“Mother, I see the wonders of the world.” – Destination Understanding
Although Greek filmmaker Nico Mastorakis’ crazy cult film “Island of Death” definitely has a valid claim to the title of most gloriously insane exploitation movie ever made, you’d be hard pushed to find anything in its actual content that is all that particularly gory or even overtly graphic. Certainly, by today’s standards, its tame stuff indeed; even the primitive gore effects that were all that was available to Herschell Gordon Lewis in his heyday produced results that are far more viscerally unpleasant than anything you see in this bizarre little 16mm gem from 1976. Yet Mastorakis, who freely admits he only made the film at all as a means of kick-starting his filmmaking career -- having directed only one other film after his previous involvement in small scale TV production in Greece -- undoubtedly ended up bestowing upon the world a remarkable piece of cult exploitation esoterica, all the same. The film became notorious, especially in the UK, where it was one of the thirty-nine films to be successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act during the ‘Video Nasty’ scare, and deemed ‘liable to deprave or corrupt’. This often laboriously clunky film, with performances that would make Ed Wood look askance (not least by Mastorakis himself) and a rather overlong running time if truth be told, is clearly a hugely memorable addition to a disreputable genre; it’s a case of once seen never forgotten, as Mastorakis goes all out to create maximum shock effect on his inescapably miniscule budget.
But this is a film that ultimately comes across like an exploitation movie made by someone who had never actually seen one before, but who’d decided simply to fill the screen with every conceivable human depravity he could possibly conjure up. Mastorakis approached the whole thing with a cynical eye to making money rather than with any artistic pretensions -- an attitude which has resulted in a rather jaundiced position towards any kind of critical analysis of the film, either positive or negative. But although Mastorakis can claim till he’s blue in the face (as he does on the commentary and in the extras in this excellent special edition from Arrow Films) that the film is nothing more than an exercise and a shallow money making ploy -- his attempt, rather, to outdo “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (another hugely successful film shot on 16mm) by making the content merely a shopping list of violent deaths and crowd-pleasing depictions of as many perverted acts as he could muster with a budget of $30 thousand pounds at his disposal, the irony is that, perhaps more because of its endearingly homespun approach to the craft than in spite of it, “Island of Death” is somehow a zillion times more affecting than the kind of prosaic blood-and-guts ‘slasher’ pictures it supposedly set out to imitate. It stumbles by accident into the horror genre’s very own version of the kind of outrageous shock-comic territory John Waters exploited so adroitly in his early work, and it’s hard to think of another film quite like it anywhere in the subsequent annals of horror cinema.
It’s the film’s causal juxtaposition of the cosy, the carefree, and the smilingly mundane with its unvarnished representation of acts so bizarrely perverse you can barely believe you’re seeing them on screen at all -- and even less so in the weirdly prettified context the film supplies for them -- that makes “Island of Death” stand out from the ‘Video Nasty’ pack. It’s a film about two serial killers from London who are on the run from the law and who have happily settled on the rustically idyllic surroundings of Mykonos in Greece as a place to lie low for a while. Here they decide to have a leisurely holiday, but end up indulging in an orgy of murder and depraved sexual acts at every turn, usually combining the two whenever they possibly can!
Whereas almost any other film of its type might seek to make its two antagonists as shifty-looking as possible, or to at least have them seem threatening in some way, Mastorakis initially presents us with a couple, Christopher and Celia (played by Robert Behling and Jane Lyle), who look like a wholesome pair of 1970s Blue Peter presenters or good looking catalogue models with big cheesy grins – the girl is an apple-cheeked blonde innocent and the fella a toothy square-jawed hunk, displaying a nice line in multi-coloured jumpers to boot. Surely, they’re the quintessential trustworthy twosome?
All the way through the film, the director -- who is clearly in love with Mykonos and wants to show it off to its best advantage -- shoots everything like it’s a travelogue holiday advertisement: sunlight glints romantically on the lapping waters as the sun sets; in the daytime the sky is an unsullied, cloudless blue; and the quaint whitewashed backstreets down which our ‘heroes’ jaunt happily in search of adventure are always pristine and immaculate under the bright summer sun. Towards the end, the two beautiful killers are being hunted by the police, and so take to the surrounding hills; but here Mastorakis uses the episode merely as an opportunity to pause and give us a guided tour of the beautiful architecture of the region and to present images of some of its gorgeously filmed pastoral farmland, as the two wander around it dreamily in a picaresque parody before finally taking refuge in a straw-lined grotto, thanks to the attentions of a kindly shepherd. The soundtrack is guaranteed absolutely nothing like the soundtrack of any other film you’d be libel to find languishing on the banned list of the Obscene Publications Act: It’s an easy-listening medley of bright and breezy acoustical strum-alongs and romantic melodies of a sort that would have been a shoe-in for Eurovision success if they’d been entered in that prestigious competition any time in the last thirty years. The main theme has an unnervingly grating but unshakable melody that lodges immovably in the head once heard -- and mournful lyrics about ‘giant killers made of stone’ and ‘millions of people made of clay’ followed by a chirpy chorus of ‘get the sword, get the sword … and Kill them all!!’
All very quaint and pretty, but this is merely the backdrop for what our two holidaymakers actually get up to. On their first morning on the island, Christopher ambles into the garden of the small guest house the couple are staying in -- and shags his attractive landlady’s pet goat and slits the creature’s throat as he orgasms!
This is just the beginning.
Mastorakis doesn’t really bother with any plot development as such. The film simply follows the general pattern of having the couple make friends with a series of unsuspecting residents of the island, only for Christopher (whom we soon realise is quite insane) to find something about them he doesn’t really like all that much (they’re gay -- she’s a drug addict and a lesbian -- he’s been eyeing up Celia in a restaurant) and to then decide that that person needs to be brutally punished. Christopher comes to see himself as some sort of avenging angel, bringing God’s retributive justice down upon the heads of the island’s seemingly endless list of ‘perverts’. The film becomes a series of deranged vignettes detailing his crazy methods of dealing out punishment, usually with Celia getting off sexually on the whole thing at the same time!
First We see a randy housepainter -- who’s giving the local chapel a coat of lime wash when Celia seduces him as Christopher takes some snaps from behind a wall -- get crucified and then have a bucket of lime forced down his throat by the giggling couple; a popular gay pair on the island are murdered, with Christopher eviscerating one of them (not before slicing off his scrotum, mind you!) and Celia forcing the other to mimic fellatio on a pistol, then blowing his brains out; an old woman invites Christopher back for sex, and, after urinating all over her, he gets uncontrollably angry with her because she seems to enjoys it! so he beats her senseless and drags her outside to be decapitated by an industrial bulldozer (well, it just happened to by lying about); a drug addicted lesbian is encouraged to seduce Celia, after which Christopher forces her to overdose on heroin and then burns off her face while she’s unconscious by igniting aerosol from a spray can with a match. You get the general picture.
There is more nudity and soft core sex per square frame than even most films that would define themselves as a sex film to start with and, naturally enough, several rape or attempted rape scenes occur with the intention of stimulating even more queasy outrage. The unusual thing is that it’s the female killer, Celia, who is made the subject of the main non-consensual sex scene of the film, assaulted by two ridiculous gooning hippies while taking a bath. Later Christopher is beaten and sodomised by a drooling mute shepherd while Celia watches (the rapist adds insult to injury by farting on him afterwards as well!) … and then decides she actually quite fancies her brother’s attacker anyway!
Oh yes, that’s right … her brother!!! That’s the big revelation that puts all that mutual masturbation and groping they’ve been periodically indulging in throughout the film (while they get off on looking back over their photographs of their previous little escapades) in an even uglier light!
