Island of the Fishmen

Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Everything about this film is appealing and right up my street. Firstly, a movie that has a couple of different versions on release. Secondly, a cross of some interesting approaches, that of H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne. Finally, a colourful cast and crew. When tracking down this particular version of the film, the original uncut release, I noted the consensus seems to be this is the lesser version of the film and the subsequent re-edit Screamers was preferred by most. This review is written from the point that I have yet to see Screamers.

Claudio Cassinelli is washed up on an uncharted island with some survivors of a sinking prison ship. Claude, was the ship’s Doctor, initially having problems controlling the surviving prisoners. Soon their ever decreasing group happens upon a mysterious woman on horseback, as a strange creature seems to be devouring the prisoners one by one. The woman named Amanda, played by Barbara Bach, insists they leave the island somehow, however, a well-to-do British gentleman invites the prisoners and Claude to stay. Claude is suspicious of the pair and investigates the strange goings on, only to find a diabolical scheme to plunder treasure from an ancient civilisation, crackpot science experiments, voodoo rituals, all whilst the island’s angry volcano is about to explode.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that the secret is the Fishmen of the title. The film is also known as Island of the Mutations, a title change that avoids giving away one secret, in favour of giving away another. Whilst generic, Screamers is an infinitely better title, as this refers to the noise the Fishmen make when they attack and it gives away nothing. There is a decent amount of story going on here and there is more than enough to fill out the short runtime as the action, adventure and mystery is surprisingly pleasant.

Island of the Fishman makes no attempt to hide the indigenous creatures and it’s safe to say the costumes have not aged well. As frequently seen in daylight the Fishmen would have benefited from dimmer lighting and shadows to mask their presence and make the costumes more effective.

Bach is obviously the big draw to the movie and this was typical of her output in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Aside from The Spy Who Loved Me and Force 10 From Navarone Bach would appear in several Italian genre films, and as a lover of Italian cinema I am thankful we have a good few as she is a notable screen presence. Bach tends to have a fierce, cold and unapproachable demeanour, however, her smile melts that exterior quickly. 

Fresh off of Slave of the Cannibal Gods and Blood and Diamonds Claudio Cassinelli’s delivery is annoyingly monotone throughout and I don’t feel he was particularly well utilised in the lead role. The character has stumbled upon this incredible secret and is fighting for survival, yet he delivers lines like he is outlining why Branston beans are better than Heinz beans to an unconscious audience. As this is an Italian production I could suggest several alternatives who would have delivered a zesty, fun and iconic lead character. Together with Bach the two just don’t seem to have any chemistry on screen, despite the story hoping otherwise. 

Richard Johnston might not be a household name, but every horror lover will know him from The Haunting and Zombie Flesh Eaters and here he more than makes up for the lacking lead with a fantastically fun villain. Every line uttered is campy fun whilst played straight and creating a seedy antagonist motivated and blinded entirely by greed. His mustachioed smirk becomes more exaggerated as the film continues and his madness becomes more apparent. Johnston single-handedly makes this film joyous and is obviously having a blast doing so.

Screen Legend Joseph Cotton pops up in a small but crucial role towards the end, however, he doesn’t really make too much of an impact on the film. Beryl Cunningham plays one of her final on screen roles as a voodoo … priestess (?) It’s a notable role as the character sacrifices a chicken, pouring blood over the ground in a very hard to watch scene.

Director Sergio Martino calls this the second of his Adventure trilogy, starting with Slave of the Cannibal Gods and followed by The Great Alligator. He approaches the film in a gentler manner than so many of the horror films of the time. Layering in the intrigue and adventure elements rather than going for exploitation and shock, save for that chicken scene mentioned earlier.  The story itself goes in a fun direction and has more to offer than I expected. More thought and effort has been put into the script setting it in the late 1800s and rather than just being a typical tale of weird creatures attacking people Island of the Fishmen is a story of a devious character plundering a lost civilisation. 

I had a fun time with Island of the Fishmen, aka Island of Mutations, aka L’isola degli uomini pesce, or the original cut of Something Waits in the Dark aka Screamers. Richard Johnston made the film entirely watchable with Bach becoming an attractive side order of chips to his juicy piece of battered cod. There was more effort put into this than you might expect and Corman was right to pick it up, trying to get more people to see it as there is a great adventure hidden here.

From what I gather Roger Corman realised the film’s potential and wanted to condense the film into something more shocking and exciting for its US re-release. I enjoyed Fishmen for its approach and am concerned that Corman’s approach might damage what Martino achieved with this adventure. I shall come to Screamers in the future to see how “they’re men turned inside out” can fit into this narrative!

Poster art is gorgeous. Despite Bach’s appearance, there is no nudity in the film.

Followed by The Fishmen and Their Queen

There is a good looking, if a little over priced, Blu-ray from Full Moon. This is the original Italian version with the title card, L’Isola Deglia Uomini Pesce. The film dialogue is English. The only extra is a trailer.

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