. Maybe a theme episode of Community. But I doubt that a lot of people have seen the genuine article: a horror movie that takes all these “spooky” trappings and plays them straight. Well… as straight as possible.
Be aware, this isn’t a comedy. This isn’t Abbott and Costello sputtering wildly as they switch places with a masked killer on the other side of a revolving wall. This is an actual horror film with actual stakes. (And axes. And arrows.) It has very few intentional jokes, but it feels like a comedy, mostly because of how many subsequent comedies have taken these elements and exaggerated them even more. Again, just think of Scooby Doo.
It’s exciting to see where all these famous elements come from. This isn’t the first film to have trap doors and eyes peering out of paintings and people waking up to fake skulls in their beds. But it’s old enough to feel like it comes from a different time, a time before all of these elements started to come with a laugh track and wacky sound effects.
In short, Horror Island is spooky in all the best ways. What better way to spend an hour than watching strangers wander through an abandoned castle with a phantom waiting just around the corner?
Evan Purcell is a contributing writer for Silent Film Archives, which offers a wealth of information about classic films of every genre. He also writes trashy romance novels for anyone who is curious.