Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Island of the Fishmen

Island of the Fishmen
Original Title : L’isola degli uomini pesce
Directed by: Sergio Martino
Action/Adventure, 1979
Italy, 93min
Distributed by: Mya Entertainment

Sergio Martino. Say his name and many a genre fan, especially myself, will start salivating and ranting on about those magnificent Gialli he directed during the seventies. But Martino also directed a bunch of films beyond those initial Gialli, as he also made movies in the Comedy, Spaghetti Western, Science Fiction and Action/Adventure genres. One of these is the entertaining Island of the Fishmen.

Loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the story was written by Sergio and his brother Luciano Martino (who worked as a producer and director, but also wrote several movie scripts, among them some of the great Gialli and Spaghetti Westerns) and reworked by Cesare Frugoni [Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs 1974, Ruggero Deodato’s Cut and Run 1985] and Sergio Donati [Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More 1965 and Once Upon A Time in the West 1968]. This many writers could possibly cause a mumbled jumble of varied influences and a mixed bag of complications as storylines and subplots come and go. But I feel that they brought themselves together to write a highly entertaining little film, and anything relying on Lovecraftian mythos grabs my attention and is going to fall in good ground with me.

Island of the Fishmen is not a horror flick, but more an Action - Adventure flick that rubs up against the Science-fiction/Fantastic genre. It starts with a boat drifting in the mist with a few men sat exhausted in the tight space. Quickly the tension between the few men onboard is set and we understand that the power structure is ruptured and they really don’t like each other. Then, strange creatures move in the water and the men are spooked, and to make things worse the boat starts picking up speed and smashes into the cliffs hurling the men into the water once again. Obviously the strange creatures in the water attack and we have an initial attack assuring us that the “fishmen” are not gentle dolphin like playthings. They are vicious killers.
Awaking on the shore of an island, Lt Claude de Ross [Claudio Cassinelli – a fine leading man indeed who died all to soon by a freak accident during the shoot of Martino’s Fists of Steel 1985. But his movies remain and among them you’ll find highlights like Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Your Daughters? 1974 and Martino’s previous film Mountain of the Cannibal God 1978 to name a selected few.] De Ross roams the island finding various crewmembers dead in the nearby swamp… And Martino starts playing visual gags with us to keep us confused about what sort of movie this is going to evolve into.

The short but great scene of de Ross looking over his shoulder screaming “No! No!” at the lurking – staggering shadow making the groaning noises definitely sets off the Zombie alarm, but in the next second de Ross screams “No José, don’t drink that, if you do you will end up like him!” pointing to the dead guy in the distance. It’s a grand little scene that is humorous, pokes fun at our expectations and at the same time sets up the friendly relationship between José and de Ross. And with every good note in this film there’s a negative contrast waiting. Finding death in the swamp leads to finding his friend José [Franco Iavarone]. Finding a second friend, Francois, leads to meeting up the other survivors, the ones in the beginning that don’t like de Ross. They make a clear comment that they are no longer his prisoners and they won’t take orders from him anymore (which brings a neat little bit of back story into the flick. – and it’s going to be dropped like this each time we need to understand de Ross further during the movie). From this point it’s easy to think that the film is gong to be a survival horror as the men start wandering through the marshlands and surrounding jungle. Alliances are tested in a rather tense sequence where José proves his alliance with de Ross against the others, and before you know it they walk into a cemetery that brings Lucio Fulci’s Zombie 1979 to mind, as José screams out “Don’t touch it! It’s Zombies, ZOMBIES!” de Ross calmly tells him to relax, zombies never existed. Again Martino taunts us concerning genre as there definitely has been enough Italian zombie set-ups established that all we need now is a groaning guy with clay n his face to jump start this baby.

