9/24/09

B.L.O.G. Presents Island of the Fishmen (1979) with Barbara Bach


I’ve waxed poetic about my love for Sergio Martino too many times for me to rehash that love affair again, but I will say that no other Italian director so successfully made so many great low budget films in so many genres. In the late seventies, with a string of sex comedies in his recent past (capped by the western Mannaja), Martino embarked on what I call his jungle trilogy. Starting with the 1978 cannibal film At the Mountain of the Cannibal God, he then shot Island of the Fishmen and Big Alligator River both released in 1979. The first film was an offshoot of the cannibal craze currently happening in the Italian cinemas, and the latter no doubt inspired somewhat by the success of Spielberg’s Jaws released four years earlier. The film in the center of these two, Island of the Fishmen, is less comparable to any existing title, and though the other two films have their relative charms, Island of the Fishmen was pure Martino.

When a group of prisoners is shipwrecked on a mysterious island, at first one of them warns of zombies and voodoo (somewhat comically considering it was shot concurrently and in the same location as Fulci’s Zombi 2), but soon the band of nere-do-wells and the last remaining officer from the ship, Lt. Claude de Ross (Claudio Casinelli) discover there may be a more insidious creature inhabiting the island. Ignoring a warning from Amanda Marvin (Barbara Bach), they follow her to the huge mansion home of Edmond Rackman (Richard Johnson) who takes in the three survivors as his “guests”. Claude discovers that Rackman is keeping scientist Ernest Marvin (Joseph Cotton) prisoner, and Edmond has been slowly turning the islands populace into deadly fishmen which Rackman is using to loot the treasures found in the newly discovered underwater kingdom of Atlantis.

IMDB attributes the writing credits for Island of the Fishmen to Sergio Donati, Cesare Frugoni, Luciano Martino, Sergio Martino, and bizarrely horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The Cthulhu scribe is credited with his story “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, but the film more resembles H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Now when I say resembles, I’m being generous. It’s not that the writers come without a pedigree. Donati co-wrote Once Upon a Time in the West, and Ceasare Frugoni had written for Umberto Lenzi and the script for Luciano Martino’s sex comedy The Virgin, The Tarsus, and The Capricorn. Yet the film’s 1891 setting, the fishmen raiding Atlantis, and Richard Johnson’s eccentric villain all seem patently absurd.

But here’s the thing, Sergio Martino can make it work. You can say many things about his films, but I’ve never seen one that wasn’t entertaining. Island of the Fishmen is no exception. I mean just look at the fish man over there. They look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon had mated with a Bratz Doll, but here’s the thing, it works because somehow it fits. Once again, Island of the Fishmen marked another collaboration between the director and cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando, and the look they achieve has the same grit of the previous jungle effort, Cannibal God.

Now, I’m four paragraphs in and Sergio Martino has distracted me from the reason we’re here today. So before we go any further, let’s talk about Barbara Bach. First, let’s get the obvious out of the way, she’s gorgeous in this flick, and it was not hard to see why the fishmen would obey her commands. They might be wall eyed and slimy. But they’re still men! So how did Barbara Bach end up in a Sergio Martino film? Well, she got married. In 1966, Bach met an Italian businessman on a plane, and the two ended up getting married. She kicked off her film career in Italy with 1968’s L’Odissea. She did not make an English language film until 1977 when she memorably starred with Roger Moore for The Spy Who Loved Me. Bach worked for a few more years, and while appearing in Caveman, Bach met and married ex-Beatle Ringo Starr. She’s made few film appearances since, but long time fans of Ms. Bach will know that she’s taken time out to appear in Playboy a couple of times. Taking all this into account, what made me smile was imagining Ringo watching Island of the Fishmen.

As beautiful a woman Ms. Bach was and as good as solid as her acting was, she is surrounded by a trio of great actors. Richard Johnson, who was simultaneously filming Zombi 2, chews up the scenery as the white suited Edmond Rackman. I always like to see a crazy guy in a jungle still be able to suit up if needed. Considerably less well dressed, Claudio Cassinelli’s Lt. de Ross brings the action when called on, but he still finds time to look extremely pensive when a moral dilemma confronts him. Cassinelli is always enjoyable to see, and he’s the glue that holds together the Martino ‘jungle trilogy’ with his appearance in each. Ultimately, filming with Martino would be his undoing when he died in a tragic helicopter accident during the filming of Hands of Steel.
The last actor I have to mention is, of course, Joseph Cotton. Appearing in Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt, Baron Blood, Soylent Green, Touch of Evil, and too many more to list, Cotton is a movie legend with an incredible resume. His appearance in Martino’s film adds a bit of gravitas to the proceedings, and what should have been a stock role as the mad scientist becomes an engaging portrait and another solid performance from the veteran actor.

Island of the Fishmen is not the kind of movie you put on when you want to watch a film, drink wine, and congratulate yourself on your refined taste. No, Island of the Fishman is a campy, rubber-suited monster movie combined with a thick layer of sweat and filth as only Sergio Martino could slap on a scenario. So there you have it, Island of the Fishmen is a cult film through and through, and this is one that should please viewers who don’t usually like the Italian genre offerings. I know this one got bought up by Roger Corman at one time, and with added, newly shot footage, released as Screamers. I’d like to compare the two of them, but I would highly recommend the straight stuff which is available from my good friends over at Cinema De Bizarre. So check it out. You won’t be sorry, but you may never eat sushi again.


Bugg Rating

2 comments:

  1. Well paint me jealous my friend, been looking forward to this one for a looong time, Im a huge fan of Martino's jungle adventure slash exploitation films and I have been waiting to grab this one DVDs for years. Glad to hear it has all the great camp value as the 'Noids, will be grabbing it as soon as it drops in price online

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  2. I have yet to see this film but I have always wanted to.

    It is always interesting to see how long a shadow Lovecraft's stories have cast over the world of genre cinema.

    And damn Ms. Bach was easy on the eyes wasn't she?

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