Screamers (1981)

They Fight and Live on the Bottom of the Ocean

They Fight and Live on the Bottom of the Ocean

The survivors of a prison ship, which has sunk at sea, find themselves stranded on a hostile island, where its only human inhabitants appear to be the sinister Edward Rackham and his female companion, Amanda. After some time on the island, it turns out that Amanda’s father, Ernest Marvin, is a brilliant professor whose genetic engineering work has led to the creation of a race of humanoid fishmen, who work for Rackham by diving down to the deep depths and retrieving valuable buried treasure from the remains of Atlantis.  Marvin believes his work is for the good of mankind but is unaware that Rackham plans to double cross him with all of the loot that has been discovered so far.

 

Screamers was originally released in 1979 as Island of the Fishmen but after being acquired by New World Pictures in the States and falling into the hands of legendary shock horror producer Roger Corman, over half an hour of footage was culled, a new opening sequence was added to spice things up with plenty of grisly gore to and the film renamed not once but twice. The version of the film I watched goes under the second moniker of Screamers, not to be confused with the 1995 Peter Weller sci-fi horror. This is definitely a ‘kitchen sink’ type of film with so many ideas and stories floating around in the vain hope that something sticks.

Screamers starts off promisingly enough, as a group of treasure hunters come croppers at the hands of the fishmen – throats ripped, heads torn off, the usual gory dispatches. It is ironic that the part of the film that most appealed to me was the totally unrelated introduction shot two years later! It promises a lot of old school cheese, some nice 80s gore effects and reasonably well-shot and atmospheric moments (ok, so they did go a little overboard with the dry ice machine). But, as this is totally unrelated to the rest of the film, none of these characters will be seen again and so their fate is obvious. For a gore junkie like me, the film is downhill from here on in regards to the violence.

From there on, Screamers turns into some weird Island of Dr Moreau-like fantasy adventure with the doctor and the prisoners arriving on the island, quickly succumbing to a number of pitfalls including toxic water and deadly traps straight out of a cannibal flick. The production values are decent and the film itself is well-shot, with the island looking a fairly inhospitable place to live. But the pacing is all over the place and after this frenetic opening salvo which kills off plenty of characters (both with the new footage and the original film), the film grinds to a complete halt once the survivors meet up with Rackham and Amanda. Things plod along with the secrets and mysteries of the fishmen slowly being revealed, gearing up for the inevitable final confrontation between the hero, villain and anyone and anything else involved in the story. The last fifteen minutes or so aren’t bad, with the action picking up a notch and director Sergio Martino works wonders with his small budget. The only thing vaguely disappointing is the tacky miniature sets doubling up for Atlantis.

Lead actor Claudio Cassinelli is one of the better leading men from this period of Italian filmmaking and he has a nice intensity – it also helps that he self-dubbed for the English language version so it’s his actual voice. Barbara Bach never really convinced me much as a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me – she was pretty enough but her delivery was always wooden. There’s no change here and Bach plays upon her strengths (her attractiveness) whilst her failings are all too apparent (she’s a terrible actress, truth be told). Richard Johnson twirls his moustache well as the slimy English villain, although the script gives up his real intentions too quickly for my liking and he comes on far too viciously and aggressively early on – a more restrained approach could have kept his secrets under wraps a little longer and draw out the mystery of the island. Martino would use most of the principal cast in his monster movie The Big Alligator River, with Cassinelli, Bach and Johnson all starring. I guess it was a two-for-one kind of contract!

I’m a sucker for some of the cheesy monster effects that they were using in the 70s and 80s, giving the creatures at least a sense of realism that CGI effects can’t, and an old school vibe where you know at least the effects team put some effort into creating something that didn’t look like a fancy dress costume, even if the end results didn’t quite match up with the vision. The fishmen don’t look that bad in all honesty and it helps that most of the time they are shown on camera, they are semi-submerged in the water. The only issue I have is the daft eyes which seem to goofily roll around their big bulging white sockets whenever they walk, making them look cross-eyed. Just like the underwater scenes from The Creature From the Black Lagoon, it’s to the credit of the performers inside the suits that they are able to swim so convincingly and majestically through the water. Screamers is surprisingly low on gore, save for that opening act, which makes it all the more disappointing given the potential for some serious carnage during the finale as the humans lose control of the fishmen and they run amok.

 

Screamers isn’t the type of genre film I was expecting and, though I was a little disappointed with the lack of gratuitous gore and violence that I was lured into wanting after the opening blood, the eventual fantasy-sci-fi-horror hybrid is a quirky little film that has a lot more going for it than you’d realise. Not great but definitely not the dud it sounds like – Island of the Fishmen is a ridiculous title!

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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