August 11, 2022

Freakish Fish People of Sci-fi #4: The Island of the Fishmen

Freakish, Frightful Fish People #4: The Island of the Fishmen (1979)

The Island of the Fishmen (1979) is like an Italian fish stew (Zuppa di Pesce) with a little bit of everything thrown into the pot: a shipwreck, sketchy prisoners, an uncharted Caribbean island, a lost underwater city, a well-meaning but mad scientist, an imperious, evil colonizer, a Voodoo queen, and the ethereally beautiful Barbara Bach for maximum sex appeal. It’s a dish that looks tasty enough at first glance, but a few too many ingredients, too many cooks (we’ll get to that later), and indifferent execution make it something less than delectable.

Lt. Claude de Ross (Claudio Cassinelli), a military physician, and a handful of prisoners manage to wash up on the shore of an uncharted island when their prison ship sinks. The group’s good luck turns sour when it becomes evident that some sort of dangerous predator is stalking them. Several of the men go missing or are butchered by the unseen thing.

De Ross and the survivors continue to explore the island, where they find evidence of Voodoo ceremonies. They encounter a beautiful woman on horseback (Amanda Marvin, played by Barbara Bach), who cruelly tells them to leave at once, that the island is no refuge for them. The men soldier on, and soon discover a stately plantation house owned by the stern and arrogant Edmond Rackham (Richard Johnson), who is hosting the beautiful Amanda and her doddering scientist father, Prof. Marvin (Joseph Cotten).

De Ross eventually gets to the bottom of the mystery: Prof. Marvin has perfected a technique to transform humans into fish-human hybrids for the “noble” purpose of allowing humanity to live in the ocean when land-based resources are exhausted. Rackham is using Marvin’s fish people for his own nefarious purposes -- having them dive to the underwater ruins of Atlantis just off the coast of the island to retrieve its priceless treasures.

Rackham uses implied threats to Amanda to keep the Prof. in line. Rackham also uses his mistress, the scary Voodoo Priestess Shakira (Beryl Cunningham) to recruit unwary natives into the ranks of the fishmen and to keep order on the island.

It looks grim for the doctor, the professor and Mary Ann Amanda, but the beautiful woman’s mysterious telepathic link to the fishmen may just save the day for the trio.

Poster - L'Isola Degli Uomini Pesce - The Island of the Fishmen (1979)

“-The fishmen are revolting! -You can say that again!”

Director Sergio Martino and the screenwriters mix a huge, heaping cup of The Island of Dr. Moreau with tablespoons of Voodoo and Atlantis mythology, and add just a dash of H.P. Lovecraft and Universal’s The Mole People for flavor. There’s even a standard-issue simmering island volcano that of course explodes right on cue at the end.

The recipe seems like a promising enough variation on H.G. Wells’ Moreau, but ultimately the ingredients don’t mesh. As noted above, much of the problem boils down to the execution, or, to belabor the metaphor, the stirring of the pot. (Note: This review is based on the New Worlds Pictures 1981 release of Island retitled Screamers. That version added a prologue sequence and cut footage from the original Italian production - more details below. To be fair, the faults listed here are at least partly due to a "re-heated" U.S. version that sacrificed story continuity for cheap, gory thrills.)

The fishmen are modern science’s version of Voodoo-created zombies -- creatures without a will of their own who perform dirty work for their masters. (This is belied, however, by their mental connection with the empathetic Amanda, which eventually leads to them turning on their hubristic and greedy master.)

Although the film cleverly aligns Western mad science and the dark arts -- Rackham utilizes both for his malevolent purposes -- it doesn’t fully exploit the Voodoo angle, and Shakira spends most of her time acting as a mere henchperson for Rackham (although certainly a beguiling one).

Richard Johnson as Rackham scowls and sneers at everyone concerned in his best Snidely Whiplash imitation. It’s a wonder he got the fishmen to do his bidding in the first place, as he seems to have never heard the adage “You catch more fish with honey than vinegar” (or something like that). Their uprising is very reminiscent of the Mole people’s revolt against the cavern-dwelling Sumerians in the 1956 Universal film (both have more than a hint of modern class warfare underlying the story).

Screenshot - The Island of the Fishmen, 1979
"I now pronounce you fish man and wife."

The Fishmen become “Screamers”

Speaking of exploitive capitalists (and I mean that in the very best sense of the term), Roger Corman’s New World Pictures picked up the distribution rights to The Island of the Fishmen, and after filming an additional prologue scene with actors Cameron Mitchell and Mel Ferrer that included gory killings to juice things up for the drive-in market, New World released it as Something Waits in the Dark.

