The Cult of The Zodiac Killer and Charlie Chan at Treasure Island

*contains spoilers

The best Charlie Chan movie of all has a creepy association with the “unsolved” murders of The Zodiac Killer which began in San Francisco back in the late 1960s and would baffle police well into the 1970s and onwards.

As they say: Everyone loves a mystery – and the Chan movies offered that in quick succession just as The Zodiac Killer taunted police with new letters which possibly hinted at his identity. I had a quick look at the last Zodiac letter with fresh eyes and it seems obvious to me who the killer is…. as well as what the final symbol is… But more on that later!

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) poster
Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan. Please note the moustache.

In the meantime, it seems probable that The Zodiac Killer saw Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939) and it may have helped develop the obsessive ego complex of the budding sociopath. Talk about an obsessed movie fan!

The scenario of this Chan movie is set in San Francisco, the place central to the Zodiac killings along with the taunting letters he sent to the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers.

It depends on what source you believe but the Zodiac killed five people and injured two, or seven people (or according to the Zodiac himself he murdered 37) during a period after the Summer of Love was well and truly over in California in the wake of the murder of Bobby Kennedy at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel in the early hours of 5 June 1968. Officially, the Zodiac began to kill in December of 1968.

Mugshots of the real Zodiac killer wearing glasses. Were they part of a costume?
The symbol used by the Zodiac was thought to be a gun-sight or used in an ad for Zodiac watches
A Celtic cross used for many a grave over the years
The unrelated grave of the parents of Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan … Tit will-o tit will-o …

The Zodiac struck at the heart of the hippie dream and he appeared to have an ego unmatched by any killer, well, since the movie Charlie Chan at Treasure Island.

His four cryptograph or cypher letters for years blinded the authorities with coded science as to his identity, while perhaps in the end he obviously revealed his name.

He was probably the first ‘genius’ ego driven killer to leave clues, something which became common in such films as Se7en (1995) and The Bone Collector (1999) among others in latter day Hollywood.

It was perhaps the challenge for the film critic inside the Zodiac himself to be immortalised in the movies which drove him to kill. Anyway, he was the Jack the Ripper of his time … The games he played with the media go on to this day with one cryptograph only recently solved by a code-breaker in Australia in 2020.

A map of the original Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay before it was demolished
A poster for The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is set on the eponymous man-made island in the San Francisco Bay at the time of the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition which helped celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate bridge. The island had some glorious looking pavilions at the time but they were demolished only a few years later to make way for an air-strip upon the United States entering the Second World War.

It is in a fictional theatre on Treasure Island that the epic climax to the Chan movie happens.

As for the link between The Zodiac Killer and the movie – the suspected killer, or one of them, is named Dr. Zodiac. He sends letters to people who end up either murdered or are possible suicides. Dr. Zodiac is an apparent psychic who is thought to be a fraud by the magician who appears at the theatre Rhadini, played by Cesar Romero (1907-94 pneumonia and blood clot). Rhadini has an assistant played by Pauline Moore (1914-2001 motor neurone disease) who is named Eve Cairo.

Pauline Moore is sexy and memorable as Eve Cairo in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)
Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan on the left with Pauline Moore (centre) and Cesar Romero as the mad Rhadini on the right

It would appear that their psychic act is the real thing and Cairo is really psychic as during one evening during a performance she starts to get brainwaves from a killer thinking perverse thoughts – something which disturbs her greatly. It’s the best role the actress ever played and despite appearing in a few other Chan films she wouldn’t top this mysterious and sexy role.

The scene where Eve Cairo listens to the killer thinking of murder was used again to great effect many years later at the beginning of Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) when a psychic is terrorised in the same way at a theatre and later murdered.

So memorable was the psychic terror scene in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island that it was used again in Deep Red (1975)

The identity of Dr. Zodiac in the Chan film remains a mystery because he wears a mask and costume in public… The wearing of a costume is another link to the real Zodiac killer, as for one of his crimes he reportedly dressed in something which was remarkably similar to the one worn by Leslie Banks (1890-1952 stroke) in The Most Dangerous Game (1932). This film appears to be another major deadly influence as it is about a big game hunter who hunts humans for sport. I wonder if the Zodiac did his own sewing! He was definitely a movie fan and perhaps torturing and killing small animals around the time he first saw these movies…. Or did he see them later on the late, late show!!

