Scott T. Rivers | Los Angeles, CA USA | 09/17/2004
(1 out of 5 stars)
"In retrospect, it's a good thing Boris Karloff didn't live to see this trashy horror flick. The ailing, 80-year-old actor was glad to be working, but he could have selected a better project than "The Snake People." Judging by his limited footage, Karloff probably didn't know (or care) what kind of schlock he was making. Sadly, this is exploitation filmmaking of the worst kind. For Karloff completists only."
Snakes on the brain
Andrew McCaffrey | Satellite of Love, Maryland | 01/12/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I have no idea what THE SNAKE PEOPLE was all about and I suspect no one involved with the production knew either. Least of all was probably poor old Boris Karloff who made this film very near the end of his life. While the large majority of the film was shot in Mexico (in a neat reversal for anyone who has seen Charlton Heston in TOUCH OF EVIL, here several Mexican actors and actresses are playing Caucasians), Karloff never left a sound stage in California. As disjointed as it sounds for a movie to take place with its star far removed from his surroundings and his co-stars, even the non-Karloff scenes add up to a lot of nothing. I've seen many low budget films, but it really is rare to see one that so blatantly throws random images and sequences upon the screen with so little regard for order, logic or reason.
For starters, let's take the opening scene. A witch doctor and what I assume to be his follower are performing a voodoo ceremony. The witch doctor is a dwarf. He's wearing a very neat, black suit jacket, a blue Hawaiian shirt, a black top hat, white opera gloves and some seriously nice bling around his neck. He wears his sunglasses at night. He raises a woman from the dead. Costuming aside, it's a fairly standard scene for a voodoo movie. Except that there is no context here, nor does the film ever reveal any. Why does the witch doctor affect a James Bond villain style cackle throughout the entire ceremony? Why does he start sobbing and rubbing his companion's hand across his face?
My guess is that the only reason this film has even the relatively low status associated with a One Dollar DVD release is the inclusion of Boris Karloff. As noted above, he is far removed from the action. Even before I consulted the Internet, one could tell that Karloff was not a well man when he made this. Not only was he not able to travel to Mexico for filming, most of the scenes he is in feature him sitting down. When he does stand it is with use of a cane, and his only relatively strenuous sequence requires that he lean heavily on a table. It's actually depressing, especially if one is used to seeing a younger, more robust Karloff holding his own with various monsters and heroes.
In the scenes where Karloff would have to interact with his fellow cast members in Mexico, the character helpfully dons a black, face-covering ski-mask and sunglasses. But don't worry, he'll still be smoking his cigar, so you won't miss that it's him. Although actually the double looks more like Groucho Marx ready to hold up a liquor store than he resembles Boris Karloff. I couldn't help but whistle "Hooray For Captain Spaulding" whenever he appeared.
The story begins with Karloff's niece coming to visit him on the remote Pacific island where he makes his home. The niece is an rabid prohibitionist and is hoping her uncle will support the organization to which she belongs. What actual support he could provide from his remote bachelor pad/island is not obvious. Of course, once she catches up with Karloff all thoughts of continuing the cause are forgotten (apart from a few scenes where she lightly admonishes her love interest's drinking habits).
Naturally, this being a remote colonial island, there are all manner of cultists and so forth. Now here is where the story begins breaking down. The island contains a voodoo cult, a roaming gang of cannibal woman (who hide in the shadows and suddenly leap out at their victims and eat them raw) and a religion of people where somehow snakes are involved in their ceremonies. I paid close attention both times I watched this film, and I'm still not sure what all these groups have to do with each other. The snake people are killing folks with snake venom. The voodoo people are raising them up again. And the cannibal woman are eating the living. I'm not sure how they are related. Are they all the snake people of the title? Are the voodoo people and cannibals merely a subset of the snake people? Are they allies? The cannibal women seem completely on their own, and I simply could not work out the relationship these groups had. I suspect the cannibal woman escaped from some other movie set and spent their time running in and out of the shooting script for this film.
The niece isn't the only newcomer to the island. The land is a French possession, and a French captain of police has arrived in order to suppress the local witchcraft because of concerns on "the mainland". The movie is very vague on its moral message. It jumps repeatedly back and forth between arguing that the Europeans shouldn't be interfering in other people's religions and saying that the natives' religion is nuttier than squirrel poop and of course it should be stopped.
I had a very difficult time tying enough of the plot strands together to present it to you in a coherent fashion. Then I figured that if the producers didn't care, then I won't either. I'll simply list some of the more notable sub-plots:
1. Karloff and his maid are doing some sort of experimentation in telekinesis and pyrokinesis. He claims that moving small mirrors on a table and the ability to light grass on fire will rid the world of disease, war and even death. Good luck with all that. As you may imagine, the experimentation/scientific aspect of this disappears after its initial scene. I have no idea if this plot point is something he learned from the voodoo people, the snake people or the cannibal people. (See above. Maybe Karloff acquired it from all three.)
