Harry Harper (Harry Houdini) is an inventor. His latest invention is a submarine for salvaging treasure from sunken ships. He intends on looking for the treasure of a ship called the Hawk that had a cargo of diamonds. Reportedly the ship sank in the South Pacific while taking the diamonds from South Africa to San Francisco. Unfortunately word of Harper’s invention has leaked to the press.
Job Mourdant (Wilton Taylor) is an unscrupulous businessman who is also interested in the Hawk’s treasure. His niece Beverly West (Lila Lee) is in possession of a large pearl that is shaped like a skull and a map of where the treasure can be found. She received these items from her father (F.A. Turner). West’s boat was wrecked on the shore of an island and he was captured by cannibals. The cannibals want their pearl back. Her father will be killed if the pearl is not returned to them. He sent a letter to Beverly asking her to find a way to bring the pearl back and rescue him. In the letter he tells her to not trust anyone with the map until they are aboard ship.
Knowing that her uncle is not trustworthy Beverly goes to Harper for help. Harper is more than willing to help Beverly rescue her father. Mourdant kidnaps Beverly and sets off for the sunken ship. Harper sets out after them and rescues her. Now it’s a race to the island where Beverly’s father is being held.
Mourdant arrives at the island the same time as Harper and his submarine. Mourdant sets off in a row boat with his wife Stella (Rosemary Theby), his son Guy (Eugene Pallete) and the pearl. Harry and Beverly land in another location. Beverly is united with her father but the natives are not done with the West family. They capture Harry and Beverly. Harry escapes from a suspended neck brace but Beverly is put into the recovered safe from the Hawk and is thrown into the ocean.
Harry must once again save Beverly. In the meantime Mourdant and his party get back to their ship. Mourdant’s focus is on recovering the diamonds from the safe. Not knowing that Beverly is locked in there, one of Mourdant’s minions plants a charge to blow it up. Harper must rescue Beverly before the safe is blown.
“Terror Island” was released in 1920 and was directed by James Cruze. It is a silent adventure film. Originally the film was a 7 reel movie however two of the reels, 3 and 4, are reportedly lost. The missing segments include two of Houdini’s escapes. As usual Houdini performed all of the escapes in the film himself.
It is a fast moving film with lots of action. The main problem with the movie is, of course, the missing reels. Reportedly those two reels have the best escapes in them. There is a record of what the first escape is. In that one Houdini escapes from a burning building while chained to a chair. In the second Harry hides in a packing crate but is discovered by the bad guys who nail it shut and toss it into San Francisco bay. There are stills of the first escape but no film. In the restored Kino version of the movie the stills are inserted with intertitles to flesh out the film. As for the second escape there aren’t even stills available so there is no real proof that that escape is really in the film.
In the rest of the film there aren’t a lot of escapes which reduces the appeal of the film but there is some nice underwater action. What is available is better than nothing. Historians and Houdini enthusiasts are scouring archives and attics searching for the lost reels. Perhaps they are still out there somewhere waiting to be discovered and united with the rest of the film. Houdini’s films, like the man himself, are still full of mysteries.