Monday, July 31, 2017

"Is the So-Called Civilized World More Attractive?" - Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Director Sergio Martino is best known for his highly effective jello movies, including Blade of the Ripper (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), and Torso (1973). Like most Italian filmmakers, however, he dabbled in many, many other genres, including post-apocalyptic action movies and cannibal movies. One of his finest achievements is Island of the Fishmen (1979), retitled in the U.S. as Screamers with an added opening sequence featuring Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell.

Some of your universe's top critics, however, fail to recognize the high quality of the film. On IMDB, for example, reviewer The Hrunting writes, "the inconsistent creature effects and cringe worthy miniatures unabashedly shown in close-ups, instead of rolling in the fog or covering up with shadows, were just asking too much from a viewer's imagination." Aaron1375 writes, perhaps incriminatingly, "quite frankly that movie bored me too, it is way to much scientist and not enough killing for my tastes." Reviewer snausworldlove writes, "his movie was so horrible as to be quite vexing....Joseph Cotten tries hard not to look embarrassed as he staggers through his cameo appearance. In the name of all that's holy, don't rent this darned bomb."

Although these reviewers clearly have poor judgment (with one of them admitting a desire for more killing, and another using the phrase "darned bomb," and further I would argue that Mr. Cotten is not trying hard not to look embarrassed in this film), it is still incumbent upon me to refute their questionable opinions with a thorough review of the classic film Island of the Fishmen.

The story begins in 1891. Sea captain Cameron Mitchell has brought a group of treasure seekers to an island in the Caribbean. Mr. Mitchell makes a highly convincing sea captain with his turtleneck sweater, his pipe, and his expert use of the word "ahoy."

"We're going to the Cave of the Dead," Mr. Mitchell tells the others. "It's full of ghosts, the natives claim." He leads the treasure hunters, a young woman and an old man played by Mel Ferrer, to the mouth of the cave, telling them the treasure lies within the cave but refusing to accompany them inside.

The treasure seekers stroll through the wide open cave, complaining about the difficulties they are having reaching the treasure and explaining their family needs the treasure to pay off gambling debts.

They are slightly startled when they stumble upon skinless corpses trapped in spiderwebs and crawling with small crabs.

The treasure seekers simply walk around the corpses. A few seconds later, the woman says, "I wonder whose skeletons they were back there."

Her companion tellers her they were probably people "just like us, only not so lucky."

Meanwhile, outside the cave, a sailor guarding the boat is instantly, and manually, beheaded by the giant clawed hand of one of the fishmen of the title.

Sea captain Cameron Mitchell, standing at the cave entrance, whispers the name "Patterson" a dozen times, presumably calling to the decapitated sailor. When there is no answer, Mr. Mitchell is forced to pick up a lantern and search the area.

For his bravery, Mr. Mitchell is quickly disembowelled by another clawed fishman hand. Mr. Ferrer is similarly murdered in the cave.

The surviving woman runs through the cave, stumbling into the pile of corpses. She--along with the audience!--is surprised when one of the corpses grabs at her, apparently reanimated. However, she avoids it easily. (Reanimated corpses will not appear in the rest of the film, though they will be referenced indirectly.)

Reaching the beach, the woman runs toward the boat, but even she is no match for the fishmen, as one of them grabs her and shakes her to and fro.

With half of the film's "name" actors killed off in the first 12 minutes, the narrative moves to another plot. In the ocean, a lifeboat drifts. The lifeboat is full of prisoners who helpfully explain their backstory, along with the military doctor who rescued them from the wreckage of their prison ship.

One of the prisoners, dubbed by the voice of Dr. Benton Quest, says there are giant octopuses in the ocean that can drag a ship to the bottom. On that note, their lifeboat is dragged by some watery beast into some rocks and the men are slaughtered by now-familiar, though no less frightening, webbed, clawed hands.

As is appropriate, the military doctor, the only morally upstanding passenger on the lifeboat, survives. He awakes on a beach, then soon finds a bubbling spring. Being clever as well as morally upstanding, the doctor does not drink the water, reasoning that the nearby corpses were killed by something in the water a la the later film Attack of the Beast Creatures (1985). He even warns another survivor, Jose--who is quite stupid--not to drink the water.

The doctor and Jose trek through the jungle, where they realize something is unusual about this island when they see several bats circling in the daylight.

