Thursday, June 16, 2016

Island Of Death

Island of Death (1976)
Dir and written by Nico Mastorakis
Starring Robert Behling, Jane Lyle, Jessica Dublin

Well, here’s one which will ruin your day. ISLAND OF DEATH is a thoroughly unpleasant movie by any imaginable metric you could apply to it, and I would guess the filmmakers would have no objection to that characterization. This is clearly a film which was made for the express purposes of shattering every imaginable taboo and line of good taste, and damned if it doesn’t run that whole marathon and then swing back around for a victory lap. I mean, think of an unpalatable act of perverse sex or sadistic violence --any act-- and you’ll find it here. This is a geek show, and that was clearly the point. Regrettably, this inclination seems to be more due to a mercenary impulse to court controversy than any compelling mental derangement on the part of Greek director Nico Mastorakis (1984’s BLIND DATE with Kirstie Alley). That’s obviously the least interesting possible motivation for making something this vile, but on its own it’s hardly a reason to give up hope; after all, crass titillation has produced plenty of great movies over the years. Hell, it probably has a better overall track record for producing masterpieces than earnest artistic ambition does. And it’s not like using cheap shock tactics to bring in the rubes hasn’t been around since the dawn of cinema... nay, the dawn of time. I mean, as I think the following poster collage makes clear, this is hardly an isolated impulse.

The difference between ISLAND OF DEATH and DIE MONSTER DIE, though, is that ISLAND OF DEATH, whatever its artistic worth --and it has none-- can at least back up its claim. It’s genuinely shocking, and it remains genuinely shocking 40 years later. I honestly think that might come as a surprise to Mastorakis; to hear him tell it, the movie came about when he saw the piles of coin the then-shocking (and still effective) TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was raking in. He figured if that’s what audiences were into, all he had to do was escalate the shock and he’d make even more money. So he just put everything he could think of in there. Rape, beastiliaty, golden showers, more rape, heroin, gay weddings, crucifixion, naked old people, masturbation, lesbians, incest, burning off a lady’s face, more rape, male rape, muder by poison, bulldozer, hanging, beating, acid. Pretty much everything he could think of that would be sure to stun and horrify someone in 1976, it went up on screen. It’s nice that the “shocking” homosexual scenes actually read as pretty harmless --maybe even a little sweet!-- to modern eyes.* But the rest of it is, if anything, even more appalling in this more civilized age we live in.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t add up to as interesting a cinematic experience as it sounds. Instead it’s the bizarre, miserable, overlong and ultimately ploddingly repetitive saga of a couple of opaque weirdos (Robert Behling, CUJO, and Jane Lyle, LAND OF THE MINOTAUR) --posing as newlyweds-- who embark on a relentless killing spree on the gorgeous Greece island of Mykonos. I’ll admit it got my attention when, after his gal refuses his morning advances, the guy walks out into the courtyard and cheerfully rapes a goat. There’s something you don’t see every day, thank God. That at least seemed to herald a filmgoing experience which might be exotically tasteless. But as our beloved main characters settle into their routine --finding a person they deem morally objectionable and then brutally murdering them, photographing the scene, and masturbating over the photos-- things gradually deteriorate from the startlingly transgressive to the tediously transgressive. 

The DVD box hails the film as “grueling,” but I didn't start to truly understand what that meant until hour two, when it becomes painfully clear that there will be no new developments of any kind, just the same couple killing more topless women in new but not especially imaginative ways. It might have been exploitative, mean-spirited, intentionally tasteless fun if it was an hour shorter. At 108+ minutes (I think we saw a director’s cut), there’s just no way around it, it’s a real slog, especially the end, which needlessly drags on and on and on with, Spoiler(?) two rape scenes and then a consensual sex scene with the rapist all in very, very slow succession. By that point, we’ve passed the point of total saturation with casual brutality a full hour ago, and without the ability to further shock, the repetitive sadism just becomes fatiguing. The depravity is all of a rather mundane sort, distinguished only by its pushy relentlessness (in fact, it’s really not even especially graphic, all things considered) not by anything memorably flamboyant. It lacks imagination. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE -- that’s the work of a genuinely depraved mind. This stuff isn’t any more exotic than the average troubled high schooler would come up with in a lazy effort to shock you, and, while it remains plenty unpleasant, it quickly squanders any impact it might have and becomes rote and tiresome. Yes, it’s objectively puerile garbage, but it’s just not very interesting puerile garbage.