Leslie Banks in costume for The Most Dangerous Game (1932). An arrow features in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island.
The Zodiac Killer in costume
The Black Commando in serial The Secret Code (1942) was played by real life killer Paul Kelly
The Secret Code (1942) poster

A further link to the Zodiac’s costume is that it also resembles the one worn by Paul Kelly (1899-1956 heart attack) in the serial The Secret Code (1942). His character known as The Black Commando wears a silky black costume and a matching mask similar to that worn by Zodiac for one murder where a survivor described him. And with Secret Code in the title… Further Paul Kelly was known in gossip magazines going back to the 1940s for his conviction for manslaughter which saw him jailed. The actor literally got away with murder as he showed no remorse. Another inspiration!

The excellent movie Zodiac (2007) sometimes plays with the facts

Another link to the Zodiac killer and this Chan film is that in 1966 the Batman tv series featured a three-part episode, the first of which was entitled The Zodiac Crimes. They are perpetrated by the Penguin and the Joker and the Joker in that series was played by Cesar Romero – Rhadini. The story in Batman apparently included maps and codes being sent to the police…

The links between The Most Dangerous Game and the Zodiac killer are explored in the excellent movie Zodiac (2007) which ‘solved’ the killings by showing that circumstantial evidence surrounding suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (1933-92 heart attack) was far more than just that and seemed to point out that he definitely was the killer. He died suddenly before he could be officially charged. Allen was born in Honolulu where the Charlie Chan character is from and his name Leigh/Lee is similar to Lee Chan who appeared as the Number One son of Charlie Chan in earlier movies albeit not in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. References of grandeur perhaps or something which could have obsessed the suspected killer.

Mugshot of suspected Zodiac killer Arthur Leigh Allen

However, since the production of the Zodiac movie, DNA evidence on the stamps and the letters sent to the newspapers at the time has shown to be unrelated to Arthur Leigh Allen, apparently exonerating him. But that’s not the end of it…

Back to the Chan movie and its apparent genesis in the creation of an elusive killer who thinks he is smarter than the police – he was certainly tricky – and this film was totally ignored as a part of the legend surrounding the killer in the Zodiac movie. Perhaps that was because 20th Century Fox owned the copyright to that movie and didn’t allow Paramount and Warner Bros. to use it. I haven’t read Robert Graysmith’s (1942-) book Zodiac, so I don’t know if it was mentioned heavily at all.

Robert Graysmith and his book Zodiac
Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith in Zodiac (2007)

“Do not challenge the supernatural unless you are prepared to visit your ancestors,” reads a note to Charlie Chan, possibly from Dr. Zodiac, in a more than veiled threat.

It is interesting that in the fiction of the movie that Dr. Zodiac doesn’t make the distinction between the supernatural i.e. ghosts and the psychic realm of mind-reading…

When we are introduced to Dr Zodiac, it is with the presentation by his servant that he is “The Eye of Allah…”. The Eye of Allah is also a story by early 20th Century writer and journalist Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936 perforated duodenal ulcer) about the early discovery of the microscope and how science was not ready for it. The same perhaps goes for DNA as its discovery and its possibilities go back far before the Zodiac killer operated and he could have been savvy to its future uses… It appears the Zodiac was a reader as well as a movie nut.

Dr. Zodiac in costume in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)

“Dr. Zodiac man of great ego, enjoys using power to dominate lives of others. Advise caution,” says Chan during the movie after his first meeting with the strange looking Dr. Zodiac in costume.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island is a part of the first batch of movies starring Sidney Toler (1874-1947 intestinal cancer) as Chan. He took over from Warner Oland (1879-1947 pneumonia) who died after fleeing to his birthplace of Sweden during the shooting of the unfinished Charlie Chan at the Ringside. All told, Oland made 16 Chan films and a few of the early ones are lost due to film library fires in the 1950s.