Eventually, the doctor finds additional prisoners from the prison ship. Their group now numbers the traditional five survivors--including, fortunately for the audience, Dr. Benton Quest.

The survivors are observed by the fishmen, who, we now realize, have eyes as well as clawed hands.

The clawed hands, however, serve better for murder than the eyes, and one of the prisoners, Francois, is quickly dispatched in a swamp.


After they find the body, the doctor says, "We're on a volcanic island." Then he reasons, "But if there are animals here, there may also be people."

The doctor is not entirely brilliant, however. Seconds after resuming their trek into the jungle, he and another prisoner stumble foolishly into a deep pit lined with spikes. The other prisoner dies, but the doctor survives by hanging onto a root.

After being rescued by Jose, the doctor has an insight: "Animals don't build traps."

They immediately find a Polynesian village a few steps away on this Caribbean island.

It is at this point that Jose decides to share his vast knowledge of local lore. "This island is inhabited by zombies. The living dead." This explains why the Polynesian village has a graveyard with empty graves, and signs of recent voodoo rituals.

They are soon set upon not by a zombie but by a small snake. Terrified, the men freeze, but they are rescued when a woman, played by Barbara Bach, shoots the tiny snake.


"Thank you!" says the doctor.

Jose asks the woman, oddly, "What is the name of this island, senor?"

She replies that it has no name, but it belongs to Edward Rackham, who, much like most men who own uncharted islands, does not like visitors.

They follow Ms. Bach back to a large house, but they are surprised to find men in Egyptian garb guarding the place.

The owner of the island, Mr. Rackham, decides to let the men stay in a scorpion-infested shack on the property. Mr. Rackham is played by British actor Richard Johnson in a delightful imitation of even more British actor Ronald Coleman.

Rackham confronts Ms. Bach as she bathes in a tiny bathtub. He accuses her of intentionally bringing the men to the house.

Mr. Rackham invites the doctor to dinner under a mosquito tent with him and Ms. Bach and a dozen servants.

It is here that the traditional battle of wits plays out between Mr. Rackham and the curious doctor. "Curiosity killed the cat, you know," Mr. Rackham says, to which the doctor replies, "I don't understand."

He wants to know why Rackham lives here. Rackham responds, "Is the so-called civilized world more attractive? I certainly don't regret leaving it." He adds, "I can't say I hate my fellow man. I just resent them imposing their laws upon me. Here, in this island, I am absolute master." (He does not explain why he uses the phrase "in this island" instead of "on this island.")

The doctor finds this a reasonable answer and resumes eating dinner. He is unaware that the dinner is being observed secretly by a man through the eyes of a Polynesian figure.

After dinner, Ms. Bach, having bathed a few hours earlier, decides to wade into the ocean carrying a vase.

She is set upon by the fishmen, but they mysteriously do not raise their clawed hands against her. She pours milk from the vase into those selfsame clawed hands, and they drink the milk.

As she returns home, Dr. Benton Quest attempts to rape her. Surprisingly, the fishmen rescue her, helpfully dragging the prisoner into a lagoon.

In the morning, the doctor discovers that Dr. Quest has disappeared so he confronts Rackham. "Perhaps he escaped," Rackham suggests. "Isn't that what convicts do?"

Next to die is Jose, who suddenly steals a horse and rides through the jungle, ending up in the Polynesian voodoo cemetery, which, we learn, abuts a steep-cliffed lagoon out of a Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Jose falls into the water.

Like everyone who touches water, Jose is set upon by the fishmen, but he climbs onto the small boat in the lagoon. The audience manages to get a better look at the terrifying fishmen.

Mysteriously, Rackham and his Egyptian/Caribbean servants are already on the boat. They render Jose unconscious.

Elsewhere on the island, the doctor is also attacked by fishmen, but he is rescued by Ms. Bach, who simply commands the fishman to leave the doctor alone. The audience gets an even better look at the terrifying fishman.

It is at this point that the film's last recognizable star appears: Joseph Cotten as Ms. Bach's father, noted biologist Professor Marvin. He stumbles into Rackham's living room. 

"You're alive because this man needs a doctor," Packham explains to the doctor, "Now do something, quickly!"

