It seems that negative occurrences in our lives have the propensity to generate their own terrible momentum. You stub your toe on the way to the bathroom in the morning; a little later, you crack your head on an open cabinet door. Pulling into the parking lot at work, you scrape your paint on an unreasonably high curb. You go into find your computer has crashed, taking all your work on a mission-critical project with it, leading your boss to publicly humiliate you in front of the whole office before sending you packing to the unemployment line. Returning home in an emotionally vulnerable state, you find your Significant Other performing Crisco Acrobatics with the paperboy and three of his underage classmates, leading you to grab your rifle in preparation for a neighborhood-wide bloodbath/rampage. The first shell misfires, however, blinding you for life, the next 20 years of which you'll spend practicing echolocation in the Clink.
We've all been there, am I right?
In Sergio Martino's 1979 mad science horror flick Island of the Fishmen, naval lieutenant Claude de Ross is having one of those kinds of days. First, the prison ship on which he is the chief medical officer sinks, leaving him in a lifeboat with a group of convicts he freed as the ship was going down, and who are mostly unappreciative of his heroism. Next, the lifeboat is scuttled by some mysterious, barely-seen creatures below the waves, casting all the castaways onto the rocky shore of a godforsaken jungle island. One of the thirst-mad survivors perishes drinking toxic water from a volcanic pool, and another is gorily slain by yet another half-glimpsed monstrosity.
Then things get REALLY bad.
After saving fat convict Jose from drinking the poisonous water, Claude leads the remaining convicts further inland, looking for civilization. They don't find that exactly, but they do find a Burmese Tiger Trap, which kills another convict and leaves the lieutenant dangling from a vine for his life. Bad Con Peter wants to let the doc die, but grateful Jose overpowers him and rescues Claude from death by pointy sticks. They wander into an abandoned cemetery, where the graves are all ominously empty, and there encounterAmanda Marvin, an aristocratic Eurobabe with excellent horseback riding/snake shooting skills.
Following Amanda back to her plantation home, they meet the Lord of the Island, Englishman Edmond Rackham, who keeps his Native Goon Squad in line with help from Voodoo Priestess Shakira. Peter angers the gods by desecrating a voodoo altar, and after an uncomfortable dinner in the Big House Claude starts to wonder exactly why there are so many deadly traps all over the island, and what his host is hiding in the locked room under the stairs...
As expected from a Sergio Martino joint, the movie looks gorgeous. Martino and cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando fill up the gloriously wide screen with strong compositions, bright colors, and interesting set designs. Martino also flexes his directorial muscles in early scenes where the island's mysterious denizens menace the castaways, generating a lot of tension and interest with quick cuts, half-glimspes of monstrous forms, and the occasional gout of understated gore. And the score by Luciano Michelini vacillates between orchestral "jungle adventure" swells and pleasingly Goblin-esque rock interludes that add almost as much interest as the visuals.
Their first night Peter sees Amanda leaving the plantation for a midnight ride, and follows with a leer in his Italian eye that can only mean one thing in films of this vintage. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when she is met at the beach by a gang of freakin' piranha men! Though they look extremely dangerous, they seem to have a strange affection for the girl, who fearlessly allows them to come close and gives them all drinks of a strange milky substance she's brought along for the purpose. Not impressed by her Aquaman-like powers, Peter attacks her en route back to the house, and is predictably torn apart by her foul-smelling friends.
The next day, running after the gorgeous lady of the house with his tongue lolling like a hound dog in heat, Claude also comes face to face with fishy doom, but is saved by Aquamanda. His curiosity piqued, the Italian Stallion forces his way through the Native Guard (who are clearly handicapped by their ornate wicker shoulderpads) and into the Secret Room, where he finds...Joseph Cotten! Joe is Professor Ernest Marvin, Amada's father, and appears legitimately drunk throughout his relatively brief role. (No surprise there--Cotten's done it before.) Claude demands an explanation, which Rackham is only too happy to give.
