Boris Karlofff stars in “Snake People”: Voodoo, zombie sex slaves and a bearded bald dwarf

By on August 21, 2018

1968’s Snake People — co-directed by American exploitation king Jack Hill and Mexican filmmaker Juan Ibáñez, and starring the late, great Boris Karloff in one of his very last film roles — is a tale of Haitian-style Mexican island voodoo featuring zombie sex slaves and at least one bearded bald dwarf.

This outrageous low-budget Mexican/American psycho-sexual freakshow — which hints at sadomasochism and necrophilia, and also features scenes of animal sacrifice, lesbian auto-eroticism and exotic snake-enhanced belly dancing — is now streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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We’re told in an opening monologue: “During many centuries in various parts of the world, various diabolical rites and ceremonies have been practiced in homage to various sinister gods who are believed to have many supernatural powers. These rites are generally known as voodoo, which consists mostly of black magick and the cult of death!…”

Karloff stars as “Count Carl von Molder,” a scientist-turned-voodoo priest who walks around in a Colonel Sanders-looking suit because that’s apparently what you wear when you own a sugarcane plantation on a remote island off Haiti, except, oops, we’re also shown on a map that shows that the island is actually in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico.

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The island’s voodoo practitioners, crazed worshipers of a demon serpent — enticed and excited by weirdo belly dancer named “Kalea” (American-born actress Yolanda Montes, who uses her dancer name “Tongolele”) — are raising the dead in order to make them sex slaves.

There’s a persistent rumor that the islanders, English-dubbed Mexican actors, are also cannibals.

Kalea is quite a character: she can start fire with her eyes, has a Bride of Frankenstein-style streak in her dark hair, and performs sinister snake dances.

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The plot takes a turn when Molder’s niece, a temperance crusader named “Anabella Vandenberg” (played by Mexican actress Julissa, a.k.a. Julia Isabel) arrives from the mainland.

She wants her rich uncle Molder to help her stop the sale of liquor on the island by funding something called the “International Anti-Saloon League.”

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Julissa is accompanied by a French captain, “Pierre Labesh” (Rafael Bertrand).

He wants to infiltrate this cult of cannibal voodoo people — in order to stop all the madness by cracking down on the island’s lawlessness and clean up the ineffectual, hard-drinking police force — but they’re all under the spell of the mysterious, Satanic, cigar-smoking priest named “Damballah.”

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Nevertheless, even though no one will tell him who Damballah actually is (ssh, it’s a secret), Capt. Labesh continues his plan, which puts him at odds with a handsome police lieutenant named “Andrew Wilhelm” (Carlos “Charles” East), who Julissa falls in love with.

Julissa goes a little funny in the head, though, dreaming that she wakes up in a coffin beside a duplicate of herself, which she naturally embraces with a lesbian kiss.

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She even puts the head of a live snake in her mouth… and remember, this was years before Georgina Spelvin did the same thing in 1973’s X-rated The Devil in Miss Jones.

Poor Julissa is kidnapped, though, and she’s prepared to be the cult’s latest human sacrifice.

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The movie also features a bearded, bald dwarf actor — Rafael Munoz, who used the screen name Santanón, also appeared in K. Gordon Murray’s Puss n Boots and three Little Red Riding Hood flicks — who carries a squirming, soon-to-be-decapitated chicken in the film’s opening scene.

He walks around with a walking stick that has a shrunken head stuck to its handle, and also has a flower painted on top of his bald head (which he usually covers with an oversized top hat).

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Read more about Boris Karloff and Snake People below.

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Not long before his death, Boris Karloff signed an agreement with producer Luis Enrique Vergara to appear in a series of Mexican-made low-budget movies for Azteca Films in exchange for a reported payment of $400,000.

The other three Azteca titles Karloff appeared in were Dance of Death, The Torture Zone, and Alien Terror.

In 1968, Karloff actually shot his handful of Snake People scenes in Los Angeles with director Jack Hill, who wrote the screenplay with Vergara — Hill also directed the 1967 demolition derby thriller Pit Stop — and the footage was then mailed (!) to Mexico, where it was then inserted into footage shot much later by director Juan Ibáñez (credited here as “Jhon Ibanez”).

At the time, Karloff was suffering from emphysema, severe back pain and he was, quite literally, on his last legs. He spent much of his time between shots confined to a wheelchair, where he took deep hits from an oxygen tank in order to continue breathing.

Some of Karloff’s scenes were actually played onscreen by his Mexican double.

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Karloff had already been dead for a few years — he died on February 2, 1969— when Snake People was released in the U.S. as the Spanish-language La muerte viviente.

It was then released variously around the world as Cult of the Dead, and Isle of the Snake People before it was dubbed into English in 1971 for limited theatrical distribution and cable television and released as Snake People, one of four Azteca Films productions released by Columbia Pictures in the years after his death.

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Perhaps its somehow fitting that one of Boris Karloff’s final films would be a zombie movie, considering that it looked like he’d risen from the dead to re-appear on a movie screen again.

Unfortunately, Karloff passed away before collecting the payment owed to him for any of his four Azteca film appearances.

Watch Snake People on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.