Journey to Spirit Island

November 17, 2021

In Journey to Spirit Island, we see the traditional kids’ adventure movie played out once again – but this time, with a particularly exotic backdrop, and from an untraditional point of view. The film is set in Washington’s San Juan Islands, and the main characters are the small band of Native Americans who live there.

It seems that one young tribesman has a scheme to lease part of Spirit Island to some white developers, who want to build a convention resort there. The island, however, is an ancient Indian burial ground, a sacred place meant to be undisturbed.

Enter a spunky adolescent Indian girl (played by an actress named Bettina), who feels a mysterious pull toward the island. She and her little brother go canoeing one weekend with a couple of young friends visiting from Chicago. After they have an accident, they’re washed up on Spirit Island, where they stumble across the greedy developers making mischief.

From there, it’s solid Hardy Boys territory, with the gorgeous San Juan locations providing an effectively enticing background. Journey to Spirit Island is not without its amateurish moments, but it delivers the goods in terms of a kid adventure. The four youths become caught in a storm, find creepy old skeletons and gravesites, and get trapped in a cave.

This film was made on a shoestring budget and completely locally by director Laszlo Pal, who displays a nice touch with the cultural complexities of the story, particularly the heroine’s confusion about Indian ways, which she feels in her bones.

The high-level name associated with the movie is that of Vilmos Zsigmond, a brilliant cinematographer who virtually invented the “look” of American movies in the 1970s, especially in his collaborations with Robert Altman (he won an Oscar for photographing Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Zsigmond makes this film look like a much more expensive production, and even works in some surrealistic photographic effects – recalling some of his work on Deliverance, another movie about four people on a life-changing canoe adventure.

First published in The Herald, 1988

Laszlo Pal has had connections to the Pacific Northwest for many years, and is renowned as an outdoor documentary filmmaker. The actress called Bettina has also been billed as Bettina Bush. The movie later had success as a Disney TV offering, which is why it is sometimes dated as a 1992 film, I guess. Pal won a Best Director daytime Emmy after it was broadcast. In Zsigmond’s filmography, it lands between The Witches of Eastwick and Fat Man and Little Boy; presumably he cut his fee. The Deliverance reference is cheeky here. Just keeping myself interested, I guess.