Island of Death (1976)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: May 26th, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
By nature, provocation is at least slightly juvenile or is at least driven from the same childlike impulse to get someone to drop their shit and look at your shit right now. Sometimes I wonder if we apply the term too loosely to horror filmmaking especially—while the genre is certainly full of provocative efforts, how many of them truly cause you to take notice? I ask this because, well, have you seen Island of Death? Apparently, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre just didn’t inspire Nico Mastorakis—rather, it acted as more of a challenge for the Greek director, who set himself to topping Tobe Hooper’s seminal film. What was implied in American drive-ins would be made completely explicit in Island of Death, a deranged, black-hearted display of sheer exploitation.
Even though the slasher mold hadn’t been completely set by 1976, Mastorakis still shows some awareness of the routine and immediately goes about fucking with expectations. Christopher (Robert Behling) and Celia (Jane Lyle) appear to be a typical British couple looking to bask in the idyllic glow of a remote Greek island. His voiceover even notes how many churches are scattered about. For all intents and purposes, you’re convinced these two are about to endure pure hell once the island reveals a dark nature lurking beneath. But then Christopher ducks into a payphone, calls dear old mom back home, and starts banging Celia right there for everyone to see—and hear. Alerted to their presence on the island, a detective (Gerald Gonalons) suddenly boards a plane to track down this couple. Just who are these two, really?
Mastorakis reveals that answer swiftly and in-depth: it turns out Christopher and Celia are a couple of deviants who take pleasure in raping, torturing, and murdering those they deem to be impure: everyone from adulterers and homosexuals fall into their wide and arbitrary net during one unhinged encounter after the next. To declare the film to be rather plotless would be an understatement: instead, it’s almost as if Mastorakis holds a disdain for narratives. Island of Death is almost purely episodic, with each gruesome scene having little bearing on the last. Even when certain subplots—such as the one involving the detective—seem to be building towards some type of climax, Mastorakis yanks the rug from right beneath the audience. About halfway through, the cop tailing Christopher and Celia around the globe is clinging to his life as the couple commandeers his plane*, his body eventually unceremoniously dumped into the ocean before the two continue their murderous ways.
Along the way, Christopher and Celia endure bouts of faith and swear off their vices, only to relapse and resume. Obviously, a man compelled to screw livestock can only control his urges for so long. And so he and his wife subject their victims—and, by proxy, the audience—to one abhorrent act after another, with Mastorakis capturing it all with a rather unflinching eye. The two often take pictures during the act, and Mastorakis’s camera creates a similarly voyeuristic illusion (a constant snapshot effect also nods in the direction of Chain Saw to acknowledge just what inspired this madness). Each image might as well be accompanied by the director’s gleeful laughter, as he piles up one absurd and fucked up incident after the next: goat-fucking yields to troubling, stereotypical depictions of homosexuals and the mentally handicapped, while misogyny and racism run wild.
All of this is to say Island of Death is very problematic. Even considering its 70s context, it’s still troubling as hell—certainly, it would never slip through unscathed without inspiring outrage today, nor should it. While it’s only fair to acknowledge that standards have evolved during the past four decades, it’s still tough to defend a lot of the more unseemly aspects here, especially since they’re not in the service of anything enlightening. Mastorakis almost stumbles onto an obvious but relevant critique of the hypocrisy of the moral right through Christopher and Celia’s rampage in the name of a God that apparently condones rape and murder. (Predictably, morally righteous folks in many countries had it banned as a Nasty.)
Like any other sustained thread in Island of Death, this, too, is dropped, and it doesn’t seem coincidental when another couple from the opposite end of the spectrum winds up being as repugnant as Christopher and Celia. At some point—maybe somewhere after the brain-splattering but before the blowtorching—some hippies suffering from a 60s hangover break in and attempt to rape Celia. When Christopher thwarts him, it almost feels triumphant, a conflicting but interesting turn of events. If Island of Death says anything besides “look at my shit,” it’s “the world is completely screwy, and there is no recourse.” Again, even as those around Christopher and Celia—including a journalist and the police—become suspicious of their activities, they’re ineffectual.
Despite its disturbing content, you almost want to admire Mastorakis’s commitment to provocation. Forget his explicit declaration that he made Island of Death with the sole purpose of offending: this much is obvious, as each frame is soaked in nastiness, so much so that it almost becomes a black comedy. A climactic revelation of yet another taboo arrives so casually that you can’t help but laugh at how breathlessly the film shoves in distasteful elements, plus its resolution can only be described as delightfully confounding. There’s value in simply pushing the envelope simply because you can, and Mastorakis finds moments of macabre sublimity, particularly in the incongruous juxtaposition of gorgeous, sun-splashed locales and savage violence (again, much like Texas Chain Saw).
However, it must be said that Mastorakis lacks Hooper’s command of tone (the soundtrack is peppered with folksy, lite-FM tunes, co-written by the director himself) and pacing. At 107 minutes, Island of Death features one or two provocations too many, which I suppose is the point, to be fair. It endures as an intriguing artifact of the grindhouse and Video Nasty era to be sure—in many ways, it should absolutely be the poster child for the latter since this is exactly the sort of film that lives up to that reputation. For better or worse, Island of Death is a forbidden fruit you’ve been warned about because it’s absolutely rotten to the core—and I’m sure Mastorakis wouldn’t have it any other way.
*That thing in the new Mission: Impossible trailer where Cruise clings to a plane? Already done here, only with an obvious mannequin serving as a stunt double.
In a somewhat ironic twist, Island of Death actually debuts on Blu-ray courtesy of UK-based Arrow Video, and, thanks to their recent move stateside, those of us across the pond will be able to enjoy the special edition alongside our British counterparts. The disc is a stellar upgrade from the decade-old DVD release, as the newly-struck HD transfer only exhibits a handful of rough patches with print damage. Otherwise, the colors pop, and the audio is crisply relayed via mono PCM track.
Extras are plentiful as well, as two separate featurettes document the film’s production. One is anchored by film historian Stephen Thrower, while the other finds Mastorakis returning to the film’s various locations. An archive interview with the director provides further context, as does a four-part documentary about his career. An alternate opening title sequence, the original theatrical trailer, and five of the film’s musical tracks round out the supplements for a well-done release.
Island of Death is an intriguing paradox: it's so juvenile that you feel compelled to dismiss it, yet you can't really deny it all at once. If nothing else, it's rather singular filmmaking, even if the filmmaker in question is simply committed to obliterate every moral sensibility at the expense of artistry. This is exploitation in its purest form, and that counts for something. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: