Thursday, October 8, 2009

Islands of Fishmen, Blood, and Seals

If you're lucky enough to visit an island in the Philippines, you're in for a treat.

Things like the above, and the below, live scott-free on uncharted and infrequently visited islands.

They're well worth the plane fare, the airport food, the sea sickness, even malaria.

Forget sex tourism. Embrace monster tourism.

You don't get encounters this hot on the mainland. Islands are where it's at, bud.

Mad Doctor of Blood Island, from directors Gerardo DeLeon and Eddie Romero, documented the drama of living and working on a Filipino island. Although the film was intended as a cautionary tale, it was a tourist come-on to me.

Like I'm not going to visit the Philippines because the outlying islands are riddled with failed medical experiments? Come on.

If you play your cards right and use your noggin, you might get yourself an island girl, too. Just hope she's not dating the resident Mad Scientist. If she is, point your compass elsewhere, Friend-o, because nothing makes a Mad Scientist madder than an interloper shagging his non-consenting island girl.

In this case, the hideous Don Ramon, who is suffering from chlorophyll contamination, is intent on putting his end into said island girl. Fortunately, she's not smitten with his deformed, pus-ridden face, though I suspect things would be different if he drove a Porsche and had a healthy bank balance. I've seen supermodels in Vegas hanging off billionaires uglier than this.

Since year zero, I've been addicted to anything involving islands. I suspect it began with Gilligan's Island, my first exposure to these wave-swept chunks of real estate bobbing in the middle of the ocean.

Anything is possible on these things. Any horror. Any perversion. Any adventure. Cannibals can be lurking around any corner. A mermaid can make your unlucky day a lucky one. Pirates can show up and invite you to join them for a little rape and pillage. I defy you to cancel the upsides with the downsides.

When the great HG Wells wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau, he couldn't have imagined the genre he was fathering.

When you are hopelessly addicted to lurid pulp, you spend a major part of your life being disappointed. The sausage rarely delivers the meaty promise of the sizzle, so the letdowns are par for the course.

The DVD art for Sergio Martino's Island of the Fishmen (aka Screamers, Something Waits in the Dark, '79) promises so much -- an adventure on the high seas, island shenanigans, monsters surrounding semi-naked Bond girls, and general nastiness in an exotic setting.

I'm so happy to report that the new uncut DVD's from No Shame and Mya Communications (version pictured) deliver. You get all of the above and then some. The "some" is a great villain spouting snappy dialog, monsters you can shed a tear for, and a terrific Luciano Michelini score (Michelini, by the way, composed the main theme for Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Owing much to Wells' Dr. Moreau and the rest to Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the plot involves a ship captain/doctor (Claudio Cassinelli) and two prisoners who are shipwrecked on an uncharted island; "uncharted" is important because it allows the villain to get away with many more outrages. It's no fun when the cops can turn up at any time because a neighbor reported seeing deformed people roaming the island next door.

As the survivors look for somewhere to rest, one of them (see above) is attacked by a Fishman. He perishes, leaving Cassinelli and one other.

Around this time, ex-Bond girl Barbara Bach turns up on horseback and tells Cassinelli to beat it. Of course, he doesn't, and that's the rest of the movie.

Richard Johnson, known far and wide for appearing in Fulci's Zombie and mumbling "The boat can leave now, tell the crew," takes the Moreau role in Fishmen but leaves the hardcore science to Joseph Cotton, who looks more like Peter Finch than himself in this one.

Because this is directed by Sergio Martino and not Bruno Mattei, it's very good. And because I haven't seen Martino's made-for-TV sequel to Fishmen (which I hear is shoddy), I can safely say that I've never seen a Martino film I didn't like.

From the very beginning, where a bunch of blokes are floating aimlessly in a lifeboat, it's clear we're in safe hands. Martino, working with his excellent cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando (who also shot the director's Big Alligator River and Slave of the Cannibal God, amongst 100+ titles) draws us into a grand adventure with solid compositions, naturalistic performances (Ms. Bach excepted, although she's forgiven because she's pretty), and set pieces that bring pulp expectations to life.

