Snake People, 1971. 7/10

As a horror theme, voodoo has a lot going for it. Remote, exotic locations, superstition, pagan rituals, zombies, and a long, thick historical context. Since voodoo is a religion, it’s actually practiced–so, unlike the European vampire legends–there’s very little suspension of disbelief.

On this fictional island off the Mexican coast, Boris Karloff is Von Milder (Damballah to the natives), the voodoo cult’s protector. He’s joined by his niece Anabella (Julissa) and the local policeman Lieutenant Wilhelm (Carlos East). Wilhelm’s guys pretty much look the other way on the voodoo happenings, until they get roused by their superior, Captain Labesch (Rafael Bertrand).

The plot’s set in motion by the Captain’s intent to shut down the voodoo practice. But he hasn’t reckoned on the complicity of the locals, thanks to the voodoo leaders Kalea (Tongalele) and Santanon, a dwarf. The setting, particularly the claustrophobic ritual graveyard where many scenes play out, is engrossing and very disturbing.

It’s not just a graveyard. There’s skulls and skeletons here and there, torches everywhere amid the headstones, web-like foliage, snakes, partly unearthed graves, and plenty of voodoo participants. If that’s not enough, there’s a similarly-equipped cave.

Where have you seen a movie in which a character has a cane crowned with a skull? The dwarf (of the skull-cane) and Kalea lead the creepy ceremonies. It’s been said that the movie lacks a story; but the surreal ritual scenes are rightly meant to be outside of time, so they’re repetitive and overlapping.

After a bit, Anabella suffers an hallucination/nightmare that she arises from a coffin and is set upon by her snake-loving double. That scene’s a hint that vampirism is part of this brand of voodoo, as others soon become victims of swarms of voodoo/vampires. Kalea even has the power to turn people into instant decomposing corpses.

A voodoo “invocation,” with the allure of a human sacrifice is on the agenda. So the Captain and a disloyal underling of Van Molder’s, Klinsor (Quintin Bulnes), hope to ambush them, with the Lieutenant’s help. A masked intruder stabs the dwarf; then three masked guys converge on the cave.

Of course, Anabella is the sacrificial victim. But the masked trio interrupts. The Captain, armed with explosives, tries to belittle the participants. But Van Molder taunts him “You think this miserable pig could be masters of the legions of the dead!?” Everyone is blown to bits, and except for the quick-thinking Lieutenant, who splits with the suddenly-revived Anabella.

Snake People (sometimes known as Isle Of The Snake People) was much better than I expected. The IMBd critics give it a woeful 3/10. The plot is somewhat derivative of the incredibly haunting White Zombie from the ’30s; but that’s like saying that all vampire movies are derivatives of Bram Stoker’s novel. Once the overall premise is set, it’s better to moor the audience with familiar elements from an original story than try to reinvent everything.

I’d even give Snake People credit for making Karloff’s role plausible. His scientist character experiments with the trance-inducing voodoo drug as a sort of beneficial psychological medication (sounds like it’s dangerously hallucinogenic though).

The locale certainly helps establish authenticity. I don’t get why it has a be a French, rather than Spanish colony (or just simply a piece of Mexico). Plus, both Karloff’s and East’s characters have Germanic names, while the Captain is clearly supposed to be French. What does work, is the c.1920s milieu. I’m just deducing that, by the look of Annabella’s outfits and cloche hat, plus the carriages in use.

This is an engaging viewing experience, well-worth watching for horror fans. Farmermouse is afraid to come out of his hole, but he said to give Snake People seven marshmallows. 7/10.

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