There are a few things here which would have the potential to be interesting on an intellectual level, if the director hadn’t openly repudiated any claims that the movie has any meaning or message. The first is the structure: You assume, for the first 20 minutes at least, that the main characters are going to eventually be victims here, like they would be in a normal horror movie. They seem kinda awkward and unpleasant, but hey, you figure, that’s horror movie acting for you. The idea that these pretty white people on vacation might turn out to be the villains doesn’t occur to you until right up to the point they commit their first murder, so there’s an unexpected perspective shift for you to consider here, which could be interesting if anything ever came of it. Similarly, it’s interesting that no explanation is ever offered for their behavior. Even other killer-is-the-protagonist fare like PSYCHO, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, and MANIAC (both versions) felt the need to offer some shallow Freudianism as a fig leaf psychological justification for all the exploitation nonsense. Here, we learn nothing about their backstory whatsoever, and nothing about them personally beyond the fact that they’re horrible, horrible people. They’re total cyphers (they don’t really have a plan or even a consistent philosophy), which would really beg the question of what in God’s name writer/director Mastorakis was trying to do here. If, again, he hadn’t already said it was nothing.

That, thankfully, also spares us the indignity of having to ask if the relentless, enervating, and monotonous cruelty --especially in the complete absence of anything remotely resembling an appropriate atmosphere, as the barbarity is juxtaposed with gorgeous, sun-drenched Mykonos island-- is intended as some kind of statement about the banality of violence, and rubbing our faces in this shit is meant to teach us some kind of lesson, like SALO or A SERBIAN FILM. Or the need to consider the religious implications of the story, which is sodden with Christian allusions, and, for fuck’s sake, ends with a mute, bestial shepherd raping both our heroes, which seems like it’s just begging to be seen symbolically. Fortunately, we know it wasn’t. It was just a bunch of shit some Greek TV huckster wrote up hoping to grab a quick buck. For that, at least, we probably owe Mastorakis some gratitude.

I’ve read some reviews which still manage to find these things interesting, even in the absence of authorial intent. But for me, anyway, even if they were interesting they still wouldn’t be interesting enough to deal with low-budget nastiness this dull. Even if it was intentionally a grating and tiresome slog to make a point, it still would not be an interesting enough point to make the grating and tiresome slog worth it. I’ll give it this: the blu-ray looks nice, and it’s shot and assembled more professionally than anything this lurid and demeaning has any business being. But for a movie where a guy has sex with a goat before the 15 minute mark, this is inexcusably uninteresting. Not even uneventful, it’s just that the whole thing is the same event, over and over, with no humor or plot or anything to liven things up. And perhaps the most characteristic example of this isn’t even the murder, it’s the music. Bizarre music, by first-time composer Nikos Laveranos (two other Greek z-movies, no other IMDB credits) abounds, but especially traumatizing is the calypso-tinged “Destination Understanding,” a terrifyingly chipper pop song  that plays throughout the movie multiple times, in its entirety. Even in a movie this repetitive and sadistic, that’s going a little too far.

Here, check it out, it’s awful. Go on. You’re really gonna hate it. I dare you. Which, now that I think about it, is a perfect summation of the movie’s ethos.

*In fact, the homosexual characters here are treated with surprising… well, respect isn’t exactly the right word for anything in this movie, but I guess at least less contempt than you’d expect from an exploitation film in 1976. At any rate, the movie clearly sees them as sympathetic victims of intolerant, horrible assholes, not as swishy perverts who get what they deserve. And that’s kinda miraculous, considering how generally mean-spirited this movie is to everyone, everywhere.


Play it Again, Samhain
  • TAGLINE: The Lucky Ones Got Their Brains Blown Out! And Possibly The World’s Worst Holiday Destination. While I agree with the first tagline, the second is demonstrably untrue, because Mykonos comes out looking fuckin’ great, if only there weren’t these awful bastards here.
  • SEQUEL: None, which seems a little surprising considering its naked desire to ape the success of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. But maybe being chopped to pieces by censors and banned in several countries (it wasn’t available uncut in England at all until 2011!) made it less profitable than Mastorakis had hoped.
  • REMAKE: No
  • BOOBIES: Lots, but in context you won’t be able to enjoy them, I hope.
  • MULLETS: None
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Oh yeah, of men, women, and goats.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: None, actually. The murders aren’t really that graphic, just unusually sadistic.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: I’ve seen reviews that call it a “proto-slasher,” but I dunno if I buy that. The structure and details are all wrong, even if its emphasis on killing fits. Even other atypical-structured serial killer films (HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, MANIAC) feature more distinct slasher iconography than this does.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): This feels more right.
  • EGYPTO-CRYPTO: No, although they’re right across the Mediterranean
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, though infamous among serious followers of over-the-top horror.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: None, just absolutely none. In fact, the movie takes great umbrage at the very suggestion it would have one.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: There is an island where death occurs.

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