2. A random filthy white guy on the island attempts dancing with -- and later seducing -- a reanimated female corpse. This is just as icky as it sounds. I can't figure out who this guy is supposed to be. He's shown in one scene to be a Karloff's friend, but there's no explanation as to what he's doing. Is he a fellow scientist? Was he shipwrecked? Is he a traveler? Is he a witch doctor? Is he a voodoo practitioner? Apart from admiring his panama hat, I could find no purpose for his inclusion in the film.
3. Karloff's maid (who looks shockingly like Fergie from The Black Eyed Peas) keeps belly-dancing with a snake. I'm sure this is supposed to demonstrate something about the snake people's religion, but I have no idea what that could be.
4. If you thought the "belly-dancing with a snake" line above was just overflowing with tawdry innuendo, then wait until you get a load of the niece's dream sequence. All I say is that she dreams that there are two of her and one keeps putting a snake in her mouth.
That disparate list should give you some idea of the mental gymnastics your brain will have to undergo to follow the story. And it's a good indication of what the movie feels like as a whole. Not only are random plot points brought up and immediately thrown away, on the visual side, images and shots are handled the same way, with apparently random pictures being indiscriminately hurled at the viewer. The niece's dream sequence is typical. Apart from being loaded with strange sexual imagery and cheap camera tricks (apparently, if you stop film, you can make people blink in and out of existence!), what is the point of it? It doesn't seem to reference any other part of the film. It doesn't affect the way she acts afterwards. It's random imagery for the sake of random imagery.
Now all that being said, I can't say I didn't like it. Usually I get annoyed when a director or writer throws me ninety minutes of surrealism because he finds coherency too hard. But for some reason I found this vaguely appealing. I'm sure most of this sprung from the fact that I was staring at the screen with my jaw in my lap unable to believe that anyone thought they could get away with this. The movie is relatively coherent through the first third, but it was about at that point that I mentally pictured the director throwing his hands in the air and deciding that anything goes ("We have footage of snakes popping in and out of existence on a coat rack? Yeah, let's go with that!"). I have to admire the sheer audacity involved.
I feel that I have somewhat cheated in this review by simply relating things that occurred and following that by saying that I didn't understand what it was about. But at least I'm being honest. Most of this film simply defies rationality. I dare anyone to watch this film and not be entertained by the sheer randomness of the experience. Although I should warn anyone squeamish that I think the filmmakers really did chop the head off of a live chicken in the opening scene. Viewer beware."
Bindy Sue Frønkünschtein | under the rubble | 09/14/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Ok, it's true that this is one of Boris' last movies. As such, it ain't that bad! The poor guy was 80 years old and dying! Still, his presence in SNAKE PEOPLE far surpasses that of most current "horror" icons (as if there are any). Boris is the mysterious plantation owner who just might be Damballah, the wicked leader of a tropical island's voodoo cult. A new police chief arrives, vowing to clean things up and terminate the cultists once and for all. This doesn't go over very well with the natives, who are either part of the cult themselves, or terrified of it. Boris' niece (Julissa) shows up to rid the island of alcoholism (!), and soon finds herself tangled in the strange goings-on. It seems that the cult must perform a human sacrifice in order to bring forth a being that will conquer the world (or something like that). I like this movie, especially the cannibal women who eat unwary cops! However, my favorite parts are those involving Tongolele as a snake-dancer! Wow! I can't get enough of her undulations! Watch and see for yourself! Ssssss..."
Boris Karloff as the secret leader of a zombie/snake cult
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 04/04/2003
(2 out of 5 stars)
"The natives on Coaibi Island are being terrorized by an evil snake cult. While some are scarified to the poisonous snake of Kalaea (Tongolele) the Reptile Woman, others are turned into zombies by the mysterious Damballah. Police Captain Labiche (Rafael Bertrand) investigates the cult and questions wealthy landowner Karl Van Molder (Boris Karloff), whose niece Anabella (Julissa) is kidnapped by the cult. You will never guess who the mysterious Damballah ends up being at the end of this one."The Snake People," known variously as "Cult of the Dead," "Isle of the Living Dead," and "La Muerte Viviente," is one of the four films Boris Karloff made more Mexican producer Luis Vergara. Because of his emphysema, all of Karloff's scenes for the four films were shot in Hollywood during a five-week period in 1968 before the crews returned to Mexico to complete the films. This film, directed by Jack Hill and Juan Ibanez, was finally released in 1971. Despite our affection for Karloff, this is a bad movie and watching it will simply make you feel sad. Go check out one of Karloff's lesser known horror films from the 1930s, like "The Tower of London" instead of this turkey."