We at Maniacs and Monsters will always rise to defend the oft-maligned B movie. No matter how you interpret the designation, there is no shame inherent in B movies, and we hope to combat the stigma connected to the label. Given the association with low budgets, independence, and minimal recognition, perhaps B movies are a purer form of filmmaking created by those whose primary drive is a love of the medium. Then again, that is as much a biased generalization about B films as the negative implications I am trying to dispel. Many B movies are made solely to latch on to a current trend in the hopes of fame or a quick buck. Better to divorce any quality connotations from the B movie classification. Like their top-billed, big-budget counterparts, B movies run the gauntlet from complete wastes of film stock to entertaining masterpieces. The B films that earn my admiration and that I find the most enjoyable, despite or maybe because of their limitations, are those made with sincerity and performed by actors devoted to their performances. Island of the Fishmen (L’isola degli uomini pesce) is one such film.
It is May 1891, and a French prison ship has sunk in the Caribbean Sea. Only a handful of survivors made it to a lifeboat and are now adrift and lost. Lt. Claude de Ross (Claudio Cassinelli), the ship’s medical officer, is ostensibly in charge, but it is a tenuous position. When the ship went down, the lieutenant elected to free the prisoners, thus giving them a chance at survival. This decision finds him heavily outnumbered by desperate men that fail to appreciate his grand gesture.
Claude’s dilemma with his mutinous companions will rapidly diminish. One night, after a week at sea, something drags their lifeboat rapidly towards a volcanic island, where it smashes against the rocks. Some of the convicts are presumably drowned or killed by whatever took control of the boat. Of the men who make it to the island, one drinks fouled water, another dies when attacked by an unseen threat hidden amongst some marsh reeds, and yet another falls into a hidden pit lined with punji sticks. Within hours, the shipwreck victims are reduced to Claude, and two of the prisoners, José (Franco Javarone) and Peter (Roberto Posse). Shortly after, the mysterious Amanda Marvin (Barbara Bach) confronts the survivors and warns them to leave the island. Instead, they follow her back to the home of the island’s owner, Edmond Rackham (Richard Johnson). Along with their house staff comprised of island natives and a Haitian voodoo priestess, Rackham and Amanda appear to be the island’s only inhabitants. Rackham is initially hostile but, upon learning that Claude is a doctor, allows the men to bunk down in a cave near his home and invites Claude, and only Claude, to dinner.
Late that night, Amanda steals away to the coast. Well, I say that night, but the scene was obviously shot during the day with some very poorly and inconsistently applied day-for-night techniques. The scene openly acknowledges the worst-kept secret of the island and the film. The creatures responsible for dragging the lifeboat into the rocks and killing some of the men are humanoid amphibians with bulbous eyes and piranha-like jaws filled with sharp teeth. What is a surprise is that the fishmen are, at least partially, domesticated. When Amanda strolls out into the water, they surround her to drink what looks like buttermilk from a Florence flask she has brought. We will learn later that the liquid is a drug used to control the fishmen, to which they are conveniently addicted.
What is going on? Our hero, Claude, will not be able to figure it out on his own. Oh, I failed to mention. Claude is now the lone survivor of the shipwreck. Peter tried to take something that wasn’t his, namely Amanda, and was disposed of by a fishman. And José? Poor José will turn up again later in the film but will not be able to offer any support. Fortunately for Claude, Edmond Rackham is a certain kind of villain. The kind who makes threats like, “I’d be better pleased if you confine your intellectual curiosity,” only to give Claude a guided tour complete with a detailed explanation of the nefarious plot. Rackham goes so far as to escort Claude down to a hidden grotto under the island and take him for a ride in his diving bell. He twists some details a bit, as is his prerogative as the bad guy. But there is no justification for Rackham being so forthcoming with the lieutenant.
Rackham’s confession clarifies that Amanda is little more than his hostage. When she was just a child, Rackham brought her and her father, the prominent but disgraced Professor Ernest Marvin, to the island to help in his schemes. Joseph Cotten portrays Professor Marvin, tucked away in his labs and suffering significant health problems. Rackham’s interest in Claude’s medical abilities stems from a desire to keep the professor alive long enough to conclude their endeavour. The professor was first lured to the island by the prospect of making world-altering scientific discoveries. Rackham has strung him along for fifteen years, promising to provide the finances necessary to promote Marvin’s research to the outside world. Amanda remains on the island and tolerates Rackham because of her connection to and concern for her father.