Although Martino's budgets were usually limited, he moved heaven and earth to deliver works that were entertaining and gripping.

The titular Fishmen are the wonderful creations of Massimo Antonella Geleng, who is credited with designing them. They're men in suits, sure, but they're supposed to be fish crossed with men. And that's exactly what they look like.

If you've ever come face-to-face with a fish, you know they can be weird looking critters. Their eyes are often damaged around the edges, and they're not quite sunken enough into their heads. You want to push them in a little further so they don't get damaged swimming through a crack.

Being in water all the time clearly plays havoc with your good looks. I don't think I'd look too good, either, if I were being bashed in the face all day by plankton and bits of sunken ships.

Well, the Fishmen of this film have realistic fish faces. I bought them. And it's surprising that I bought them today because I didn't buy them in '79 when I first saw this film in Melbourne on a double bill with the Lee Majors-starrer Killer Fish (directed by Antonio Margheriti)

I remember being less impressed with the film (which was the Corman reworking), and less impressed with the Fishmen themselves. I remember loving the scope photography and the score, but the rest just (dare I say it?) washed over me.

Not today. No, siree. Island of the Fishmen is a minor classic with a Jules Verne flavor.

It also boasts a number of fascinating sequences.

It's not giving the game away to tell you that Barbara Bach has a special relationship with the Fishmen. It's why they haven't gutted her with their long, sharp claws and razor teeth.

I love the scene where she strips off her house garb and goes to meet the monsters looking all sexy and sensual. It raises expectations (mine at least) that she's going to fuck them, or has been fucking them instead of Richard Johnson.

Andrzej Zulawski went all the way with human/monster intercourse in Possession, so why not Mr. Martino?

Well, he doesn't, but that's OK.

Cassinelli, who died in a helicopter crash filming Martini's Hands of Steel, is an excellent, rugged hero, and is blessed with an appropriate English voice in the dubbed version of this film.

Johnson seems to have dubbed himself, so we're free to enjoy his performance. He's one of those villains who admits to his villainy and isn't hoping to rule the world. He just wants to be filthy rich and fuck women he repulses.

Over the years, L'isola Degli Uomini Pesce has been fucked with by distributors as often as a pre-teen getting into Philip Garrido's car, so it's always been hard to find an uncut version.

Roger Corman's New World shot additional footage and retitled it both Screamers and Something Waiting in the Dark. Although the Fishmen do make a screaming sound, both titles were a bunch of baloney.

Island of the Fishmen is perfect, and it finally gives some respect to a film not deserving of the abuse it has received -- again, like a pre-teen getting into Philip Garrido's car.

I love monster films where the monsters are, ultimately, not real monsters, but figures of tragedy and exploitation. Deep down, they just want to get on with their lives.

The final act of the Fishmen in this exciting adventure is a gesture of extraordinary kindness.

It made me admire the film even more.

You feel love for the subjects in Martino's best films. That's why they'll endure.

And, finally, there's an Irish legend concerning the island of Roan Inish that has endured.

In The Secret of Roan Inish (Island of the Seals), director John Sayles drops us into a spellbinding adventure in which a young girl (Jeni Courtney) investigates the legend that concerns her missing brother.

There's not a Fishman in sight, but Sayles, known and respected for such luminous work as Matewan, Lianna, Eight Men Out, Brother from Another Planet and Silver City, conveys his own fascination with islands and folklore in this superb film made for children and adults.

Where water is concerned, Sayles' pedigree is solid. He wrote the original screenplay of the original Piranha.

When I watched the film again recently, it suddenly felt like a live action Hayao Miyazaki film, and my emotional response to it was akin.

A fantasy of a different kind, to be sure, but a very worthwhile one.

1 comment:

  1. The Eddie Romero flicks are feckin' gold! I had the "Blood Island" boxset at some point. For some reason it inexplicably contains Al Adamson's Brain of Blood when it should have had Beast of the Yellow Night (available on DVD separately). I see the VHS of Mad Butcher on eBay frequently and have been temopted to get it--the cover art is fab.

    I have a copy of South Seas Massacre as well. Supposedly it was directed by Romero, but he isn't credited for it. It's another prime piece of Filipino trash.

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