Review: Off-The-Rails 'Skullduggery' Such Fun To Watch

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 23, 2021

"God has given them the gift of reason!" utters a man of the cloth, aghast in "Skullduggery," upon seeing the Tropis react to humans.

An obvious and truly bizarre attempt to capitalize on the "Planet of the Apes" phenomenon, "Skullduggery" begins as your typical expedition film and then morphs into one of the strangest motion pictures of its time.

This curio was almost impossible to see for many years, but Kino Lorber has rescued it from the dustbin, cleaned it up, and restored it (via a brand new 2K Master) so it looks and sounds probably as good as it did when it first was shown in theaters (to very few audience members who were probably scratching their heads in bewilderment).

But before you dismiss the idea of checking this movie out, trust me: It's worth a look, if only to see the Tropis tribe and watch the final courtroom drama, in which the question of whether the species are animals or humans echoes the racism in the country, then as well as now.

Let's begin with the film's lead, a pre-"Deliverance" Burt Reynolds, who had yet to make a big splash onscreen. This was one of his first leading roles, and he's quite charming — although he turned down a role in Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" for this, which was probably not the smartest career move.

Reynolds plays Douglas Temple who, along with his often-intoxicated associate, Otto Kreps (Roger C. Carmel), manipulates his way into an archeological expedition in Papua New Guinea, led by Dr. Sybil Graeme (Susan Clark). The duo are in search of phosphorous (which is/was allegedly used in every TV set in the world). What they find on their journey is the Tropis tribe, ape-like people who may or may not be the missing link. (They look more like "Planet of the Apes" monkeys that had less of a makeup budget).

And here's where things get wacky, as forced breeding and slavery and bestiality — yes, you read that right — are introduced into the plot, as well as a possible baby murder. To say the film goes off the rails is an understatement, but it's sure fun to watch and it even has some interesting things to say about our society and the ethical treatment of animals, as well as the moral treatment of humankind.

Directed with efficiency (not the best compliment) by Gordon Douglas ("Them!," "In Like Flynt") and written as if he were high on something by Nelson Gidding ("The Haunting," "The Hindenburg"), the film was actually based on a 1953 French novel by Vercors (Jean Bruller).

The Blu-ray features an enthusiastic audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, C. Courtney Joyner, and Sergio Mims that call the movie "extremely strange," and explain how it did not do well until it was shown at Saturday afternoon matinees.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • Brand New 2K Master
  • New Audio Commentary by Film Historians Howard S. Berger, C. Courtney Joyner and Sergio Mims
  • Theatrical Trailer

    "Skullduggery" is currently available on Blu-ray.

    Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.