I won’t divulge the details of Rackham’s scheme, but it doesn’t bear scrutiny. After fifteen years of progress, it all begins to unravel with the arrival of Claude, despite Claude having no significant impact. The volcano erupting and the island collapsing on itself certainly do not help matters. Rackham, composed throughout the film in a moustache-twirling kind of way, wildly lashes out at everyone, including the fishmen. The culmination is a chaotic battle in which the fishmen are showcased nicely. Island of the Fishmen did not skimp on the monsters. They are imposing and generally believable as a threat. Their inability to look up makes them slightly less impressive when, ironically, swimming underwater. Unlike other B pictures, the filmmakers did not rely on shooting the same one or two costumes from multiple angles to create the illusion of a crowd of creatures. A significant school of fishmen turns up for the final scenes. They even possess some distinguishing characteristics, such as varying eye colours and algae growth patterns. Of course, we must have the final battle between the hero and the villain, but it takes away screen time better focused on the fishmen.
It would be easy to claim that Bach, Johnson, and Cotten are all performing beneath their station. Barbara Bach had portrayed Anya Amasova, one of the more popular Bond Girls, only two years prior in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Richard Johnson was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and had a very successful career, including, to name a personal favourite, portraying Dr. John Markway in The Haunting (1963). Of the three, however, Joseph Cotten is the most likely to be perceived as a fallen star. In the 1940s, Joseph Cotten was a leading man working with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, and Orson Welles. In 1945, exhibitors voted him the 17th most popular star in the United States. Cotten has been described as the best actor to never receive, or even be nominated for, an Oscar. Island of the Fishmen came just two years before Cotten was forced into retirement by complications resulting from a stroke. It was not a significant role and one in a string of B movie parts and television guest appearances Cotten accepted in the 1970s. It is reasonable to assume that his decision to play Professor Marvin was not due to a love of the character. In a Washington Post interview in 1987, Cotten admitted to getting nervous when he wasn’t working and, therefore, being in “a lot of junk.” But, if he felt the film was beneath his talents, he was professional enough not to let it show. Like his co-stars, Bach and Johnson, Cotten embraced his role and worked with what he had to provide an entertaining performance. You can’t ask for more than that.
A final note about Island of the Fishmen for those interested in seeking out the film. Roger Corman’s company, New World Pictures, acquired the film and re-released it as Screamers in 1980. It is this version that is most often found on streaming services, although frequently listed with the original title. Screamers is not a bad reworking of the film, the meaningless title notwithstanding. The original, however, is superior due to some odd changes made in the re-release. A new opening scene, depicting treasure hunters running amok of the fishmen, was tacked on the front of the film. It is an entertaining scene but doesn’t add to the storyline and required that other sequences be trimmed or cut completely to make room for it. Far more bewildering are some arbitrary changes made to details in Professor Marvin’s labs. Something resembling a plastic horseshoe crab and a silly-looking monster puppet replace shots of lionfish swimming in specimen tanks. A character integral to the plot is usurped by a being resembling a lime-green Creature from the Black Lagoon. But the strangest thing associated with Screamers doesn’t occur in the film at all. All the Screamers advertising promised a movie about “men turned inside out,” yet no such thing exists in either the Screamers edit or the original Island of the Fishmen.
Island of the Fishmen / L’isola degli uomini pesce (1979) Directed by Sergio Martino; Written by Cesare Frugoni, Luciano Martino, & Sergio Donati; Starring Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Richard Johnson, Beryl Cunningham, & Joseph Cotten; Available on Blu-Ray from Full Moon Features.
This is my contribution to The Favorite Stars in B Movies Blogathon. The other fallen hero on this site is fishing for some attention with an article for the blogathon here. Click on the image below to read of other beloved thespians performing in low budget masterpieces. Our thanks to Films from Beyond the Time Barrier for allowing us to share our fish stories.