There’s no denying that Sergio Martino is among the elite when it comes to Giallo directors. Even his worst in the genre is better than most, and his spaghetti western work isn’t too shabby either. You’d think with such a great track record in these two areas he could direct almost anything, but unfortunately that just isn’t the case a lot of the time. Still, when you present me with a film called Island of the Fishmen from 1979, when Martino was still basically in his prime, and toss in a bunch of dudes dressed up like giant fish, that’s obviously a win-win situation, right? Right?!
A lifeboat carrying the last vestiges of a sunken French prison ship drifts aimlessly in the sea, in hopes that someone might spot them. The entire boat is filled with prisoners, and Lieutenant Claude De Ross is the only authority figure present, leading to high tensions. During what many aboard feel is their last night, the boat comes under attack by something under the water, leading to a number of the men drowning or falling victim to a nastier fate. A few men, De Ross among them, wake in the morning washed ashore on a desolate, forest-covered island. Exploring leads to a number of the remaining prisoners dying (by the hands of giant, man-sized fish!), and De Ross and two prisoners are all that remains when they stumble onto a young woman horseback riding and follow her back to a huge mansion.
Its here they meet the owner of the humble abode, Edmond Rackham, who claims to own the entire island and who houses the woman, named Amanda. He also seems to employ the island’s indigenous population as servants, including a shaman named Shakira who practices voodoo. Even though he’s none too happy about the intrusion, Rackham still shows hospitality to De Ross and the two prisoners, giving them rooms to stay in for the time being. It’s quickly apparent though that something sinister is going on, as De Ross’s two prisoners soon vanish, and when he encounters his first Fishman only to have Amanda command the abomination to heel and not attack, his suspicions are confirmed: something rotten is happening on the island.
I really wish I could start off this review talking about how much campy, cheesy fun Island of the Fishmen is; I really, really do. But sadly I can’t. Island of the Fishmen just barely manages to entertain at the most basic of levels, and there’s two huge reasons why it doesn’t succeed; and no, it’s not the guys dressed in rubber fish-suits, because that’s just beyond awesome, the one rung of ludicrous hope I held onto throughout in my dreams of discovering a trashy masterpiece.
The first issue is the film’s length. At 99 minutes, it’s just way too long. Long stretches of time go by where little happens, and I think Martino made the cardinal mistake of trying to make this a respectable film and didn’t take it by the balls and make it the schlocky rollercoaster ride that it should have been. He’s not shy to show the Fishmen on occasion in all their glory, free of any shadows to hide the rubbery look of them, but he still chooses to play this thing out deadpan serious, and while usually I can appreciate a bad film where everyone is so dedicated to thinking they’re making a quality contribution to cinema, it just didn’t work for me here.
The second big problem with Island of the Fishmen is that it has absolutely no identity. Martino jam-packs more genres into this that if you were to try and list every area of film it covers you’d run out of room on one side of a piece of paper and would have to flip it over to continue. Things start off well enough, giving off a nice horror vibe with a quality atmosphere. In fact, in many ways it feels like Fulci’s Zombi 2, with a ship full of men arriving on an island only to find out it’s inhabited by something very nasty. Even when the Fishmen show themselves, which effectively kills off any of the sinister tone the film may have had and ramps up the camp, it still looks like what we might be getting is a gory creature-feature. But no, what Island of the Fishmen ultimately turns into is an adventure film, with some terribly orchestrated action and a bit of sci-fi tossed in for good measure. The lust for wealth and the discovery of treasure is reminiscent of any pulp adventure you can think of going back to the beginnings of time, and the sci-fi elements play out like some sort of mutated version of Frankenstein, with Joseph Cotten hamming it up to create a better, more adaptable human. In the end, the mood of the film is so schizophrenic that it’s difficult to ever find yourself absorbed by anything going on; it’s as if Martino pasted together a bunch of different script ideas to make one grand epic that didn’t turn out to be as epic as he had envisioned.
Island of the Fishmen honestly isn’t the worst disappointment I've ever encountered, as watching guys lumbering around in rubber fish suits that border on copyright infringement is certainly fun, but the lulls in-between will have you prodding for the fast-forward button on your remote. Maybe after reading this review, knowing that the film is played so straight that any semblance of hokey fun has been sucked straight out will provide you with a better springboard to jump into Island of the Fishmen with. Regardless, temper your expectations because these Fishmen lack any real bite.
Island of the Fishmen washes ashore on DVD thanks to the folks at MYA Communication. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks acceptable. It all looks a little washed out, and darker scenes are overly saturated, but from what I can gather this has been the case with every release of the film on DVD thus far, so the print itself may be in dire need of a good restoration to get better results. Also, and this may be due to upconverting the film to 1080p via my PS3, but I noticed a surprising amount of macroblocking in certain areas, particularly when it comes to rippling water early on in the film. I have nothing but HDTV’s these days, so I can’t check it on a CRT to see if it looks any better. Audio is available in both English and Italian Dolby mono, but the Italian track lacks any subs. That’s just fine, as the English track fares better (although it’s a bit shrill in a couple spots), with the Italian track possessing a present, noticable hum throughout. The film is also preferable in English, thanks to the desire to hear the real voices of actors like Joseph Cotton, Richard Johnson, and Barbara Bach. Extras amount to the film’s original Italian trailer and a short stills gallery.
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