ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN
Italy | 1979
Directed by Sergio Martino
Starring
Barbara Bach
Claudio Cassinelli
Richard Johnson
Color
| 99 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
Mya Communications
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Review by
Brian Lindsey


Film:4
DVD:3
Acknowledged as one of the masters of the Italian giallo, director Sergio Martino (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark) also helmed movies in a variety of other genres. One of these was Island of the Fishmen, a period fantasy-adventure containing elements of horror. While he's able to bring a smidgen of style to the proceedings Martino can't do much to elevate the film above its low budget, stale story and inherent clichés.
    The Caribbean, 1891: A French prison ship goes down during a storm, casting a handful of survivors adrift in a lifeboat. Army doctor Lt. Claude de Ross (Claudio Cassenelli) finds himself in charge of a group of mutinous convicts with only a revolver to maintain authority. With their supply of drinking water depleted the situation grows tense. Chances for survival are looking increasingly grim when, during a heavy fog, the lifeboat is wrecked on the rocky shore of an uncharted island. Thrown into the sea, de Ross and some of the convicts manage to swim ashore but the others are attacked and killed by something unseen slithering through the water.
    The island's promise of salvation proves fleeting. In short order more of the convicts succumb to a poison waterhole, booby traps in the jungle and an unknown creature stalking the marshes. Hope flares anew when de Ross and the survivors encounter fellow human beings living on the volcanic island, but this hope, too, is quickly dashed — the castaways are not exactly made welcome. Englishman Edmund Rackham (Richard Johnson, Zombie) rules the place like a feudal lord, commanding a small band of native warriors and a voodoo priestess (Beryl Cunningham) who serves as maid in his ramshackle jungle mansion. Also present is the beautiful Amanda (The Spy Who Loved Me's Barbara Bach), whom de Ross at first thinks is Rackham's wife but eventually learns otherwise. She's the daughter of an elderly American scientist (Joseph Cotten) working with Rackham on a mysterious project involving experiments in aquatic biology...
    For the film's U.S. release in 1981 distributor Roger Corman trimmed some of the slower scenes and had a new 'prologue' shot (with actors Cameron Mitchell and Mel Ferrer), adding sufficient gore to garner an R rating and marketing it as horror under the generic-sounding title Screamers. The 2009 Mya DVD contains the Italian cut of Fishmen, which would merit only a PG certification if rated by the MPAA; a couple of mildly bloody claw wounds, a sacrificed rooster and Barbara Bach in a soaking wet nightie is as gnarly as it gets. Actually, Fishmen is more in the vein of those Amicus/AIP fantasy-adventures produced in the mid-'70s, such as Warlords of Atlantis, than it is a horror movie. (I could easily see Doug McClure in the hero role, although they would've needed to throw a giant kraken or manta ray in there somewhere.) Essentially it's Island of Lost Souls meets War-Gods of the Deep, with emphasis on the latter.
    Martino, as always, makes good use of the widescreen canvas, offering up the occasional artfully-framed shot where the typical exploitation director wouldn't have bothered. This doesn't do anything to save the movie, however. Corman was right in that it's too lethargically paced for its own good, especially in the middle act. Since the story is entirely predictable bringing nothing new to the table it's left to the actors and special effects to carry the film, which they're unable to do. Cassenelli and Bach are serviceable enough in their respective roles, but really no more that; Cotten is wasted in his brief appearance as the mad scientist, spending most of his screen time in a near-comatose state since his character is dying from unexplained infected sores on his hands. (???) Richard Johnson hams it up more than is required, perhaps resigned to the silliness of it all. He seems to be channeling Vincent Price at times, mainly through his voice dubbing. (He, Cotten and Bach looped their own dialog in post for the English-language version.) Rackham is a stereotypical Victorian villain missing only the extra-long mustachios to twirl when gloating about his evil plans.
    Model effects come to the fore during the climax, when the sunken ruins of Atlantis are revealed (the island sits above the remnants of the fabled lost continent) and the volcano inevitably blows its stack. Looking rather cheesy, it's where budget limitations are most obvious. The same can be said for the titular monsters. I've certainly seen worse examples of aquatic humanoids in various movies over the years, but they're still basically guys in not-terribly convincing rubber suits. Wisely Martino limits their appearances to close-ups of claws and eyes until the film is well underway. (Still, they're better than the creatures in Horror of Party Beach...)

Postponed from a summer release in fits and starts the Mya DVD is now more readily available. It wasn't worth the wait — and I'm not just talking about the movie. The anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is acceptable, I suppose, as there's little in the way of print damage; color balance varies as some scenes look rather muted. A few times during the movie the image seemed to inadvertently pause for roughly a quarter-second, which at first I thought might be an issue with the disc. It doesn't appear to be, though. It's inherent either to the source materials Mya used or their handling of them.
    Audio is another problem. Two language tracks are available: English and Italian mono. The English track is very flat-sounding, plagued by distortion during the volcanic explosions and when the fishmen are loudly screeching. Also, it's slightly out of synch when Johnson is plugging the fishmen with a revolver. The Italian track definitely fares better of the two and is preferable even though Johnson, Cotten and Bach are dubbed by other actors. But wouldn't you know it? There are no English subtitles.
    Extras consist of the Italian trailer (again, no subs) and a still gallery featuring some behind-the-scenes production photos and international poster art. 9/24/09
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