A Fine Kettle of Fishmen

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.

Italian Theatrical Poster – The damsel in distress doesn’t quite look like Barbara Bach, but the hand-painted artwork is dramatic and spectacular.

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.

When lost at sea with thugs and cutthroats, maybe delay telling them that you intend to incarcerate them the first opportunity you get.

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.

Formal dinner parties are always so awkward, particularly when the host invites you to diagnose his “strangeness”.

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.

Amanda pours the drug into the waiting claws of the fishmen. It doesn’t look like much makes it into their mouths.

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 readily admits he is driven entirely by greed and is manipulating everyone else for his purposes. He smugly finishes with, “Dreadful. Isn’t it?”

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.

Dr. Marvin is not merely an innocent victim. His attempts to justify his immoral methods to Amanda and Claude are not well-received.

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.

Rackham is also the kind of villain that, when given the opportunity to put a bullet between your eyes, decides instead to throw you in a death trap and leave you unguarded.

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.

The fishmen were also never nominated for Oscars.

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.

Be Warned: Except for the cast, you will not actually see anything promised by this poster.

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.

25 thoughts on “A Fine Kettle of Fishmen

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  1. Speaking to your initial point about the quality that can be found in B-movies: the first time I saw Cotten in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, I was surprised, to say the least. Then I was doubly surprised to find I liked the movie a lot more than I thought I would.

    The fish men here look quite creepy.

    1. I almost mentioned Cotten’s role in The Abominable Dr. Phibes as it is one of my favourite horror films. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit into the flow of the article but is a great example of an entertaining film that stays true to its B movie sensibilities.

      Thanks for reading, Rich. I look forward to checking out your article for the blogathon soon.

  2. I have never heard of this film, Michael but you’re fun review proves we all need more fishmen in our lives!

  3. These look like fabulous monsters.

    When I first saw Joseph Cotten was in this film, I felt a little sad – the whole fallen star thing, as you described. But he was a true professional through and through, and I might try to find this movie just to see him in it. Him, and the Fishmen, of course.

    1. As I said, his part is not very big (I actually wish he was used in the film more) but he didn’t embarrass himself. If he wanted to work and was still giving his best in every role, there is no shame in that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I will definitely have to check out Island of the Fishmen. It sounds quite enjoyable. And as a fan of Joseph Cotten, it is must see for me.

    1. Thanks for reading! If you’re a Joseph Cotten fan, just remember that I said his part is quite small. You may be disappointed by the amount of screen time he has. But the movie is a fun monster flick so I still recommend it.

  5. I haven’t seen Island of the Fishmen, though it does seem to have an interesting twist on the created-mutant plot, with the fishmen pacified by a drug addiction! Interesting to learn of Cotten’s background and how he came to end up in B movies (it seems many formerly big movie stars were the same; they just HAD to be working, no matter what the product). One performance of Cotten’s in a B-level film that I treasure is his appearance in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a very campy film which he plays very seriously.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I’m a huge Dr. Phibes fan and Cotten was the perfect straight-man to Price’s campy character.

      I wish Cotten had kept working in B movies for many more years. What is sad isn’t that he worked in B movies but his health problems later in life. The stroke I mentioned affected the speech centre of his brain. He spent a long time and a lot of effort reteaching himself how to speak (often via phone conversations with Orson Welles), only to have his larynx removed less than ten years later because of cancer.

      1. That’s so sad about Joseph Cotten – I had no idea his health issues were so severe. He showed a lot of strength, both mentally and in his character, in attempting to persist in his career. Fascinating how his friendship with Welles extended to helping him recover his speech. They seemed to have had a great partnership not only onscreen but offscreen as well.

        1. Although he couldn’t act because of the problems speaking, he did use the time to write an autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. Reportedly, one of the first, if not the first, to read the manuscript was Orson Welles.

  6. Michael, thank you for contributing this great post to the blogathon! I’ve attempted many times to communicate my appreciation for B movies on my blog, but never as eloquently as you do in the opening paragraph. I’m tempted to say that Island is a fascinating failure, but I think failure is too strong a word. In spite of the contrivances, the combination of the notable leads, the effective fishmen get-ups and the touches of Voodoo and Jules Verne that overlay the plot makes for a very entertaining watch. I’m one of those who’s only seen the American Screamers version, but it was listed under the Island title. In an interview, Roger Corman remembered a “crisis” around the U.S. release when supposedly it was reported that drive-in goers were “rioting” over there not being the promised scene of a man turned inside out! 🙂 P.S.: love your screenshot captions!

    1. Me? Eloquent? You are too kind. I think we are kindred spirits when it comes to B movies. I know I’m guilty of mocking them sometimes myself and, let’s face it, some deserve to be mocked, but there is a lot of good entertainment under the B movie banner that deserves more appreciation.

      I had never heard that story about the “crisis” and, knowing Corman, I wouldn’t put it past him to have instigated the crisis just to increase word-of-mouth. But I also wouldn’t be too surprised if it was true. Every time I see the advertising material, I think, “Surely there must be a law against blatantly misleading the general public like that?” 😀

      Thank *you* for hosting, Brian. It gave me incentive to get some writing done, gave me an excuse to talk about Island of the Fishmen, and was a lot of fun. It also has given me a bunch of interesting articles to read…as soon as I can get around to them all.

  7. Great review, Michael! I’ve seen Screamers, and felt it had potential, but seemed to be missing something. Apparently, it’s a whole different movie. Thanks for clearing that mystery up. I’ll definitely be seeking the original film out.

    1. Thanks, Barry. As I said, Screamers isn’t *that* much different so your opinion may not change once you see the original. But maybe a second viewing will help you see the film in a new light. I’m a sucker for rubber monsters when they are done well so, between the fishmen and the fun performances, I’m a fan. I even supported Full Moon by purchasing the Blu Ray they released and you know my opinions on Full Moon Productions. 😀

  8. Great review! As a fan of all sorts of B movies, this sounds like something I would love. It would be fun to see both the original and Corman’s version. The title Screamers sounds familiar, but the film never entered into my radar. I love the look of the Fishmen. Much more convincing than the monsters in Attack of the Giant Leeches!

    1. Thanks! When I bought the Blu Ray for Island of the Fishmen, I was a bit disappointed that they had not thrown Screamers in as a bonus. It would be worth having just for that opening scene they added.

      No, the giant leeches can’t hold a candle to the fishmen. 😀 A closer comparison would be the monsters from Humanoids from the Deep but I think the fishmen still come out on top.

    1. It’s funny how much Cotten’s name has come up since I wrote this article. I keep seeing him mentioned in tweets and in the results of my Google searches and just everywhere. It’s a bit creepy but also a reminder of all the great roles he had over the years.

      That said, as the reigning Queen of So-Bad-It’s-Good films, I think, even without Joseph Cotten, there might be something you’d enjoy in Island of the Fishmen. 😉

      Thanks for reading, Rebecca.

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