Island of the Fishmen 1979 Italy
Directed by Sergio Martino
Mya Communication DVD Region 0
Over the past 6 or 7 years I’ve been exploring all kinds of different strands of cinema, mostly trash cinema (and I burden it with that label only for the purposes of this article) because, frankly, since the advent of multiregion DVD players we are finally able to see all the stuff which wasn’t allowed in the country in an unmutilated form before... so I'm kinda making up for lost time after all the classic movies I've seen over the years. Admittedly, a lot of it still isn’t sold in this country, which is why a lot of the film fiends I know import their movies from other countries.
During my inquisitive wanderings of this much maligned genre of film-making I’ve discovered that what people tend to label as "trash cinema" can take roughly four subjective forms (at present count, I’m sure that will change when I see a movie that demands a new way of looking at it from me). Here are my “four forms” so far...
1. The trashy exploitation movie that actually transcends - via use of music, cinematography, general atmosphere - the misplaced labelling it’s had to put up with and rise above this as a piece of great cinematic art that deserves to be taken seriously (in my opinion a lot of giallo belong in this category).
2. The trashy exploitation movie which is really not trying to be that trashy but tolerates the trash element (aka Zombies in Zombi aka Zombi 2 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters), does the best it can with the material, tells the story very seriously and tries to rise above it all. It’s not an artistic masterpiece... but it manages to maintain a certain gravitas despite the exploitation ingredients.
3. The trashy exploitation movie which possibly didn’t even start off that way but is just so stupid and fun and ticks all the right boxes that you can just laugh along with the sheer stupidity of it and be entertained for hours. I love these ones almost as much as category 1.
4. The trashy exploitation movie that tries to tell the story it’s got but really does it so badly that even the entertainment value vanishes and you’re just left with a genuinely bad, almost unwatchable movie. Haven’t seen too many of these but the century is young.
Okay, so that’s my four categories... I’m using that set up so you can see exactly where I stand on Sergio Martino’s Island of the Fishmen!
Now Sergio Martino is actually a director that I have a lot of time for because I really like gialli and he’s made some of the better entries in giallo films in general with great movies like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Case of the Scorpions Tale, All the Colours of the Dark and Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key. One of many directors who disprove the popular misconception that all the best gialli were made by either Mario Bava or Dario Argento.
Island of the Fishmen is probably the least entertaining and certainly my least favourite of the films I’ve seen by this director... but it does try hard and it has some excellent actors in it to try to keep it afloat - the always excellent Richard Johnson (one of the more interesting Bulldog Drummond actors and a consummate professional), Barbara Bach and, in some brief scenes, Joseph Cotton. I think though, for me, the film falls firmly into Category 2 and you can tell that this film was targetting the same kind of marks as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (as I’ll refer to it for any confused British readers)... I don’t know which movie was shot first that year but it wouldn’t surprise me if Richard Johnson (who plays a prominent role in both) just walked from the set of one movie to the set of the other in the same location... in fact it wouldn’t surprise me if he was shooting both at the same time! Not that his performance is "off" in any way because it isn’t.
The film starts off with a small boat full of convicts and a prison doctor as survivors of a sinking ship... their boat is wrecked by the titular Fishmen and they wash up on an island where Richard Johnson is exploiting Joseph Cotton’s experiments to turn men into fish people so they can dive the depths of the ocean and gather treasure from the lost city of Atlantis... and that really sounds like a tongue in cheek film doesn’t it? Kind of a Mysterious Island deal with Richard Johnson playing a more villainous version of Nemo and with some “hot fish action” thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately... everything is taken deadly seriously and it really does share the same kind of atmosphere as Fulci’s infamous Zombie flick... but instead of shuffling zombies you have shuffling fish people with not very convincing costumes (which look a little bit like the Sea Devils from the Pertwee era of Doctor Who) slicing and dicing random characters whenever the director feels like we need a thrill kill to get us past the unfeasibly sombre scripting.
Also, it kinda lacks some of the visual style of Fulci’s film... when I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s I was startled about how similar it was to Zombie Flesh Eaters in terms of the cinematographers preference for vertical compositions (something I may bring up again in my next blog review... stay tuned readers). I kinda missed that kind of focussed art direction on this picture... I’m not saying it doesn’t have any... I just didn’t notice it and when you’re watching these kinds of films it’s quite often the appreciation of the shot design where the most pleasure is to be found.
All in all though... I’m glad I cottoned on to Island of the Fishmen and it is a film I would watch again (probably as a double with the Fulci) and am pleased to own... I just wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else!
Warning! Apparently Martino directed a confused sequel to this movie in 1995 called The Fishmen And Their Queen... gotta get this one!