The telegram in the Chan film mentions Scorpio and Zodiac
The writing of Dr. Zodiac in the Chan movie
The real writing of the Zodiac Killer was kind of similar but not nearly as neat

Toler took over in 1938 and made a further eleven films for 20th Century Fox before they discontinued making them in 1942. Toler would make another eleven movies for poverty row studio Monogram from 1944 and after he died ‘in harness’, it was Roland Winters (1904-89 stroke) who carried on the role for six more Monogram films before the series finally ceased in 1949.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island has a number of suspects who could be behind the mask worn by Dr. Zodiac or another maybe the killer as the formula of the Chan films dictated. The same goes for the Zodiac as there are many names associated with who was the possible murderer. One was a movie projectionist.

Another Zodiac killer suspect was film fan Rick Marshall

The Chan film was written by screenwriter John Francis Larkin (1901-65) of which there is precious little information…. Larkin wrote some of the best Toler Chan movies and supplied the original story for this one with its vindication of the psychic realm. Larkin also wrote films with provocative titles as News is Made at Night (1939) and Murder Among Friends (1941). He is not to be confused with the actor John Larkin (1912-1965 heart attack). Perhaps the Zodiac noted the deaths of both around the same time in the fan magazines.

Actor John Larkin died around 1965. Was the Zodiac already planning his crimes?

When Charlie Chan has his mind read by Eve Cairo, even he cannot deny the phenomenon and this will feature beautifully in the climax.

Meanwhile: “Possible truth disguised as fiction” says Chan about possible clues contained within a manuscript related to poison arrows tipped with poison. Dr Zodiac didn’t write the clues contained within but the truth is that Dr. Zodiac is insane and when Chan reads the book The History of Psychiatry he learns that Dr. Zodiac is a “man with great ego” who suffers from a disease with a long name which leads to pathological lying “exaggerated fantasy, unleashed vanity and great ambition which robs the caution known to sane men.”

“Is it serious?,” asks Number Two son Jimmy played by Sen Yung (1915-80 gas poisoning) in hilarious understatement.

San Francisco born actor Sen Yung played Jimmy Chan and was prominent on tv series Bonanza in the 1960s

Another killer who was perhaps a little less clever in sending taunting letters to the police in the wake of the Zodiac was the BTK Killer which was short for “bind, torture, kill”. This Kansas based murderer killed ten people from 1974 which was when the last Zodiac letter appeared after his spree. Like the Zodiac, BTK demanded media attention but unlike the Zodiac, the BTK left too many letters and clues and was eventually caught through DNA testing. He still lives in a prison somewhere.

The ego of Dr. Zodiac traps him at the end of the movie when he makes a personal appearance in the full theatre in what is perhaps the biggest number of suspects ever gathered together for a murder mystery finale. It is epic and not what you expect.

The BTK Killer liked more outrageous costumes

Rhadini is performing with Eve Cairo and Dr. Zodiac turns up in costume, only it isn’t Zodiac… Chan uses the psychic powers of Eve Cairo’s mind in “a most scientific and remarkable demonstration of mental telepathy.” Whether you believe it or not, it remains one of the most original mystery movie denouements as Chan speaks through Eve by using his thoughts as he slowly reveals who he thinks is the killer by spelling out the motives of various suspects. Eve speaks Chan’s thoughts but starts to panic as Dr Zodiac’s mind begins to overwhelm that of Chan’s.

“Who is Zodiac?,” asks Chan as Eve tunes in to two minds at once…

“It’s filled with evil … thoughts of murder … It’s Dr. Zodiac – he’s ready to strike again…”

And there’s a scream as this tantalising tale of murder comes to an end.

Eve and Chan: Who is Zodiac? He could be in this theatre this very moment!

The Zodiac Killer achieved his ambition to live in infamy as books and films have been written and made about him… Was it a childhood inspired to murder by the movies? So much so that he became characters in the films that he loved the most and which made the most impression. Zodiac called it all a “game”.

To look further and closer to the genesis of Zodiac and you can’t help but notice that Cesar Romero, along with playing the Joker in Batman, also appeared as a psychotic magician in Two on a Guillotine (1965) who devises an ingenious plot to fake his own death. The magician Rhadini in the Chan film turns out to be insane as well…

Cesar Romero as the Joker in the Batman tv series in 1966. Romero was the killer in the Chan movie.
A cinema is a house of illusion. Comic book for Two on a Guillotine.

