Horror Island is fairly typical of Universal’s 1940s horror offerings, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Good-natured but shady and penniless would-be entrepreneur Bill Martin (Dick Foran) mets up with one-legged sea captain Tobias Clump (Leo Carillo) who claims to have found a map that shows the location of the treasure of the famous pirate Sir Henry Morgan. It’s on Morgan’s Island, which Bill Martin just happens to own. They take it to Professor Jasper Quinley’s shop but the professor gives them the bad news that the map is a fake.
Bill decides that a fake treasue map might still turn out to be a gold mine. He organises a treasure hunt. People will pay $50 to be taken to the island on his boat, and he’ll organise fake ghosts at the castle on the island to scare them. $50 was a lot of money in 1941 and I can’t imagine why anyone would shell out good money for such a trip but it’s just a movie so I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much about such details.
When they get to the island one of them is murdered and it becomes basically an Old Dark House movie, a genre that soldiered on for decades for no apparent reason.
Unfortunately it’s made clear right at the beginning that there are no real ghosts on the island so the movie misses out on being able to generate a moderate amount of interest by suggesting that the castle might be really haunted. There’s also the problem that the most convincing suspects get bumped off first.
There’s a mysterious caped figure named the Phantom running about but he fails to generate much excitement and it’s a subplot that really goes nowhere.
Since we know there’s nothing supernatural going on there no horror at all. We never really believe that the good guy characters are in the slightest danger so there’s no real suspense either. That leaves the comic element and it’s clear that this movie (like most of Universal’s 40s horror films) was intended mostly as comedy. The problem there is that there are very few laughs. In fact virtually none.
Dick Foran and Peggy Moran (who plays nice rich girl Wendy Creighton who must have been very bored indeed to join Bill Martin’s treasure hunt) are likable enough in an inoffensive way but they’re not capable of providing us with either thrills or laughs. There are several explicitly comic characters - the sea captain played by Leo Carillo, the professor, Bill Martin’s sidekick Stuff Oliver. Unfortunately they’re not very funny either.
You can’t blame director George Waggner too much. You can’t make bricks without straw and with an uninspired script and a lacklustre cast there wasn’t a great deal he could have done.
So what we’re left with is an innocuous but rather feeble movie and we’re grateful it only runs for 60 minutes.
Universal have provided an excellent DVD transfer in their Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive boxed set. In fact all five movies in the set look terrific but sadly they’re mostly very uninteresting movies and it’s a boxed set that is probably best avoided unless you’re a Universal horror completist.