A ship is sailing near to a remote island, and the captain notices the buoys marking the perilous areas next to the coral reefs are not in the correct position. The passengers, including big game hunter Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea), don't believe they are threatened, that is, until the ship hits one of the reefs and quickly sinks. Those who are not drowned are picked off by the hungry sharks, and only Rainsford survives to manage to swim to the shore of the tropical island. Exhausted, he staggers up the beach and into the jungle, where he eventually finds a sinister castle - the home of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks)...
This golden age chiller remains the most effective rendering of the short story by Robert Connell, here adapted by James Ashmore Creelman, which sees humans being hunted for sport. There have been many variations on the old chestnut, even Jean-Claude Van Damme had a go at it, but this version is where the idea was best displayed. Made by many of the same team who gave us King Kong the next year, this film's place in movie history tends to exist in the shadow of the giant ape, and it certainly has a similar look in its jungle scenes, but this is a whittled down, more economical tale, with no padding, that gets straight to the point - the point at the end of the wicked Count's arrows.
When Rainsford first meets Zaroff, the Count makes the traditional entrance for all baddies who live in a castle, as he appears at the top of a large staircase. He introduces himself as a Russian nobleman exiled after the Revolution, explaining that many people are shipwrecked on his island, and that there are two other survivors present at his home, Martin Trowbridge (Robert Armstrong) and his sister Eve (Fay Wray). Martin is a lush, and not much help, but as the evening wears on Eve seems to be trying to tell Rainsford something. As the Count entertains them on the piano, she whispers to Rainsford that they are in danger - the boat to take them to the mainland is not being repaired after all, and two of her party have mysteriously disappeared since arriving.
It takes almost half the movie for the real reason for keeping them there to be revealed, but it's worth waiting for. The whole theme of the film is the hunter becoming the hunted, as Rainsford has the tables turned on him by Zaroff. Zaroff has read his books, and sees him as a potential ally in tracking and killing what he terms the most dangerous game: man. He had become bored with hunting animals, and needed to revive his interest - or obsession - so he moved up to the next step. Rainsford is horrified, especially when Martin returns from a trip outside as a corpse under a blanket, and he refuses to go along with the scheme. Thus he gets a taste of his own medicine, when the Count gives him (and Eve) twenty four hours to hide on the island.
As the classic villain Zaroff, Banks cuts an imposing figure, his twisted logic making perfect sense to him, but naturally sounding insane to everyone else. He is a cultured man, but we can see by the way he fingers the scar on his forehead, or casually strokes the fang of a tiger skull, that he is preoccupied with his deadly sport to the exclusion of everything. The chase, when it comes, is absorbing and exciting, as Rainsford and Eve grow increasingly harrassed while their plans and traps to foil the Count all fail. By the time the hounds have been released, there's apparently no hope for them - Rainsford will be killed and mounted on the wall with the rest of the collection of heads, and Eve will be ravaged. "Outdoor Chess" Zaroff calls it, and while not as intellectual as that, the film is a thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly visceral hour and a bit. Music by Max Steiner.