Instead we get Amanda Marvin [Barbara Bach - from Paola Cavara’s 1971 Giallo, The Black Belly of the Tarantula featuring not one, not two, but three Bond Girls; Bach, Barbara Bouchet and Claudine Auger. Bach also featured in Aldo Lado’s creepy black magic Giallo Short Night of the Glass Dolls 1971. Obviously she’s probably most know for being the wife of Beatles drummer Ringo Starr who she met on set of Caveman in 1981] Anyway, Amanda saves the four grown men from a tiny snake with a perfectly aimed bullet from her rifle and delivers some valuable exposition. The Island is uncharted, it belongs to Edmond Rackham and that they would be safer returning to the beach.

As retraining to their point of start, the beach, would make for a shit movie, the men obviously push on forward and eventually find the mansion that Amanda and Edmond Rackham inhabit. Rackham [the great Richard JohnsonRobert Wise’s The Haunting 1963, Fulci’s Zombie 1979] makes his grand entry. He offers the men a place to stay and sees a use for the good-looking de Ross who apparently was the ships doctor! See, there’s more back-story laid out elegantly here. The movie takes a new turn into a more superstitious ground as the Rackham’s house maid Shakira [Beryl Cunningham] performs a voodoo ritual and Amanda pays a visit to the strange Fishmen creatures that don’t tear her apart but act friendly towards her as she offers them a strange milk like fluid. But they do chomp down on the wreck survivor who follows Amanda into the jungle attempting to rape her.

The entrance of Rackham sees the horror element fade out of the movie and shift more into a sci-fi / adventure area. Shakira performs Voodoo sacrifices for Mr. Rackham and José panics and flees the mansion after the last of the group is killed leaving him and de Ross the only survivors from the boat, and in his panicked flight he falls down into an underground cavern… De Ross goes after his friend only to have Amanda once again save him from deadly traps (which trigger the mental image of Charlie the pilot being nailed in Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World 1977.) and an attack by a Fishmen! Rackham and Shakira recapture the two men and force de Ross to drink a strange fluid that brings Zombie/Voodoo origin rituals to mind. Enter the Professor Ernest Marvin [Joseph Cotten – Yeah Orson Welles' 1941 Citizen Kane Cotton and Mario Bava’s Baron Blood 1972] who is in such bad shape that he has to be saved by de Ross. Remember he’s a doctor, and earlier Rackham made a note of how he could benefit from this. Underneath the island there is an advanced series of tunnels and labyrinths that leads down to ATLANTIS! Wow and we’re just gone halfway!

Now the sinister Rackham turns out to be a treasure hunter and the Fishmen are the original inhabitants of Atlantis… But there’s always a but, to get his hands on the treasures hidden in Atlantis Rackham has had Professor Marvin concoct a strange potion that he’s got the Fishmen addicted to. In return for the gold and treasures they get the drink… so now you know why Rackham so desperately needs de Ross to keep the Professor alive so that the Fishmen slaves keep busy at work. The twist comes suddenly; Amanda is the Professor's daughter, who Rackham holds captive. And as she can communicate with the Fishmen Rackham needs to keep Professor Marvin alive until all the treasure is salvaged, for Amanda is against the exploitation of the Fishmen and Rackham fears she would make them revolt against him if her father died. It’s greed that motivates Rackham, greed for the treasure, greed for Amanda’s love. In the professors secret laboratory de Ross finds out what happened to his mate José, and it’s apparent that the Fishmen are not the original inhabitants, but fiendish experiments!

In a rage de Ross tears apart the laboratory and puts the terrifying experiment José out of his misery. Ironically the José hybrid was the most successful specimen of Professor Marvin’s attempts to save the future of mankind. An amphibian creature that can take salvage in the depths of the ocean when modern man ruins earth. And the experiments are so controversial, that they only could be conducted on an uncharted island, out of sight, out of mind.