Two on a Guillotine was part of a kind of trilogy of films which dealt with insane lead characters who were out to beat the system. They were all directed by William Conrad (1920-94 heart attack), and one of them was My Blood Runs Cold (1965) which was shot on the Monterey Peninsula south of San Francisco. Brainstorm (1965) is the most fascinating as it tells of a killer who plans a murder as well as his own acquittal due to insanity only to find in the meantime he really is insane due to the fact that the doctors have labelled him such…

Was the Zodiac interested in these movies? Meanwhile the movie The Boston Strangler (1968) about the real-life killer was released a couple of months before the first ‘official’ Zodiac murder in December 1968. Further the code-related British movie Sebastian (1968) got a release earlier that year as well.

British Code movie Sebastian (1968) was released the year of the first Zodiac killing
One of the Zodiacs cyphers

Was the immortalisation of The Boston Strangler forever on film the catalyst for the Zodiac to start killing? It would be difficult for an outsized ego to resist the possibility and the glory of competing or outdoing The Boston Strangler and since it was a box office and critical hit it may have only added to the possible mania. Except the Zodiac wanted a happier ending…

He did achieve this after his murders ended when December 1971 saw the release of Dirty Harry (1971) starring Clint Eastwood as a San Francisco cop who is investigating the Scorpio killer, a character obviously inspired by the Zodiac killer. Dirty Harry uses elements of blackmail and the use of the astrological symbol Scorpio from one of the notes in the Chan film. It also uses the element of taunting notes being sent to the authorities.

Just what the Zodiac wanted. To be immortalised in his lifetime. And there was a sequel!
The letter used in a scene from Dirty Harry (1971) signed Scorpio instead of Zodiac
The masked killer taunts Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971)

The letters from the Zodiac stopped about eight months before the release of Dirty Harry. Perhaps the killer read about the production being made in a fan magazine. The film was a bigger box office hit than The Boston Strangler and probably fulfilled all of the Zodiac’s dreams of movie glory.

There would be one more letter three years later in which he praised the movie The Exorcist as “the best saterical comidy (sic) that I have ever seen”. I’m pretty sure the sequel to Dirty Harry – Magnum Force (1973) opened the same day as The Exorcist with its depiction of corrupt vigilante cops the real possible satire to the Zodiac. At the bottom of the letter there is a reference to the musical The Mikado as well as a symbol which has baffled cryptographers and symbol specialists to this day.

The symbol in the final letter from The Zodiac has baffled many over the years
It looks like a Charlie Chan moustache, or Paul Avery’s, wearing a blindfold and then without
To spell it out…

Anyway, here’s the money shot: It appears this baffling symbol is just a picture of a blindfolded moustachioed man then the word “if” and then an un-blindfolded moustachioed man with the blindfold now a part of the letter ‘f’. It seems to be very similar to the moustache used by Charlie Chan. It may only mean if you have the wisdom of Chan remove your blindfold and see the obvious… or whatever. Taunt. Taunt.

Also, Paul Avery (1934-2000 emphysema) was a moustachioed journalist with glasses who worked on the police beat and was heavily involved with the letters coming into the San Francisco Chronicle where writer of the Zodiac book Graysmith also worked. The Zodiac would misspell Avery as Averly in letters which might have been a hint to his name A..r ly or Arthur Leigh. Was it deliberate and totally obvious the whole time while the cyphers induced headaches for authorities?

Does the picture at the bottom mean: Blind Averly if only you could see it’s Arthur Leigh… without glasses! The sketch of the moustachioed man has no glasses and the identikit photos of the Zodiac as he was described by those who saw him showed him wearing glasses. It was assumed that the Zodiac wore glasses and that is one of the reasons why Arthur Leigh Allen was eventually dismissed as a suspect because he didn’t wear them. Perhaps he only wore them to fool and murder people. Tit willow… I don’t know the timeline details… and really, I’m not an expert when it comes to the Zodiac – just a movie fan. And the moustache was common in the 1970s.

Journalist Paul Avery sported a moustache
Rudyard Kipling too!
The Zodiac wearing glasses and Arthur Leigh Allen without facial hair

The use of the word “if” also relates to another work by Rudyard Kipling – the poem If – with the flourish of an ending which includes: “If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs…. And – which is more – You’ll be a man, my son!” Nice philosophy for a cool and calculating killer!