It seems that the island is the last above-water outpost of the Lost Continent of Atlantis, thre remains of which lie 2000 feet below the surface off the coast. (Rackham takes Claude down in his diving bell to view the ruins, which are brightly lit by sunlight despite the incredible depth.) The fishmen, he claims, are the descendants of the Atlanteans, and Professor Marvin has found a way to communicate with them--or rather, has got them hooked on drugs! They're addicted to the milky potion the Marvins provide and will do anything for it, including diving to the ruined Temple of the Sun God and brining the priceless golden artifacts up to exchange with Rackham for smack. But Marvin is dying, and Rackham fears he wont' be able to keep the fishmen in line once the good doc kicks off and takes his delicious speedball smoothie recipe with him. Therefore, if Claude will keep the professor alive until the temple is completely ransacked, he can escape with the Europeans on Rackham's private yacht, leaving the natives to deal with the strungout junkie jugfish.
Oh, and Shakira's voodoo trances suggest that the volcano at the center of the island is about to erupt, sinking them all to a magma-strewn watery grave. Just an FYI.
So clearly, like many Eurohorror efforts of the era, there's an awful lot of shit going on here. And that's not even all! Turns out Rackham's story about the Atlantean descendants is all bunk--unbeknownst to Amanda, Professor Marvin is a MADMAN who has been using xenotransplant technology to transform the island's natives into fishmen, out of some crackpot Utopian scheme to save the human race by returning them to the oceans. Rackham is merely exploiting the results of Marvin's experiments--one of which turns out to be the unfortunate Jose, seen here in his incomplete icthyological form:
Of course this all leads to a climactic confrontation once the volcano erupts, Marvin kicks off, the manor house goes up in a fiery cataclysm, and the fishmen--who are clearly tripping balls--decide to go on one last rampage before the supply runs out for good.
You know I love a good kitchen sink movie, and if it's nothing else, Island of the Fishmen is definitely that. As crazy genre tropes go, this one is really packed to the gills. (Ba-dump.) Mad science, man-fish mutations and ancient undersea temples (both of which were fixations of Lovecraft's stories, hence the designation), voodoo rituals and more volcanic stock footage than you can shake a stalagmite at--it's quite the smorgasbord, you'll agree.
Acting-wise, it's also a hoot. In addition to Cotten's channeling of Oliver Reed for his performance, Richard Johnson (Fulci's Zombi) gives a marvelously slimy performance as the villanous Rackham. His wonderfully eeevil smirks and Snidely Whiplash-delivery of lines ("Mmyess, the island does hold certain...inconveniences for the uninitiated," and my favorite, "Please try to look as beautiful as possible tonight, my dear--you may be the last beautiful thing...that poor man will ever see!") are a non-stop joy.
Claudio Cassinelli, who worked with Martino the previous year in the markedly less fun jungle flick Slave of the Cannibal God, is also fun as Claude de Rossi, if only for his presumably self-dubbed English dialogue. (Sample: "What powerz hass Rackham? What he's doing on this island, what is he up to?") Barbara Bach is gorgeous but bland as Amanda; however, my critique may have something to do with having confused her mentally with Catherine Bach, and thus being profoundly disappointed at not seeing Daisy Duke fighting off the fishmen. And Beryl Cunningham as the menacing, snakelike Shakira turns in a great performance--believeably a woman you wouldn't want to cross, either in voodoo or in love (and Rackham foolishly does both).
The effects are fun too, in both the "OMG WTF LOL" way and the "Hey, that's not bad!" way--a winning combination. The miniatures of the undersea kingdom look like they were bought in the aquarium section of the local Pet Smart, and the final conflagration of the manor house uses both a full-size set and a matchstick model, which burn very differently, you know. However, the fishmen costumes are actually quite good--obviously influenced by the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but using Amazon piranhas as facial models, the suits look a little silly on land, but in the many excellent underwater scenes recall the strength and grace of their Gillman ancestor. And Martino knows how to film them to minimize the silliness--quick cuts, close-ups on the dead fish eyes and bloody piranha teeth--they look a lot better and scarier than perhaps they should.
You can probably tell I had a great time with this one--it's never boring, though it does lack the tasty nudity of my favorite Eurohorrors, and the gore is less gory than you'd think it would be. Still, I'd rate it an easy 2.25 Thumbs. Martino is now officially in my upper echelon of European directors, as he can make even schlocky monster movies look as gorgeous as gialli. If you're in the mood for some Victorian era mad science, give it a look.
A few more images from Island of the Fishmen (1979):
Friday, June 4, 2010
*We've secretly replaced Rackham's regular coffee with some swamp water the native dude behind him dunked his nuts in. Let's see if he notices...*