Island of the Fishmen (Sergio Martino, 1979)
aka L’ISOLA DEGLI UOMINI PESCE / SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK / SCREAMERS / ISLAND OF MUTATIONS
Having been lost at sea for days with a number of convicts from a downed prison vessel, Lieutenant Claude de Ross and company run afoul of strange creatures that attack them amidst a fog enshrouded reef. Awakening the following day on the beach of a beautiful, yet dangerous island, the group find the place is inhabited by the aristocratic Edmond Rackham and his much younger wife, Amanda. Ignoring warnings to leave the isle, strange and mysterious happenings such as voodoo rites and the appearance of humanoid like fish monsters lead to many unanswered questions for the inquisitive Lieutenant. While Claude’s shipwrecked detainees begin disappearing, horrifying as well as fascinating secrets are finally revealed about the atoll and its residents as a disturbed volcano threatens to destroy the island paradise…
Easily the most ambitious of Martino’s unrelated horror/adventure/fantasy trilogy which also includes MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978) and THE BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER (1979), Martino crafts an interesting variation on H.G. Wells’s classic story, ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’, a story that has been adapted for the screen on countless occasions since the 1930s. Martino manages to cram in so many elements, including the army of fishmen, the voodoo priestess and her followers, the volcano that threatens to erupt at any minute and the lost city of Atlantis! Martino manages to weave elements of the Wells’ story in addition to the search for a hidden treasure 2,000 feet below the ocean’s depths. With so much potential and variety in the plot, the setting is ripe for a smorgasborge of thrills and excitement. Although Martino gels all his ingredients successfully, the pacing does drag at times, peddling when it should be full steam ahead. The film itself could have done with a bit more editing, cutting away some of the extraneous fat and toning the rhythm to make it move a little more lively. Such a thing was attempted by Roger Corman the following year (more on that later) when he released the film through his New World Pictures outfit.
However, there are more than enough good moments throughout and the final 15 minutes pile on the action and spectacle. Working with what must have been a small budget, Martino does go the extra mile as usual in delivering more than what his financial constraints should allow. The monster suits are fine; nothing overly spectacular but they suffice in their function to add entertainment value or move the plot along when necessary. Some extra touches could have made them more believable but the film would have been a far lesser affair without them. The creatures are often seen accompanying some fine underwater photography and it’s also obvious the performers inside the suits have been outfitted with air tanks under their costumes during some of the wider shots near the end. But compared with Martino’s other two films often linked with this one, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) is extremely tame in the violence department. Far more fantasy oriented than a gory exercise in mayhem, this may turn a number of fans off to this picture but it’s definitely got a lot more going for it in the overall plot and its adventure aspects.
The late Claudio Cassinelli is the main star here although Barbara Bach precedes him in the credits. Cassinelli has a commanding presence and I’m curious if he dubbed his own voice here. His character of Lt. Claude de Ross, who is also a medical officer, is constantly at odds with Rackham and finds out late in the film why Rackham has kept him alive for so long. Cassinelli starred in Martino’s two other films in this unofficial trilogy, another of which with Barbara Bach. Cassinelli, as is widely known, was killed in a helicopter accident while filming Martino’s HANDS OF STEEL (1986). The actor left behind a plethora of vibrant roles in many a fan favourite spanning various genres of European cinema, including gialli such as THE SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR (1975), crime movies like KILLER COP (1974) and BLOODY PAYROLL 1976) and the giallo/crime hybrid WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? (1974). Cassinelli even found time to appear as the mythological Zeus in two abominably bad movies, HERCULES (1983) and THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (1984) from director Luigi Cozzi. With so many intriguing movies on his resume, his star will never fade.
Barbara Bach on the other hand, is beauty personified but she seldom does anything more than waltz around looking like she’s in a state of catatonia or possibly entranced by the voodoo priestess in the film. Most of her other performances follow a similar pattern. However, she was quite lively in CAVEMAN (1981), the film in which she met her husband, former Beatle Ringo Starr. Bach is probably best remembered for her star turn alongside Roger Moore in the James Bond film, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977). In addition to her two Martino horror/fantasy films, she had previously featured in a handful of Italian giallo and crime movies prior to her nabbing the role in the Bond film.
Respected British actor Richard Johnson stars as the villainous Edmond Rackham and he plays the role rather viciously, sometimes bordering on the comical. His near constant butting of heads with Cassinelli grows a bit tiresome here and there but by the end, he proves to be quite the sophisticated and determined bad guy, reaching an almost Bondian level of villainy in his plans. Johnson will forever be remembered by Italian horror fans for his role of Dr. Menard in Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1979). In ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979), Johnson is dressed more or less identical to his outfit seen in the flashback in Fulci’s movie. Perhaps the two films were shot simultaneously? Johnson also appeared in Martino’s THE BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER the same year and played a hermetic and loony priest.
