The Living Idol seems on the surface to be just another jungle adventure/horror B-movie but actually it isn’t. Not quite. It’s a bit more interesting than that (not that I have any problem with jungle adventure/horror B-movies).
Writer-director Albert Lewin only made a handful of films but he was no B-movie director. And he was clearly attracted by projects that involved an element of the fantastic. His masterpiece was Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, one of the most fascinatingly offbeat major production of the 50s.
The Living Idol takes place in Mexico. A team of archaeologists is excavating a Mayan site. Doctor Alfred Stoner (James Robertson Justice) is a visionary, and a man inclined to take ancient legends seriously. And literally. He has a special interest in human sacrifice. His Mexican colleague and best friend is a man of science who regards Stoner’s ideas with scepticism. Of course there has to be a beautiful young woman, and in this case it’s Juanita, Manuel’s daughter. And there’s a love interest for her in the shape of Stoner’s young assistant Terry (Steve Forrest).
Dr Stoner has just made a major find, a Mayan jaguar idol. He made the discovery by placing his trust in the literal reality of local legends. Juanita was present when the jaguar idol was unearthed and she reacted with unexpected terror. When she shows continued symptoms of agitation and nervousness Dr Stoner starts to suspect that the ancient jaguar god is very much alive, and wants Juanita. Young virgins used to be sacrificed to the jaguar god and the god apparently wants the practice to be revived.
Terry goes away for a time and when he returns he finds that although Juanita still wants to marry him she is still very troubled. And Dr Stoner has taken to spending a good deal of time at the local zoo, where he is (inevitably) fascinated by the jaguar. He believes this jaguar is more than just a cat.
There’s an obvious influence at work from Cat People, and from Val Lewton’s 1940s horror movies in general. Which is no bad thing - it’s a pity more movies haven’t been influenced by Lewton’s serious approach to the genre. As with Cat People there’s a sexual element to the story. Juanita was at the stage where her sexuality was awakening when the idol was unearthed and thats clearly the reason she wa so susceptible, and the reason the god was interested in her.
The similarities to Lewton’s films go further, since we’re never entirely certain if the jaguar god is real or if there is merely a process of suggestion going on, of imaginations getting out of hand.
There’s some nice widescreen colour cinematography and some nifty location shooting. Much of the movie was shot in Mexico (the movie was a US-Mexican co-production). And not just footage of jungles and ancient ruins but also some effective use of the modernist architecture of the university in Mexico City which helps to set up the conflict between the ancient and the modern, between superstition and science. The scenes of the jaguar prowling through the university grounds work rather well.
The acting is mostly merely competent but James Robertson Justice is (as usual) larger-than-life and immense fun and he makes a good eccentric visionary archaeologist. Liliane Montevecchi is quite good as Juanita.
I’m not sure the movie entirely succeeds but it’s to Lewin’s credit that he tried to make a horror movie that was both intelligent and entertaining. It’s definitely worth a look.
I have no idea if this one is available on DVD. I caught it on late-night Australian TV, where it was shown in the proper Cinemascope ratio. It was a reasonably decent print although the colours were perhaps a little faded.