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Island of Death (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Nico Mastorakis
Robert Behling
Jane Lyle
Jessica Dublin
Gerald Gonalons
Bottom Line: 
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“Mother, I see the wonders of the world.” – Destination Understanding

  Although Greek filmmaker, producer, director, writer and all round B movie mogul Nico Mastorakis’s 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 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 film-making career afterhaving directed only one other low budget film since a previous involvement in small scale TV production in Greece, undoubtedly ended up bestowing upon the world a remarkable piece of cult exploitation weirdness 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 therefore 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 minusculeshoestring budget.

But this continues to be 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 from his own imagination. Mastorakis approached the whole thing with a cynical eye to making money rather than 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  that the film is nothing more than a shallow money making ploy (his attempt, rather, to outdo “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” -- another hugely successful film shot on 16mm) and the content is merely a shopping list of violent deaths and Grindhouse-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 gurreilla territory John Waters exploited so adroitly in his early work, and it’s hard to think of another film being made quite like it in the subsequent annals of horror cinema.

It’s the film’s causal juxtaposition of the cosy, the carefree, and the smilingly mundane with 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 young serial killers from London who are on the run from the law and who have happily settled on the rustically sun-drenched, idyllic surroundings of Mykonos in Greece as a place to lie low for a while ... because it’s supposedly ‘a perfect place’ full of ‘innocent’ people who worship God. 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 and taking photo snaps of their crimes as though this sort of behaviour were just standard holiday activity during the 1970s!

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 two models with limited acting experience, Robert Behling and Jane Lyle), who look like a cross between a wholesome pair of 1970s children’s TV presenters or good looking catalogue models with big cheesy grins: the girl is a blue-eyed, apple-cheeked blonde innocent and the fella a toothy square-jawed hunk, displaying a nice line in multi-coloured jumpers to boot. Surely,  this twosome are the quintessential trustworthy protagonists of the piece?

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 as the ideal tourist backdrop -- shoots everything like it’s a travelogue holiday advertisement for the filming locations: sunlight glints romantically on the lapping harbour 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-looking 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 while he gives us an extensive guided tour of the beautiful architecture of the region, and to present gorgeously filmed images of some of its pastoral farmlands and rugged landscapes, dominated by quaint windmills and fields separated by stone-built walls as the two wander around  dreamily in a picaresque parody of a travelogue before finally taking refuge in a straw-lined grotto thanks to the attentions of a kindly mute shepherd. The soundtrack is guaranteed absolutely nothing like the soundtrack to any of the other horror films 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 acoustic strumalongs dominated by 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 before the last thirty years. The main theme has an unnervingly grating but unshakable melody that lodges immovably in the head once heard ; 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 the island. For instance, on their first morning, having just been refused sex by his pretty partner, Christopher ambles into the garden of the small guest house the couple have rented, and shags the attractive young landlady’s pet goat, slitting the creature’s throat as he orgasms while softly strummed, almost romantic incidental music accompanies the bizarre scene!

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 pervy couple make friends with a series of unsuspecting residents of the island, only for Christopher (whom we soon realise is both sexually frustrated and quite insane) to find something about them he doesn’t really like all that much (one couple is gay, the barmaid is a drug addict and a lesbian, and the local pastor has been eyeing up Celia in a Greek restaurant) and to then decide that that person needs to be brutally punished for his or her ‘sinfulness’. 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 lackadaisical ‘perverts’. The film becomes a series of deranged vignettes detailing his crazy and sadistic 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 refreshing coat of lime-wash when Celia seduces him while Christopher takes some snaps from behind a wall -- get crucified on the walkway outside the church and  have a bucket of lime forced down his throat by the giggling couple; a popular gay pair on the island are murdered after their marriage reception (Mastorakis was ahead of his time on that front) when the couple stage a house invasion, 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 older woman invites Christopher back for sex, and, after urinating all over her, he gets uncontrollably angry because she seems to enjoy the degradation -- so he beats her senseless and drags her outside to be decapitated with an industrial bulldozer (well, it just happened to by lying about); a heroin 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 fumbly, cellulite-quivering soft core sex per square frame than in even most films that would define themselves 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 (amazingly, Mastorakis employed two non-acting locals to play out this highly disturbing scene) while taking a bath and later compelled to go doggy style in front of her husband by the speechless mute shepard. Later Christopher is beaten and sodomised by said drooling mute shepherd while Celia watches (the shambling rapist adds insult to injury by farting on him afterwards as well!) … and then decides, hvaing previously dug her solitary lesbian encounter, she actually quite fancies her brother’s attacker anyway and prefers him to Chrsitopher, who is left to rot in a lime pit!

Oh yes, that’s right I forgot to mention … Christopher is Celia’s 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 a black 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 line! It turns out this investigator has had the mother’s phone tapped and therefore 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 in high-waistband jeans, 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, although he initially makes contact with the pair after asking them (in rather falteringly delivered dialogue that sounds like it was made up on the spot) if Christopher would mind filling him in on the lurid details of Celia’s rape as it would provide some frisky material for his next novel!

It’s interesting to hear how Nico Mastorakis now views this demented little gem of exploitation nonsense. 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 was recently allowed an uncut DVD release in the UK 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. Arrow Video originally released this cult classic on DVD in 2010, uncut for the first time. This new dual-format Blu-ray/DVD edition features a stunning high definition upgrade that really fleshes out the scenic photography with extra detail and deeper colour but if you still have the previous Arrow DVD you might wish to keep hold of it anyway, as this release has been furnished with an almost completely different set of extras.

The audio commentary with Calum Waddle plus the extras produced back in 2010 by High Rising Productions, such as the live Q & A and the acid punk live cover versions of the songs from the soundtrack are no longer included with this release, although the 25 minute archive interview with Nico Mastorakis originally filmed for the 202 US DVD release, in which Mastorakis gives a fairly exhaustive overview of the film’s history from conception to distribution and on to its reception around the world, is still here. The new stuff is also worth having, though, principally a brand new 40 minute documentary examination of the film by writer Stephen Thrower “Exploring Island of Death”, produced by Marc Morris and Jake West for Nucleus Films. Thrower looks at the distribution history of the film in the UK and tackles the thorny question of the moral sensibility behind the movie as well as detailing Mastorakis's subsequent career and the fates of some of the cast members. Also new to this disc is a 17 minute feature created for the release by Mastorakis himself (who is currently in production on a sequel!) in which he returns to the filming locations on Mykonos and finds most of them almost wholly unchanged. Even one of the local extras at the harbour is still in his old job and accompanies the director on his nostalgia filled travels!

Almost two-and-a-half hours of documentary material about Mastorakis’s career as a maker of low-budget ‘80's B movies on the periphery of Hollywood along with a trailer reel of his Omega Entertainment productions can also be found here. Mastorakis has specilased in the kind of low brow action, comedy, erotic thriller and horror fare that went out of fashion with legwarmers and bubble perms, but those who have a nostalgic hankering for those times will probably love his brand of simple, balls to the wall, no-nonsense populist movie-making, filled with scantily-clad models, uncomplicated physical comedy and action spectacle, particularly if it involves helicopters and plush Malibu mansions. Alternative opening titles featuring some of the movie’s many alternative titles; a trailer (under the title “Cruel Destination”); and the film’s unique soundtrack songs are also included as extras. All this wrapped in a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys and a fully-illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing by academic and film historian Johnny Walker. This is clearly the ultimate home edition of the film, with a new improved transfer now in full HD 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. Removable English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing have been included with this release.

“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 that 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.


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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