In between all this craziness, a vague, not very committed subplot is hazily developed about an investigator from London whose been trailing the couple and learns of their escape to Mykonos when they call their mother from a phone booth so that she can be forced to hear them having sex down the phone line! It turns out this investigator has had the mother’s phone tapped and now knows of their whereabouts. We see him strolling purposefully along at various intervals, in near empty airports or along the streets of Mykonos, but when he finally tracks the pair down he’s rather quickly disposed of in what proves easily the most preposterous and riotously funny death scene of the entire film. Near the end, Mastorakis himself turns up as a sort of Greek version of Jason King, playing a mystery writer cum private investigator who manages to figure the whole case out merely by absently strolling around the island’s beauty spots, stumbling upon each of the couple’s last few murders in turn and finding the discarded boxes of Christopher’s used camera film near the scene of each crime.
It’s interesting to hear how Nico Mastorakis now views this demented little gem of exploitation nonsense in the audio commentary included on Arrow Film’s new uncut (for the first time in the UK!), re-mastered special DVD edition release: he’s clearly surprised to learn that audiences now often find it rather funny, since this clearly wasn’t ever his intention. The fact that it is now being allowed an uncut release at all is probably the clearest indication that cinematic mores have changed to such an extent that the film no longer has quite the same power it once had in the days when the film’s banned status saw it listed as’ liable to deprave and corrupt’. The stuttering, mannered sometimes arch acting performances, the OTT killings and primitive effects (not to mention the ‘70s fashions) neutralise a lot of the original shock value, but it’s still one of the most deranged cult movie experiences out there, and is pretty much an essential purchase. The commentary itself is a strange beast: Nico is joined by critic Calum Waddle and both participants spend a lot of time lightly ribbing each other throughout, and occasionally straying off the beaten track a little as well; but there is plenty of new information (the urination scene was achieved with coloured tea, apparently) and even a little debate on a few issues. Particularly apparent during the conversation is Mastorakis’ rather old-fashioned views about film criticism and his belief that critics are apt to read too much into the film and to ‘over-analyse’ it. Most people these days would recognise that there is no fixed or ‘right’ way of reading a film or a text and that, as long as one doesn’t dishonestly augment or ignore certain parts of the actual content of a film to better fit a thesis around it, a host of interpretations are often possible and are quite legitimate, regardless of what the author originally intended.
The disc also includes a 25 minute video interview with Nico Mastorakis in which he gives a fairly exhaustive overview of the film’s history from conception to distribution, and on to its reception around the world. There’s a lively 17 minute Q & A session videoed at a screening of the film in Dublin, with Nico in humorous mood and one drunken audience member shouting out that the film was the biggest pile of shit he’d ever seen in his life. ‘Perhaps you haven’t seen too much shit before?’ the director responds. The theatrical trailer is featured, as are all of the hummable songs from the soundtrack, accompanied by some of the choicer moments of nudity from the film. “The Music of Island of Death” is an unexpected treat in which five new groups provide some very different interpretations of the Euro pop classic that is Destination Understanding, all of them recorded in 2010 for this release. There’s a garage punk version, an ‘indie’ rock version, a Riot Grrrrrrl version, a bluegrass version and an ‘extreme’ noise version. Each one comes with an introduction by the group or singer responsible for it, who talk about what the song and the film means to them (if anything), followed by a live performance of the song in their own particular style.
As you will probably be aware by now, Arrow Films package each of their releases with booklets, posters and reversible sleeves and “Island of Death” is no exception. This is clearly the ultimate home edition of the film, with a new improved transfer that apparently beats that of the 2002 US release (according to Mastorakis himself) and a slew of great extras. The mono audio soundtrack of the film is pretty poor but always has been, and although there is a lot of background noise throughout most of the film, the dialogue is clearly audible.
“Island of Death” is a film on a different plane from anything else out there. Somehow, in its single-minded mission to shock (born of its director’s determination to make a money-spinner), it sort of hits on just the right incongruous mix of extreme elements to catapult it beyond its humble intentions into the realm of timeless cult classic. The fact that audiences are still enjoying this relentless cavalcade of filth clad in some of the most picturesque holiday settings in cinema and the colourful woolly jumpers of the cutest looking perverts in exploitation history is the ultimate testament to Mastorakis’ strange offbeat talent. Highly recommended.