Joseph Cotten appears briefly here to reveal a good chunk of this films mystery and his scenes amount to around five minutes of screen time. Cotten is no stranger to foreign cinema and it is often stated that when American actors reach the end of their illustrious careers in their homeland, they resign themselves to foreign shores as it’s the last plateau where their careers still hold weight. To me, this notion, whether it be true or not, is a bit insulting to foreign productions. That the star of CITIZEN CANE (1941) did a large number of often critically maligned European productions, those critics should not forget the fact that he also appeared in what is considered to be three of the worst American films of all time–DUEL IN THE SUN (1946), THE OSCAR (1966) and HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), a film that seriously crippled United Artists, though has enjoyed something of a critical reappraisal since its release.
The cinematography by Giancarlo Ferrando is nothing short of stunning. Full advantage is taken of some truly magnificent locations. Locales that, if not for the air of horror and danger present, are almost idyllic. The photography here is a definite highpoint and something that is shared with the other two evidently more violent Martino horror/adventure films. Numerous times the actors are framed amidst awestricken shots of island fauna, beach locales surrounding the isle or massive caverns like the one seen during the film’s last half. Likewise, the soundtrack by Luciano Michelini is ambitious in its scope, going for scene-specific stingers, voodoo enhanced jungle beats, melodic, sometimes romantic passages and even one cue that sounds reminiscent of one heard in the score for Lenzi’s EATEN ALIVE! (1980).
Like many Italian genre films of the time, FISHMEN was released in America and suffered the worst fate of Martino’s three jungle adventure films. ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) was released in US cinemas sometime during the Summer of 1981 in a seriously bastardized, severely altered and truncated version from United Pictures Organization and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Corman apparently was displeased with Martino’s original version and between himself and a director named Miller Drake, commissioned an entirely new opening sequence to accentuate the horror aspects of the film. This new opening segment featured Cameron Mitchell, Mel Ferrer and a group of unknowns as 19th century pirates searching for gold and being attacked by the fishmen (these new effects shots were created by a young special FX maestro and future film director Chris Walas) and showcased some decapitations and throat ripping. The fishmen seen in Martino’s original movie are not seen in this new opening sequence.
In addition to this gory opening, some 15 minutes were removed, new music was added and the title was changed to SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK. The film died quickly but Corman wasn’t finished yet. A new trailer for the film was created but under the newly christened title, SCREAMERS. This new version utilized the tagline, “See a man turned inside out!” and featured footage of “this guy running around covered in slime…all his veins hanging out, chasing a girl in a bikini”. This new snippet was shot by trash peddler Jim Wynorski. The “new film” opened in Atlanta, Georgia and stories of incensed patrons destroying the drive-in due to not seeing a man being turned inside out resulted in the shot from the trailer being inserted into the film at some point or other. The added scene was not in any video version I saw as it never existed in the original film nor, presumably, the initial amalgamation from New World Pictures. Reportedly, the SCREAMERS version made some money. To make matters worse, the SCREAMERS version lists a Dan T. Miller as director which is apparently a pseudonym of Joe Dante although Dante had no known involvement in the creation of any version of this film other than that of being an employee of New World prior to Corman’s tinkering and subsequent release of the Martino movie.
In 1995, Martino would direct a made for Italian TV movie sequel entitled THE FISHMEN & THEIR QUEEN. This oddity was included as an extra on the out of print Marketing Films DVD from Germany. This NoShame Italy DVD is lovingly restored save for a brief bit during the opening moments. The sound is robust and clear on the English track included (for a change) here. There are also 5.1 and mono Italian audio options. The biggest surprise and also the most disappointing, is the inclusion of an hour long doc on the making of the film as well as some of his other movies as told by Sergio and Luciano Martino and Massimo Antonello Geleng. What’s disappointing about it is that there are no English options for this feature. A trailer and photo gallery round out an excellent package.
A fine fantasy adventure film from one of Italy’s best and most versatile fantastic film directors, Sergio Martino. ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) has much to appreciate in the concept-driven script and the cinematography and due to the lack of any gore or nudity the film is relatively safe enough for younger viewers, though they may be distracted when the creatures are not on screen. Regardless, any Serious Martino fan should have this in their collection. Those expecting something along the lines of his cannibal opus or post apocalyptic landscape might do better to look elsewhere.