That version was a box-office dud, so, not wanting his investment to go to waste, Corman had his protege Jim Wynorski work up a lurid trailer for yet another release, this time under the title Screamers:

“Wynorski’s first big success came when, on a $40 budget, he recut the trailer for an unsuccessful Italian-made horror film called Something Waits in the Dark (1979). Wynorski’s ‘Coming Attractions’ reel, which lured potential ticket-buyers with the promise of seeing ‘a man turned inside out,’ incorporated new footage of ‘this guy running around, covered with slime … all his veins hanging out, chasing a girl in a bikini.’ The film, retitled Screamers (1979), opened in Atlanta, Georgia, on a Friday. Early Saturday morning Corman phoned Wynorski and demanded that his new material be edited into the film itself, to appease the disappointed audiences who ‘rioted in the drive-ins last night, tore out the speakers, tried to lynch the manager…’ [Beverly Gray, Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, Renaissance Books, 2000, p. 167]

Let that be a lesson: you can push fishmen and drive-in goers only so far…

August 4, 2022

Freakish Fish People of Sci-fi #3: Spawn of the Slithis

Freakish, Frightful Fish People #3: Spawn of the Slithis (1978)

This third installment of Frightful Fish People takes us to the scenic Venice area of westside Los Angeles, with its famous beach, canals, boardwalk, murals, street performers… and occasionally, radioactive humanoid-fish mutants.

The protagonist of 1978’s Spawn of the Slithis is Wayne Connors (Alan Blanchard), a terminally bored high school journalism teacher whose newshound instincts are revived by reports of animals and people in Venice’s canal district being killed and the flesh sucked off their bones (yikes!).

The amateur sleuth sneaks into the house of a murdered couple, and finds a mysterious mud-like substance at the scene. He takes samples, which he delivers to a scientist friend, Dr. John (Dennis Falt). After Dr. John analyzes the stuff, he tells Connors that it appears to be Slithis, a rare organic form of mud resulting from radioactive contamination, that can absorb the properties of any lifeform it comes into contact with. According to Dr. John, Slithis first appeared near an atomic plant in Wisconsin, but authorities suppressed the findings to avoid a panic.

More murders take place. Connors interviews one survivor, a homeless veteran, who swears he saw a huge man-like lizardy-fish creature. Later, Connors talks to yet another expert, a nuclear scientist, Erin Burick (J.C. Claire) who confirms the presence of Slithis in the Venice area due to a leak from a nearby atomic energy facility. Burick speculates that Slithis can evolve into highly complex forms... like a murdering, face-sucking fish creature. (Burick has hideous facial scarring from a presumed lab accident -- this character definitely got my attention the first time I saw the movie.)

Poster - Spawn of the Slithis, 1978

Connors tries to get the police involved, but they prefer their own cult ritual murder theory. Connors and Dr. John take it upon themselves to drain the canals at the main lock to prevent the Slithis creature from getting ready access to the town, but the murders continue in the harbor.

The intrepid duo hires a SCUBA expert (Mello Alexandria) and his boat to collect mud samples near the energy plant to prove their Slithis theory. But, evidence or not, they soon realize that the police will do nothing and that they will have to capture the creature themselves.

You’ve got to have more faith in your monster suit

Spawn of the Slithis, released just a year after Star Wars revolutionized cinematic sci-fi and turned the genre into a gold mine, is a throwback to the ‘50s era of rubber-suited, atomic age monsters.

Producer/writer/director Stephen Traxler reportedly made his retro drive-in movie in just 12 days for a paltry $100K by spending long days shooting on location around Venice, Marina del Rey and Santa Monica. (Traxler’s only other directorial credit is a failed TV pilot/TV movie, Sam Churchill: Search for a Homeless Man, shot in Santa Barbara and broadcast in 1999.)

While that area of Southern California is scenic and funky and deserving of some cinematic attention, the film is slowed down considerably by lingering shots of local landmarks (including a whole scene devoted to -- wait for it -- a turtle race held at a local bar).

It also doesn’t help that some of the expository dialog is repetitive and long-winded -- various characters, including two scientists, go on and on about the origins and properties of Slithis, while the actual product of the gunk, the flesh-sucking creature, is given relatively little screen time.

To add insult to injury, most of the meager time the creature does get is so dark it’s hard to make him out. The rare close-ups and medium shots of the thing reveal a suit that’s not half bad. It’s not as if this is some Val Lewton-esque exercise in stimulating the audience’s imagination and fear of things in the shadows. Drive-in monsters should be seen and heard. But it seems as if Traxler didn’t have enough faith in his monster to put it out there unabashedly.

Screenshot - climax of Spawn of the Slithis, 1978
There he is! Lookin' good Slithis!

Traxler does try to mix things up with “fish-eye” POV shots of the creature stalking the streets and canals of Venice. And he provides a pretty good nighttime climax of the fish-man attacking the monster-hunters on their boat, which echoes classic scenes from Creature from the Black Lagoon and Jaws.

And then there’s this line, voiced by the boat’s captain (Alexandria) in his best Quint imitation: "Remember, this thing is just a fish, and I’m one hell of a fisherman.”