In a perfect world, horror-movie legend Boris Karloff would have concluded his epic screen career with Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), which features an excellent Karloff performance and many sly references to the actor’s dubious status as an aging horror-movie icon. In the real world, the final gasps of Karloff’s career included some of the worst films he ever made, because a trio of awful projects he completed near the end of his life crept into the marketplace two years after Karloff's death in 1969. Two of these pictures, Isle of the Snake People and Alien Terror, were made in Mexico as part of a package deal. The behind-the-scenes story goes that Karloff initially nixed the package deal, only to say yes once producers hired up-and-coming B-movie guy Jack Hill to “improve” the material. One can only imagine what this junk was like before Hill lent a hand.
Isle of the Snake People is confusing and tedious and weird, but it has something to do with Carl van Molder (Karloff) overseeing a cult of supernatural natives on a remote island in the Pacific. Most of the picture concerns the natives performing gruesome rituals, and there’s a dreary romantic subplot involving van Molder’s niece and a dashing young military officer. Karloff has a bit more screen time in this one and seems moderately livelier than he does in Alien Terror, but with his diminished physicality and silly-looking Colonel Sanders outfit, he’s hardly intimidating; moreover, he’s unconvincingly doubled in some scenes by an actor wearing a black veil and dark sunglasses. Although Hill did some writing on the project, one hopes he’s not to blame for the rotten dialogue. Consider this sweet nothing the officer coos to van Molder’s niece: “The fire of the sunset in your eyes is consuming my heart!” Still, Isle of the Snake People is nearly tolerable thanks to the intense ritual scenes. The movie opens with natives including a weirdly dressed little person dancing around the gauze-wrapped corpse of a sexy woman until the corpse revives, strips off some of her gauze, grabs a dude, and starts making out with him. While this happens, the little person throttles the live poultry in his hands. Yes, he chokes the chicken. Who knows if the naughty visual joke was intentional, but we take our minor pleasures where we can find them.
For Alien Terror, Hill rewrote at least part of the script and also directed the handful of scenes featuring Karloff—but once again, it doesn’t seem as if hiring a ringer made much difference. Alien Terror, also known as The Incredible Invasion, is so rotten it’s hard to imagine a version of the film that’s any worse. Set in 19th-century Europe, the story begins when altruistic scientist Professor John Mayer (Karloff) invents some sort of radioactive ray beam. The invention alerts aliens, who send an emissary in a flying saucer to destroy the ray beam. With his shaggy hair and tin-foil space suit, the emissary looks like a refugee from a glam-rock band. Amid various turgid subplots, the emissary takes the least efficient path imaginable toward accomplishing his goal. He inhabits the body of a Jack the Ripper-type killer, hangs out while the killer commits murders and whines about psychological torment, then eventually jumps into the professor’s mind. It’s all very boring and discombobulated, though the climax does feature Karloff exclaiming, “Did you really think I’d sit quietly in a corner of my brain while you did exactly what you like?” Karloff looks and sounds weak, sitting during many scenes and breathing with considerable difficulty between lines. Compounding the indignity is the way some of his dialogue, again delivered by a double wearing a mask, is dubbed in a voice that sounds nothing like Karloff’s.
Rounding out this ignominious trio is Blind Man’s Bluff, also known as Cauldron of Blood (and The Corpse Collectors and Death Comes from the Dark and The Shrinking Corpse). Featuring a recognizable leading man (Gallic heartthrob Jean-Pierre Aumont) and a relatively coherent story, Blind Man’s Bluff also benefits from a bit of kinkiness. It’s a bad movie, but it’s less insultingly terrible than its predecessors. Set in Spain, the flick follows reporter Claude Marchant (Aumont) as he pursues an audience with elusive sculptor Franz Badulescu (Karloff). The artist lives in a remote villa with his decades-younger wife, Tania (Viveca Lindfors), who controls his world because Franz is blind and confined to a wheelchair. Karloff gets some colorful dialogue (he describes an art installation by saying “the work consisted of a group of small goats in repose”), and there’s a tragic quality to his characterization. Alas, he’s not onscreen that often, so the filmmakers compensate with boring subplots. Episodes of pretty girls modeling and moping are pointless, the recurring trope of a sex maniac killing women is handled clumsily, and the thread concerning Claude’s scheme to develop a tourist attraction is befuddling. Better are the campy scenes with Lindfors as a whip-cracking fetishist. All of this leads down the usual Mystery at the Wax Museum route of a crazed artist using human remains in his creations. Karloff deserved better.
Isle of the Snake People: LAME
Alien Terror: SQUARE
Blind Man's Bluff: LAME