Serpent Island (1954)
Sonny Tufts (b. Boston 1911, d. Santa Monica 1970) was 43 years of age when he made Serpent Island. It’s fairly obvious from this film that years of hard-drinking, smoking and stress took a toll on the guy’s body and face. By today’s health conscious standards the man in Serpent Island looks like he was at least 60. I always equate the actor with the notoriously awful Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)(don’t go there), but he’s made some decent films including The Seven Year Itch (1955), Here Comes the Waves (1944) opposite Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton, and The Virginian (1946), with Joel McCrea.
Serpent Island (1954) features none of those desirable actors. Nor is it a good film —even for bad film connoisseurs. The movie is really bad and ranks up there with plenty of stinkers. I’d lump it somewhere between The Incredible Petrified World (1957) (YAWN ALERT) and Bert I. Gordon’s King Dinosaur (1955), which for some insane reason I like. I’m a glutton for punishment: BAD FILMS I LOVE.
Serpent Island was edited and photographed by Bert I. Gordon, who shot the movie on 16mm Kodachrome film stock with an Eastman Kodak Cine-Special 16mm camera (Gordon, 2009). Screenshots of the film here indicate a 1.37:1 aspect ratio consistent with standard 16mm film. Several shots were hand-held (or on unstable ground) as evidenced by shaky frames and jittery pans. I don’t think directed lighting was used anywhere. Several scenes are under-exposed (I can barely see the serpent of Serpent Island).
I do like the color of the film. Reds really pop. Generally, the print is vibrant and looks decent enough. Kodachrome is an incredibly recalcitrant film stock and this is a good example of vintage film used by low-budget film makers.
Gordon has noted that the budget for Serpent Island was $18,000 (about $160,000 adjusted for today’s inflation) and funded by Consolidated Film Lab. In his autobiography he notes that he produced, developed the story and shot the film, while Tom Gries directed and wrote the screenplay. You wouldn’t know it based on Serpent Island, but Emmy winning Tom Gries went on to write and direct several noteworthy films including Will Penny (1968), considered a classic by many; 100 Rifles (1969), The Greatest (1977), Helter Skelter (1976), Breakout (1975), and various Batman episodes (1966-1968). Based on his resume he was adept at working with pain in the ass actors.
Here Sonny Tufts shows off his physique.
Here we have Sonny Tufts smoking a pipe.
The story of Serpent Island is captured by Bert I. Gordon:
An office secretary from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Ricki Andre (Mary Munday) sets out to find her great-grandfather’s hidden treasure. She enlists the aid of a former marine engineer-turned-harbor-bum Pete Mason (Sonny Tufts), and the greedy captain of the boat [Tom Monroe] they commission to take them on their mission. They find the gold hidden on an island near Haiti, but it’s guarded by a voodoo cult and a deadly boa constrictor.
Mary Munday (yes, that is her name) also went on to better things including quite a bit of TV: Quincy, The Rockford Files, McCloud, Police Story, and others. She appeared in Norma Ray (1979) and as a bar maid in Pressure Point (1962). She’s likeable enough and seems to be remembering her lines in Serpent Island, but I wouldn’t have bet she would go on to playing Anthony Hopkin’s mom in Magic (1978).
Here one of the Voodoo guys (named “Big Boy”) is checking her out. Films have changed in the last 60 years!
Serpent Island sounds like it should be a lot of fun, with treasure hunters, stock footage of sharks, fist-fighting, a voodoo ceremony and a large snake guarding a golden statue, but it just doesn’t gel. However, in the right frame of mind you might enjoy it or fall asleep. A fun drinking game might be to do a shot of West Indies rum everytime you see Sonny Tufts chew on a pipe! I lost count very early on.
The best scenes are on the island. The stock footage of the voodoo ceremony is fairly interesting, with preparation of potions and dancing in the Oúfo with hougan preciding. I can’t help but wonder where the resourceful Mr. BIG acquired the footage. It seems to be something more than just footage of folks dancing.
And then there’s the climatic ending with Mary vs. the Boa constrictor…
The Boa constrictor was handled by Ralph Helfer who worked with the armadillos in King Dinosaur (1955) and the big cats in Black Zoo (1963). Boas are new world species and do occur on various islands in the West Indies. This wasn’t a bad action scene.
Serpent Island is available with Roger Corman’s first monster film Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954)(for fans only) on a Creepy Creature Double Feature Vol 1 DVD. The disc also has a Corman interview by Tom Weaver, cut scenes, trailers and triva by Tom. What the hell, for $10 pick it up!
And here’s the treasure!
B.I. Gordon, 2009. The Amazing Colossal Worlds of Mr. B.I.G., An Autobiographical Journey by Bert I. Gordon.