With Halloween fast approaching, many of your cannier chain stores have taken advantage of the holiday by pulling out seasonal displays of cheapie horror flick DVDs. Found a few at my local Walgreen's recently: a trio of disc sets originally packed to go along with AMC's "Monsterfest." Most of the material on these discs were low-budgeters from the '50s and '60s (some Roger Corman public domain titles, a Victor Buono vehicle entitled The Strangler), but one of the sets contained a Bela Lugosi flick from 1934, Chandu on the Magic Island.
After viewing it this weekend, I have to note that – Lugosi's presence aside – the movie's appearance under the "Monsterfest" trademark is more than a little deceptive. Far from being a horror outing, Magic Island is a kid's actioner, adapted from a "Radiodrama" by Barry Berringer. To compound matters, the movie, which the opening credits tells us is a sequel to The Return of Chandu, wasn't originally a feature film in the first place. Rather, it's the second half of a serial that's been honed down to seventy minutes.
As a result, the movie picks up in the middle of the action without as much as a by-your-leave. Fortunately, the DVD box contained enough information on the back to at least tell me that the dopey young guy who repeatedly appears alongside Chandu to state the obvious ("Whoever they are, they're barefoot," he brilliantly notes after discovering some footprints in the sand) is the magician's nephew. It isn't until halfway into the picture that we learn his name, though.
Lugosi plays the title lead, a white magician devoted to rescuing a princess (Maria Alba) from the members of a villainous cat-worshipping cult, who wish to use Princess Nadji to revive their long dead priestess. The movie opens on the mysterious island of Lemuria, primarily notable for its King Kong-sized gates and a temple filled with all the requisite deadly traps, as the island's sour-faced high priest sends out his minions to capture Nadji. This they quickly accomplish by impersonating Chandu, who's conveniently left the princess in the care of his sister and nephew for reasons that are never fully explained. Chandu and fam pursue the Lemurians by boat, but the ship is sunk after a minion opens a great big valve below deck and no one thinks to go back down and shut the thing up again.
The sole survivors of this man-made disaster are Chandu and his companions, plus the ship's captain, whose primary function through the rest of the pic is to periodically get beaten up and left unconscious by Lemurian natives. There's a brief moment in the story where nephew Bob and the rest believe Chandu has been lost in the ocean, but our hero appears just when we're supposed to think that he's gone for good. "I came up under the raft … " the magician explains after his floating body has been revived on shore, "and bumped my head!" This is our stalwart hero? the audience can't help thinking.
Lugosi handles all this nonsense with a surprising level of commitment. Perhaps the relative novelty of playing the good guy was a major motivator. As a practitioner of the mystic arts, though, Chandu is pretty unimpressive. "What can you do against all these madmen?" a character asks at one point in the action. "I can do much," Chandu responds vaguely.
We see him turn invisible for a time and zap the temple when it comes time to rescue the princess, but his primary shtick is to speak to his yogi mentor somewhere across the sea – a feat which is suggested by having Lugosi stare into space as an unseen actor speaks to him off-camera away from the mic. Fortunately for our princess in peril, the Lemurians prove inept even by movie serial standards. They don't even notice when one of the good guys switches Nadji's unconscious body with that of the dead priestess, tossing the wrong bod into the sacrificial fire as a result. Maybe this dumb deception worked on radio, but it sure doesn't pass muster on a darkened black-and-white film.
Still, Lugosi lovers will doubtless get a kick out of this film, if only for the chance to watch the man get put through his action serial paces: dropping through a trap door into a pit with a tiger, getting tied down as a giant boulder slowwwwly drops down (hey, if he's such a bigshot magician, why can't he Houdini his way out of a few knots?), wandering through an "inescapable" dark and spooky labyrinth. If the Chandu Experience doesn't prove very Monsterfestive, it still provides some good Saturday a.m. fun – and is much less depressing than a lot of the Z-level monster flicks that the worn-out actor made near the end of his career. Doing much, I guess, is no small feat, after all.