Thursday 14 March 2013

Mystery On Monster Island

A Verne For The Worse

Mystery On Monster Island
1981 Spain/USA
Directed by Juan Piquer Simón
Midnite Movies DVD Region 1

This film first came to my attention only a couple of weeks ago when I finished reading the excellent book on Paul Naschy promotional material, Muchos Gracias Senor Lobo (reviewed here). I saw some beautiful poster artwork for this movie in this book and, not only did it seem to star Paul Naschy... top billing went to Peter Cushing and Terence Stamp. Furthermore, it was also based on the writings of one of my favourite writers, Jules Verne, so there was no way I wasn’t going to order the cheap Midnite Movies edition off of Amazon for less than a fiver!

I’d assumed, when I first saw the poster, that the Jules Verne tale this one took as its source would have been my favourite of his tales, the semi-sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea... Mysterious Island. There were no monsters in the original tale of that one, of course, but there is a mystery at the story’s heart and famous adaptations of that particular work in the past have often featured giant monsters of one kind or another (heck... I even have a 1950s cinema serial of Mysterious Island which also sees fit to include invaders from another planet lead by a dominant queen) so this was my first guess on the source.

And of course I was dead wrong... something which most reviewers of this movie, it seems, tend to ignore or remain ignorant of when doing their own research on the subject! Being as most of them seem to proclaim that this movie is based on Mysterious Island. Not so!

In actual fact, the film is based on Verne’s work School for Robinsons, which I believe may well have been a partial sequel to one of his many other, interlocking books but unfortunately, my little knowledge of Verne is sadly limited to the 10 or 12 of them which are continually kept in print in the UK... and we have nothing like the whole of his work available to us over here (although maybe if I joined the Kindle revolution?). So, having said that, I obviously can’t judge as to whether this movie is a good adaptation.

What I can say for definite is... it’s a mostly lousy movie. It does have some cheesy looking monsters in it and, obviously, that can only be a good thing... but ultimately, this movie never really succeeds in hitting that mark where, “it’s so bad it’s good”. Instead, becoming a mostly tiresome and plodding effort which you will probably find yourself wishing to end sooner rather than later.

It’s a bit of a strange beast as well because it’s obviously a childrens film - certainly, the comic relief character is squarely and irritatingly pitched at a younger audience in the most over the top manner you wouldn’t even catch on an episode of Playschool and, since he seems to get the majority of the screen time, it’s pretty much a kid’s holiday film at heart. Much less a family film than it is a youngster’s glittery distraction. However, saying that, Paul Naschy is seen taking a few blood squib explosions to his body very early on in the proceedings and is depicted with both his arms literally running red with blood... which is interesting considering the obvious target audience. I really couldn’t imagine this got much, if any, of a release in this country at the time.

Which leads me into Paul Naschy’s demise and the way that he and the two actors who take top billing are treated. This must have been a really cheap movie because Naschy lasts less than five minutes on screen before he is blown up and drops out of the story. Peter Cushing and Terence Stamp fare a little better... but not by much. Cushing and Stamp really only appear for 5 minutes or so at the start of the film and 10 minutes maybe at the end. The budget obviously didn’t stretch to having them on set for very long and, for the rest of the movie, the beleaguered audience has to make do with two male leads who, between them, seem to show either a total lack of personality or, in the case of the comic relief, an overabundance of obvious and overblown comedy enthusiasm. This doesn’t make for good viewing. What’s worse is that Terence Stamp is supposed to be the main villain but for the majority of the picture the main villain and his many henchmen run around with their bodys and heads totally covered in heavy masks and coats... presumably because the cheap budget meant that the producers had to hide the fact that they didn’t have Terence Stamp on set most of the time, instead electing to dub his voice on a hidden actor's lines instead.

Having said all that, there were a few things which made it so, as bored as I was, the movie wasn’t one I actually regretted seeing... although it was a close call. The monsters are mostly fairly cheesy and this lends the few scenes where you actually see some, a certain amount of amusement (or at least more amusement than the official comic relief provides, at any rate).

Secondly, in an effort to defend their desert island home from Stamp’s villainous horde, our irritating heroes construct some defences around the piece of sand they call their home. One of the things they make, although I’ve no idea how, is a homemade Gatling gun made of bamboo chutes which rapidly fires bananas at the turn of a handle. This is, of course, something of a stroke of genius and I am, and always will be, happy to say I’ve seen a film in which a banana firing, bamboo-chute Gatling gun is used to ward off a bunch of antagonists.

A third thing, which is another mixed bag, is the music. The composing credit doesn’t come up until the end of this one but it seems to be put together by three separate composers. So I’m guessing this means the movie has a needle-drop style score, from a library of universal cues written by these particular composers... or the film had a very troubled production history (which I suspect is probably the case). Or possibly, even, a less than thrilling combination of both of those elements. Either way, there’s a really strident and neat tune which is played quite a lot throughout the movie at various points which really does catch the ear. Unfortunately, though, it’s completely inappropriate to any of the scenes it’s used to score. So while I am quite happy to keep this as my own personal earworm, and would rush to buy the score to this movie if anyone is wise (or perhaps foolish) enough to release it... I would have to say that the movie itself suffers from the inclusion of most of the music here and if anything, the score robs the lacklustre shot design and jarring edits of any kind of power it might have had a chance at gaining and kind of makes things a lot worse most of the time.

Nice music though.

And there’s no more really to say about this one. I don’t regret buying this movie (banana Gatling gun, remember?) but this is definitely not a film I’d recommend to many people, even die hard B-movie enthusiasts who have a love of cheesy monsters. It’s just not that noteworthy I’m afraid. For the jaded and curious only, I would say. All others may be best advised to keep their distance. The greatest mystery of Mystery On Monster Island is how the budget holders were persuaded to let loose their purse strings and unleash such a piece of uninspired tosh into the world.

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