Needless to say Rackham busts into the room at this time, bringing death and mayhem with him as the film grinds up to it’s climax and to make things even more nail biting, the bloody volcano that the island sits on is coming to an eruption. The last twenty minutes is really just all action adventure, several leads are in pursuit and there are a lot of subplots rushing forth to their conclusion. But the road there is all great entertainment with a fantastic swashbuckler fight off and poetic justice served out to end it all. Splendid stuff indeed, and something I’ll be showing my kids in a few years time as I cradle them into the fantastic world of Italian genre cinema.
I guess that the easiest way to describe this film would be to call it a hysterical mix of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Island of Dr Moreau, Jules Verne - H.G. Welles, - H.P. Lovecraft science fiction, Atlanian myths and an episode of the hit TV show Lost. It uses the same sort of “cut the crap” narrative as Lost, and exposes only he necessary info needed to shift the value of each scene from negative to positive and vice versa. Neat work indeed. It starts right where we need to start, on the boat AFTER the shipwreck. We don’t have to see the prisoners board the ship, we don’t need to establish power positions on that boat, we have no interest seeing men scream and splash into the sea as he ship goes down. We start AFTER the situation that brought the men towards the island. Fragments of de Ross’ background are portioned out at the exact time it is needed as to keep his origin and back-story a mystery. Much of the events on the island are mysterious, and each time we think that we have a grasp on the main ingredient, Martino throws us a curve ball and introduces new elements of mystery – Cannibals, The mysterious Edmund Rackham, the Voodoo priestess Shakira, the Fishmen, the traps in the jungle, the underground caves, the secret experiments. You see it’s like a concentrated double episode of Lost but without that annoying ever-fresh cast.

Like many other EuroMovies, even this one was picked up by American distributors, re-cut, re-shot and trashed as it was turned into a stinker. Obviously Roger Corman was responsible for the reshooting, reediting and remarketing the movie as the appalling Screamers with Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchel in parts in an attempt to turn it into a more horror oriented flick.

Corman also did this with Pavel Klushantsev’s fantastic Planet of the Storms 1962 – Klushantsev, the director that Stanley Kubrick snatched his entire glorious Award Winning special effect tricks from for the 1968 film 2001 – A Space Odyssey. Corman reshot scenes with corny dialogue, a silly new plot and bikini girls selling it as something other than the masterpiece it was. These new versions where retitled and ”directed” by Curtis Harrington [Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet 1965 with Basil Rathbone in a new lead] and Peter Bogdanovich [Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women 1968 with Mamie Van Doren in the lead] the original cast where billed as ”archive footage”. Nice touch Roger. Luckily the Mya release (most likely the same source as the previous NoShame disc) makes sure that this is the intended Italian version without the Corman manipulation.

This is especially important when it comes to the score. Gone is the Sandy Berman stuff and back in is the original Luciano Michelini score full of its fuzzy guitars, swaying strings and vibrant beats. It’s wonderful stuff and at times the score is reminiscent of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead fitting to say the least. Even though Luciano Michelini isn’t a very known composer, you will probably have heard one of his pieces if you ever saw that Larry David show Curb Your Enthusiasm. That theme song is a Luciano Michelini composition.

The cinematography by Giancarlo Ferrando, who worked with Martino on more than a dozen of his films, is wonderfully accompanied by Eugenio Alabiso’s editing. He moves fast and there are a few wonderful scenes beautifully edited, usually with something happening outside of Cassinelli’s view, his turn/reaction/reveal, work like textbook examples of how to create the best results in the editing suite. Alabiso who edited Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 1966, Sergio Corbucci’s Companeros 1970, Umberto Lenzi’s Oasis of Fear 1971 and Martino’s Case of the Scorpion’s Tail 1971 to mention some of the 160 and counting great movies that he’s worked on.

I'll say it again; Island of the Fishmen is a marvellous piece of film that could easily play as a Sunday matinee for the whole family to gather around. It’s action packed, it’s scary in an innocent way, and it’s fun to watch.

Aspect Ration 2.35:1 (16x9 Anamorphic)

English or Italian Dialogue, Dolby Digital Mono. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles on the Italian dub, but luckily

There’s the original Trailer, a two-minute photo gallery and that’s it.

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