Back in 1970, I stood up late to watch a new show, Fright Night, on KHJ-TV channel 9, in Los Angeles, California, not knowing what to expect. I liked monster movies (this includes the entire science fiction/fantasy/horror megagenre), and was starting to read science fiction books and magazines. None of this prepared me for what I was about to experience.
It was hosted by Seymour (played by Larry Vincent), the “Master of the Macabre, Epitome of Evil, the Most Sinister Man to Crawl on the Face of the Earth.” He made fun of the whole scary movie idea, including him being there, and us, the audience at home watching. This attack on the absurdity of it all was like the straight-laced world of television letting its hair down and getting real for a change. Later I was wise-cracking like Seymour in the halls of Edgewood High School.
The movie started: Snake People, starring Boris Karloff, a low-budget American/Mexican production, one of several that Jack Hill directed, some scenes shot in Hollywood, while others were shot in Mexico City. Karloff was on the verge of death, and quite convincing as the mad scientist/voodoo cultist.
I don’t remember any of Seymour’s jokes, but images from this “trash” movie etched themselves into my consciousness. For a few decades, I hunted for the movie on late night TV, on videocassette, and later on DVD. I began to wonder if I had somehow fabricated this adolescent memory.
Then, in one of my last weeks working at Borders, I was frustrated from everything going wrong and searching through the back room for a DVD that wasn’t there, when I let my eyes wander to a shelf. And there, I saw a box set called Boris Karloff Horror Collection that included Snake People. Sometimes, when you let go, what you desire comes to you . . .
Seeing this movie (AKA Isle of the Snake People, Isle of the Living Dead, and La Muerte Viviente) after all these years, took me back to the near-religious experience of that first viewing. It’s not the sort of high-tech extravaganza that today’s audiences expect, even in a “cheap” horror film, but the decor and atmosphere is pure, delirious voodoo.
Yeah, it gets the names right, and all the details wrong, but the magnificent Tongolélé with her snake in those steamy voodoo rituals reveals certain truths that should always remain self-evident.
And the zombie brides and cannibal women are more interesting than all the Romeroesque zombies that clog today’s pop culture.
It put me on a path that eventually had me reading Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Wade Davis’ The Serpent and the Rainbow, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse. And listening to Miles Davis, Koko Taylor, and Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Sometimes the loas speak through people like Boris Karloff, Tongolélé, and Seymour. Than can also come through television, or the device on which you read this.