Island of the Fishmen [L’isola degli uomini pesce] (1979)

(aka Screamers, Island of Mutations,  Something Waits in the Dark)

There is no more welcome a surprise than to watch a film expecting very little and discovering that one has instead found a wild and entertaining minor gem.

But it does happen once in a while, even when you’ve seen most of the notable SF films — and far more that definitely aren’t notable.  Or even particularly good.

Part of my surprise here is because this was one of those Euro-Horror films of the Seventies (and, we should note, it was also made in Italy, the home of some of the worst SF films ever put on film). Which does, admittedly put it in the same category as the wickedly fun, Quatermass-inspired, Horror Express and a handful of other interesting Euro-horrors.  But that still makes this one a rare treat.

More than anything else, however, Island of the Fishmen reminds me of The Land That Time Forgot and Hammer’s The Lost Continent, both of which are pulpy adventure stories which turn into SF halfway through.

A convict ship is lost at sea, leaving a handful of men adrift in a lifeboat for days on end:  a single officer and a collection of hardened criminals.

But then a strange current grabs the boat and runs it aground on dangerous rocks — that’s when we get our first glimpse of the sinister fishmen, who kill several of the convicts, leaving only five men to reach the shore.  But a poison spring and a death trap claim two more before they encounter a mysterious woman on horseback and find a cemetery with empty graves and signs of Voodoo rituals.

But it gets even stranger when we finally learn what the sinister master of the island, Edmond Rackham, is really after.

What is particularly impressive about this one is how easily it moves from one sort of film to another:  it starts as a shipwreck drama, hints at horror and the supernatural, before becoming a sinister mystery — only to shift back to adventure, steam punk inventions and lost civilizations before it gives us an icky revelation reminiscent of The Island of Dr. Moreau and ends on a note of Romance.

As always, with Italian SF, you have to ignore the dubbing (and considering that they usually made these things without synchronized sound to save money, pretty much  everyone is dubbed) and a few other technical glitches (the fishmen costumes, for example vary a bit in quality).  However, the dubbing here is almost unnoticeable and the film as a whole achieves a high level of polish (for an Italian film), thanks to the direction of Sergio Martino.  He made a lot of movies, including a few reasonably impressive efforts in almost every genre, including one of the best Italian SF entries, 2019: After the Fall of New York. However, some viewers may be turned off by the voodoo sacrifice early on, in which they cut the throat of what was clearly a very real — and very live — chicken.

But, of course, those same viewers are unlikely to be disturbed by bloody attacks on the human cast by the titular Fishmen.

Strange, really.

Barbara Bach, who had become the latest Bond girl the year before in The Spy Who Loved Me, is ethereally beautiful as the female lead; Claudio Cassinelli, who starred in a lot of these things (and died while shooting Sergio Martino’s Hands of Steel) plays the young Lieutenant; British character actor Richard Johnson plays Rackham with a lot of flair; and an unrecognizable Joseph Cotten, a long way from Citizen Kane, shows up late in a minor role.  His voice sounds very wrong, so I suspect someone else dubbed it.  But I might be wrong.

I’m not sure this one has been seen much in the U.S. in its original form, although a dubbed English version does exist.  Unfortunately, this was one of the films where Roger Corman got his hands on the rights and created his own heavily modified version.  He didn’t think there was a market for adventure films but figured he could sell it as a Slasher film!  So he added an introduction with new characters who get killed off one by one by the mysterious creatures, adding fifteen minutes while trimming at least twenty from the original,  He renamed the film “Something Waits in the Dark,” then later, to give audiences the “man turned inside out” promised in his ads, he added a new scene and re-titled the film “Screamers.”  Which, sadly, seems to be the best known version.

This is a big, sprawling, wild-eyed SF-tinged adventure story that throws twist after twist at the audience while taking them to some surprising places.  It is never dull, and saves two jaw-dropping surprises for its final act.

Heck, we even get the volcanic eruption that destroys our lost world that we all know is the expected ending for such a film!

If you can’t forgive this one its flaws, if you can’t accept that it was an Italian film, and that it was made cheaply, with no intention of it being great art or anything else other than an hour and forty minutes of fun for the audience, then don’t bother.

But the rest of you?  Well, it isn’t exactly a lost classic.  But it is a lot of fun.

And what more can you ask from an Italian SF film?

Buy at Amazon:

 

(Or watch the Roger Corman [*shudder*] version)

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