Saturday, June 15, 2013

Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Written by: Sergio Donati, Sergio Martino, Cesare Frugoni
Directed by: Sergion Martino
Starring: Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Richard Johnson

I've said before that one of the reasons I love exploitation movies is their honesty. I've seen plenty of “respectable” movies with loads of sex and violence – hell, many of them even won prestigious awards! – and somehow that's OK because it's integral to the artistic vision of the blah blah shut the fuck up, you like titties and gore just as much as the rest of us so stop trying to pretend it means something other than feeding an atavistic hankerin' for sleaze and spectacle.

But one area in which exploitation corners the market in dishonesty is advertising hucksterism. You may not have any delusions about what it is you want to see when you sit down with a trashy flick, but the people who made it will say and do just about any goddamn thing at all to get you to pick their movie in the first place, including telling you it's full of things that it isn't. While my favorite example of this remains the poster for Ator the Fighting Eagle, which leads you to believe his animal sidekick is a saber-tooth tiger (yes, I know that they're actually saber-tooth cats, not tigers, but the one on the poster has stripes) when in fact it is actually the cutest widdle bear cub you ever did see, there may be no more bald-faced lie in cinema history than the US re-release campaign for Island of the Fishmen.

New World Pictures first brought this fun Italian monster flick to American theaters as Something Waits In the Dark, and it fared pretty poorly at the box office. So Roger Corman tasked Jim Wynorski with salvaging the situation, which he did by retitling the movie Screamers and giving it the tagline, “They're men turned inside out! And what's worse...they're still alive!” I don't know about you, but that would certainly get me to buy a ticket! Well, it got a lot of other people to buy tickets too, and when all they got was a surprisingly tame monster movie (Italian movies in the 1970's weren't exactly known for being shy, after all), they were not happy. Actual violence broke out in some places. So New World took the footage they filmed of a guy being turned inside out for the re-release trailer and spliced it into the movie for the remainder of its run in the drive-in.

Unfortunately, since the footage wasn't part of the original negative it was never included in any of the home video versions. All I managed to find of the promotional material was a TV spot on YouTube, which I've included below along with the opening sequence with Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell that was tacked on to all the US versions of the movie to give it a bit more gore and extra big(ish) names for American audiences. I'm not sure if the footage in the TV trailer is the same stuff, considering it has some shots of a lab and computers, and even the new US opening sequence at least keeps the period setting, plus the thing in it looks more like a monster recycled from another New World production than a man turning inside out.

Well, I think I've spent enough time talking about what the movie isn't so far. Let's talk about what it is, shall we? A prison ship is sunk by a violent storm, and the only survivors are the ship's doctor, Lieutenant Claude de Ross, and prisoners Jose, Skip, Peter, and Francois. Their lifeboat is attacked by something in the water, and when de Ross regains consciousness, he's alone on a beach. Setting off through the jungle, he finds the remaining prisoners and they set off to look for help. They first come across an abandoned native village full of voodoo paraphernalia, and Jose reveals his expertise on the black magic practices of this archipelago, which is impressive considering they all said none of them knew where they were about two minutes ago, and will claim to once again not know where they are or anything about the place in another few minutes. The others laugh off his assertion that the island is populated by zombies, and Claude is almost bitten by a poisonous snake, but is rescued at the last second by a woman on a horse, who takes out the snake with her rifle.

She introduces herself as Amanda, and leads them back to the manor house of Edmond Rackham, an incredibly wealthy misanthrope who bought the island to get away from the rest of humanity. He keeps the few islanders who remain in his employ under the watchful eye of his pet voodoo priestess, Shakira. The rest of the islanders, he explains, fled years ago when the volcano (little known fact: according to international treaty it's actually illegal to make a horror or science fiction movie set on an island and not have a volcano erupt) threatened to erupt (see?).

There's clearly something fishy (did you really think I wasn't going to say that at some point?) going on, and the prisoners start disappearing one by one. Eventually Rackham is forced to show his hand when Claude is almost killed by one of the humanoid fish monsters that we've seen skulking around the island and occasionally clawing a prisoner to death, and another, as-yet-unseen member of his household falls sick and requires Claude's skill as a doctor to save his life. And here's where things get complicated.

You see, when Rackham first moved to the island, he discovered it was riddled with caves and tunnels, which lead into an immense undersea cavern that contains the lost city of Atlantis! Assuming there must be undreamed of treasures in the ancient ruins, he sent for Professor Ernest Marvin, a biologist recently shunned by the scientific community for his unusual experiments. Rackham wanted Marvin to devise a way to communicate with the inhabitants of the ruins, who have over the last 10,000 years evolved into amphibious gill men to cope with the fact that their homes are now half a mile below the sea. What Marvin came up with perhaps gives us a bit of insight as to why his work was considered unethical. He gets the fishmen addicted to a narcotic potion of his devising, which is fed to them by his daughter Amanda so that they will obey her commands! But wait, there's more! Before you can start asking any of the questions raised by the previous paragraph, we're treated to yet another layer of intrigue when Claude and Amanda break into Marvin's mad lab. Turns out all those islanders didn't flee from the volcano, Marvin turned them into fishmen! The Atlanteans died with their city, and Marvin has been breeding an aquatic army for Rackham to bring up the treasure that is far too deep for 1800's diving technology to retrieve, although he's been doing it under the illusion that Rackham will use the treasure to further fund his research, because Marvin plans to solve the population crisis (was there one of those 150 years ago?) by adapting mankind to live in the water. Too bad he didn't have a way to adapt them to live in lava, because that volcano is about ready to blow...

Back when Malorie and I were dating, and Family Video had just opened (replacing the irreplaceable Premiere Video, all hail!) and was still carrying mostly VHS, we ran across this movie one night under the Screamers title, and rented it hoping to see some dudes being turned inside out and still being alive. While Malorie was awfully disappointed (she's not much on monster movies), my disappointment was quickly replaced with fascination. While, as I said previously, it's surprisingly timid for an Italian horror flick of its vintage, it's a bizarre and really enjoyable movie. The cast is strong, the sets and model work for the underground caverns and ruins are cool, and most importantly, the monsters appear early and often and the suits are great. While the insanely rapid plot twists in the last half hour might leave you a little dizzy, there's plenty of H.P. Lovecraft-meets-Jules Verne fishman mayhem to be enjoyed. This mostly forgotten curiosity is highly recommended.

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