After his novels Jaws and The Deep proved to be box-office gold (obviously the former more than the latter), every studio in Hollywood wanted in on the Peter Benchley sweepstakes. Universal, however, had their hooks in deep, and reeled in yet another Benchley book for adaptation; this time the author’s 1979 tome, The Island. With a relatively large (for 1980) budget of $22 million dollars, and a great cast that included Michael Caine, David Warner, and the wonderful character actor, Frank Middlemass, The Island debuted to negative reviews, less-than-stellar box-office, and even earned a pair of Golden Raspberry awards during that unwelcome accolade’s inaugural ceremony. Needless to say, if Benchley was “hot” before The Island, he’d certainly cooled down considerably thereafter.
The film went on to VHS and cable, however, where it developed something of a small-yet-vocal following (myself, included), and, in the decades since, has attained cult-status. While the film was included in Universal archive’s “print on demand” series in 2011, it’s never had a proper DVD release until now, with horror boutique label, Scream Factory raising this lost film from the depths, and unleashing it upon the masses in a fantastic Blu-ray/DVD combo pack .
Caine stars as Blair Maynard, a journalist investigating a series of boat disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle (a mystery that, like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, was all the rage back in those days). When Blair gets a lead on a new vessel gone missing, he is given permission from his editor to take the trip down to Miami to investigate further, but, just as he’s about to leave, he learns that his ex-wife has gone on vacation with her new beau, leaving Blair with his angsty teenage son, Justin. It’s obvious that Blair hasn’t exactly done a bang-up job as a dad, but, rather than miss out on a potential story, he decides to try and make his weekend trip to Miami a family affair, promising Justin a trip to Disneyland so long as he let him have a little time to pursue his leads.
The duo arrive in Florida, where Blair learns of a reclusive British ex-pat named Windsor (Middlemass), whose home lay on the fringes of the areas in which several boats have gone missing over the past few years. After a discussion with Windsor, Blair and Justin ask if they can rent on of his boats to visit the last known areas in which the disappeared vessels were seen, and the father and son take a “fishing trip” into uncharted waters where they happen upon a young girl bobbing in the surf in a life vest. When they stop to try to rescue her, the girl pulls Justin into the water, while Blair is left to contend with an emaciated, dagger-carrying man who makes a run at him. Blair shoots and kills his attacker, but falls and hits his head in the process, waking up later bound and gagged at some sort of mock trial conducted by what look to be a group of inbred pirates, led by John David Nau (Warner).
Having killed one of their own, the pirates leave Blair’s fate up to their fallen comrade’s widow, Beth (Angela Punch McGregor), who, after years of trying to bear children with her deceased mate, opts to try and do the same with this new blood. Nau, meanwhile, takes an immediate shine to Justin, as he, too, has been seeking an heir. Nau immediately assigns Justin to the group’s “doctor”, Dr. Brazil (Dudley Sutton), who, over the course of the next few days, subjects the child to sleep deprivation and brainwashing, in an attempt to convince him that he is the son and true heir of Nau. Blair, meanwhile, finds himself serving as little more than a stud for Beth, but bides his time in hopes of rescue.
After Justin’s “treatment”, Blair is horrified to discover that his son no longer accepts him as his father, and has thrown in his allegiance with Nau and his men. Making matters worse, his repeated escape attempts from Beth has put them both in danger with the captain, but his punishment is delayed by the arrival of another boat in the region. It’s here that Blair sees firsthand how these “primitive” men make their living, as well as just how far gone his son really is.
I won’t try to defend The Island from its detractors as it really is sort of indefensible. The film’s especially goofy at times, supposedly intelligent characters make infuriatingly stupid decisions, and, in terms of logic, well, there isn’t a whole lot of it. However, none of that gets in the way of The Island being a violent, oftentimes creepy, and extraordinarily entertaining guilty pleasure for me. I’ve always loved the film’s/book’s concept that, somewhere out there, hiding in a cove on one of the thousands of islands in the Caribbean, exists a group of men and women completely outside of time, living by the laws established hundreds of years earlier by their forbearers. It’s a fantastical notion, and a nifty twist on the Bermuda Triangle mythos. Yeah, Caine and Warner aren’t exactly giving it their all, here, but their performances are nowhere as bad as vintage reviews of the film will have you believe. Caine, in particular, offers up some great, snarky comments, while Warner, saddled with an almost childlike level of speech and cadence, still manages to be at once an imposing villain and, like his fellow scalawags, a bit of a tragic figure. As despicable as these pirates’ acts may seem, it’s the only life they know, and to see them drunk and happy and living out their days in enviable simplicity, I couldn’t help but root for their continued survival, and I’m pretty sure that’s intended. When Nau and his men launch their assaults against other vessels, it’s accompanied by a rousing score that captures the energy, excitement, and romance of it all. It’s a bit schizophrenic, seeing as how we’re supposed to identify more with Blair’s plight than that of the antagonists, but, damnit if being a pirate doesn’t look like a hell of a lot of fun! Perhaps that’s one of the film’s biggest failings in the eyes of other critics, but, for me, it’s one of its most charming traits.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray presentation offers up scrumptious 2.35:1 1080p transfer of the film. The image is especially crisp, with excellent detail in faces and textures (especially the pirate’s woven and worn attire), and vibrant colors. Much of the film has a drab, overcast look to it, but this is in keeping with the original aesthete, while blacks are deep and true with the only noise being a slight filmic grain that keeps things looking natural. Once again, as with the recently released Death Valley, Scream Factory gives us the option of a 5.1 surround sound DTS HD Master Audio track, or a more fitting 2.0 DTS HD Stereo track. Both tracks sound wonderful, but I’m always drawn toward the more era appropriate sound setup for films of this age, and the 2.0 track delivers quite nicely.
As with Death Valley, The Island is not one of Scream Factory’s collector’s edition releases, so, in terms of booty, we get an almost empty chest, with merely three trailers for this film and other Scream Factory releases. No worries, though, as I didn’t even expect that much. I’m just happy to finally own a quality version of the film! We’re also given a DVD version of the film, and Scream Factory has recently verified that they will no longer be selling DVD versions of their releases as it’s just not financially feasible. Rather than abandoning printing them at all, however, we’ll be getting them included with the Blu-ray releases, which, for those of us who still use DVD players (in cars, on our PCs, etc) is a welcome bonus unto itself.
While this release of The Island won’t win over its detractors, fans of the film will be elated by Scream Factory’s wonderful presentation, and should consider this a must-buy.