The doctor discovers that Mr. Cotten has an advanced infection. We are not informed why Rackham did not introduce the doctor to Mr. Cotten days earlier, so as to prevent the spread of the infection, though we do infer that Mr. Cotten was the man watching the earlier dinner scene through the eyes of the Polynesian mask.

After the doctor stabilizes Mr. Cotten, Rackham, for no apparent reason, explains the island's secrets to the doctor by taking him to caverns below the Polynesian cemetery. "The island is the highest peak of a now-vanished continent," Rackham explains while the two of them descend into the water in a diving bell. "I believe we're looking at the lost continent of Atlantis."

Rackham believes that an Atlantean temple contains a treasure, but it lies at a depth no human could withstand. Therefore, his fiendishly simple plan was to mutate a species of fishmen able to penetrate such depths to secure the treasure for him. In fact, the fishmen are retrieving the treasure piece by piece from the temple, controlled by Mr. Cotten's secret milklike potion.

Rackham and the doctor strike a bargain: The doctor will keep Mr. Cotten alive and Rackham will share some of the "booty."

But all is not so straightforward. While the doctor is casually reading, a thought about Mr. Cotten suddenly strikes him. "Now I remember. He's the geneticist who was condemned for his experiments transplanting animal organs into human beings."

This sudden memory impels the doctor to run out into the night, scale the outside wall of Rackham's house, and break into Ms. Bach's bedroom. Of course, she welcomes the intrusion, so she and the doctor search for her father to escape the island.

They fail to find the professor, but they find his secret laboratory, which they believe is is set up for making milk. 

They discover, to their horror, that there is more to the laboratory than they imagined. Mr. Cotten is not just controlling the fishmen, he is creating them!

They find different stages of the evolution of the creatures, including an adorable, tiny muppet-like Cthulhu head.

More worryingly, they find that Jose is being turned into a fishman, in an homage to the classic The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).

As a medical man, the doctor is forced to do the only morally acceptable thing: disconnect the tanks and murder Jose with a scalpel.

Mr. Cotten then bursts in, too late to save Jose. He explains his experiments were designed to save humanity when it would have to return to the sea.

Mr. Rackham then bursts in, only to shoot and kill Mr. Cotten. 

Because Mr. Cotten's death severely impacts his ability to make fishmen to dive to Atlantis to steal the treasure, Mr. Rackham decides to turn the doctor into a fishman all by himself. He plans to do this by locking the doctor into a large tank and filling it with water.

Meanwhile, Rackham's female servant Shakira, shown only in passing previously, reveals herself to be a voodoo priestess intent on sacrificing Ms. Bach for unexplained reasons. Mr. Rackham shoots Shakira, also for unexplained reasons.

Because everything else is falling apart figuratively, the volcano begins to erupt so that everything will soon fall apart literally.

Director Sergio Martino saves much of his filmmaking prowess for the final act, which cuts together the doctor's near-drowning with Rackham's kidnapping of Ms. Bach and the final submersion of Mr. Cotten's body.

"Bring me the rest of the treasure or I'll kill her!" Rackham orders the fishmen. Understanding English perfectly, the fishmen do so, just as the volcano explodes.

I will not spoil the thrilling finale of this adventure film, but suffice it to say the doctor, the nominal hero, is eventually rescued by a minor character so he can kick Mr. Rackham in the groin while lava flows over the island.

The finale also features the immortal line, "This island is going to explode at any moment, so get going!"

Like many well crafted films, Island of the Fishmen borrows slightly from well known films but improves upon them immeasurably. While the opening sequence in the Screamers version of the film, added later for the U.S. release and featuring Cameron Mitchell and Mel Ferrer, pays homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as well as Humanoids from the Deep (1980), the main body of the film is a wonderful reworking of Island of Lost Souls (1932)/The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) with creative borrowings from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and of course The Dungeon of Harrow (1964). These genre references help ground Sergio Martino's film and raise it far above the standard late-1970s fishmen-on-an-island movie.

The fishmen themselves, of course, are the high points of the film. Mr. Martino even displays a fine command of fishmen evolutionary biology as he depicts their evolving looks on land and under the water. It is almost difficult to believe they are the same creatures.

In summary, Island of the Fishmen is truly one of the most literate, terrifying, and star-studded of all the fishmen films. A classic of the genre, it would not be surpassed until its apocalyptic sequel, The Fishmen and Their Queen, was created in 1995. But that is a story for another day.