Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937)

The DVD cover art might suggest that Riders of the Whistling Skull is going to be just another 1930s B-western, but in fact it’s an odd and quite interesting little hybrid film and worthy of note for cult movie fans.

Sure it has cowboys, and Indians. But it also has a hint of the supernatural, a lost city, an ancient Indian curse, an evil cult, a murder mystery, mummies, a whistling skull, a cliff face in the form of a gigantic skull, a ventriloquist and archaeologists. And it gets bonus points for having the archaeologists wearing pith helmets.

The Three Mesquiteers (Tucson Smith, Lullaby Joslin and Stony Brooke) were apparently the heroes of a large number of B-westerns made by Republic in the 30s. They’re ranchers but they’re always up for adventure and doing good deeds. So when pretty young female archaeologist Betty Marsh turns up and announces that her archaeologist father Professor Marsh has failed to return from his latest expedition they tag along with the rescue expedition.

Professor Marsh had been searching for the fabled lost city of Lukachuke. There’s a treasure connected with the lost city, which leads to the suspicion that there may have been foul play. His colleague Professor Flaxon turns up but is mysteriously murdered after someone douses the lights. One of the Three Mesquiteers happens to be an avid reader of detective pulp magazines and he is convinced that the murderer was a member of the expedition.

From this point on it’s non-stop action as the expedition has to fend off attacks from a secret Indian cult and find the lost city whilst trying to discover the identity of the murderer among them. There’s some pretty reasonable stunt work, director Mack V. Wright does a competent job and there’s some nice location shooting.

The acting is very much B-movie stuff, which adds to the charm of the movie. Ray “Crash” Corrigan plays Tucson Smith. Corrigan was the star of countless low-budget westerns as well as serials such as the delightfully silly Undersea Kingdom. He couldn’t act but he was athletic and good-looking and could ride a horse and that was enough in those halcyon days. The Three Mesquiteers are all brave and pure of heart but without being irritating about it.

It’s all very politically incorrect of course. But it’s good-natured fun and it’s mercifully free from intrusive and annoying comic relief. The whole thing was evidently sufficiently light-hearted not to be deemed to require additional comic relief.

The plot is as goofy and as unlikely as could possibly be desired. The supernatural elements don’t add up to very much but even a suggestion of the supernatural in a western is unusual enough.

This is a movie that cheerfully ignores genre conventions, or rather it combines genre conventions from half a dozen genres and throws them all into one crazy cocktail. And a delightful cocktail it is. This movie is just pure fun.

The Alpha Video DVD release is standard Alpha Video quality. In other words it’s very rough but watchable. It’s such a strange little film that I have no hesitation in recommending it.

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