Maybe the Zodiac was a fan of If and perhaps Kipling’s The Eye of Allah mentioned in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island was heeded by the possible killer about the future of investigative science and precautions were taken to hide the DNA of the real Zodiac. It’s pure speculation.

Arthur Sullivan who wrote the words for the songs in The Mikado

Then there’s the use of words from a song contained in The Mikado – ‘Tit willow, tit willow’ which is otherwise known as On a Tree by a River. Could this relate to Avery and the Zodiac’s relationship. The song is about a bird and an admirer who drives it to its death. Tit willow also means a foolish person who acts like a complete imbecile which could also mean a reference to Avery who reportedly called the Zodiac “a latent homosexual” in one article. The Zodiac sent a personal note to Avery which threatened the journalist’s life which showed he may have had an obsession with the man. Avery even carried a gun and smoked himself to death.

The first name of the writer of the music for the song On a Tree by a River was Arthur as in Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900 heart failure) of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sullivan visited Los Angeles to see his orphaned nieces and nephews just before The Mikado was released and I guess relatives are still sprinkled across California. Arthur.

The Kid from Kokomo (1939) poster

To link the song from The Mikado, it was sung by the character Ko-Ko and add the drawing which is of a Mo, short for moustache and you have Kokomo. This is the name of a place in Hawaii where Allen possibly had a link. It is also the name of a town in Indiana. The town has a prominent history where it is reported Mayor Henry C. Cole was shot by a posse for killing a man named Allen in cold blood with a number of shots – just like the Zodiac killer attacked some of his victims. Allen.

Sidney Toler who played Chan also appeared in the movie The Kid from Kokomo (1939) which has a dim-witted kid with potential from the Indiana town becoming a champion. It was released the same year as Charlie Chan at Treasure Island. Did the Zodiac see these movies upon their first release or even during their re-release? Who knows?

By the way, the Zodiac signed the last letter “yours truley” misspelled with an emphasis on le or ley again = Leigh. Also, the two letters which misspell the review of The Exorcist are ‘e’ and ‘i’ and if you put them together it’s another hint to the name of Leigh when you think of Averly again.

A letter sent to San Francisco Chronicle journalist Paul Avery. Was the mispelt Avery deliberate mistake and hint?

I’m only using Avery as a starting point for the moustachioed man as they were common at the time and even Arthur Leigh Allen was possibly wearing one when he did his drawing. He wasn’t averse to facial hair. If it was indeed himself.

Back to the song On a tree by a River… or maybe at Lake Berryessa where a survivor described the killer wearing glasses… where he was imitating Avery/Averly/Arthur Leigh with his sunglasses as he fulfilled his twisted fantasy of living a fact and film fiction within his mind, dressing as an imaginary big game hunter stalking human prey… calling himself the Zodiac. As Peter Sellers would say in The Goon Show: “You silly twisted boy!”

I’ve only touched on this case. And it’s probably all crack-pot theorising! But the link to the movies can’t be ignored and neither can the fact that the victims didn’t find justice.

There’s no doubt the Zodiac made a game of his killing and also fulfilled his movie fantasy of being immortalised during his lifetime in Dirty Harry. There was even a sequel! His ego satiated, what else was there to do but relax and indulge the once frustrated film fanatic he always was as he spent the rest of his days eluding prosecution?!!

3 Comments

  1. Ash
    Permalink

    Steve Hodel details these connection to the movies in his 6 books on Zodiac and the Black Dahlia Avenger, and of course on his blog. Don’t forget The Sniper. My Q is why does the CA doj continue to lag on dna testing?

    Reply
  2. Anonymous
    Permalink

    We all love a good conspiracy theory! We often wonder how many killers are influenced by movies and stories and these movies truly would. Great stories…even if I am slightly freaked out!
    Thanks again Cult Film Alley

    Reply
  3. bondski
    Permalink

    I found this article intriguing, very knowledgeable and well written. The possible links and influences of the films was interesting and just as valid as much of the police work of the time. Did he stop by killing himself ala tit willow having achieved his goal? Could see no future satisfaction reaching the notoriety he craved? Was he incarcerated for some other crime ? So many questions. Thank you for his article.

    Reply

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