Island of Death Review
During the Q&A that’s included amongst the many extras on Arrow Video’s Island of Death release, writer-director Nico Mastorakis describes his film, in front of a paying audience, as “a piece of shit”. It’s true that certain directors have very different opinions of their work when compared to audiences and critics - most notoriously Woody Allen - but in Mastorakis’ case he may very well have a point. His film was constructed, in his words, as “a recipe movie”. According to the commentary he compiled a list of various vicious murders on a Thursday, he thought up various kinky and perverse sex acts on a Friday, and over the weekend he combined them to produce Island of Death’s screenplay. The aim behind the film was simply to make money and nothing more; a means of Mastorakis making it in the film industry having previously directed a single feature (Death Has Blue Eyes) and worked variously in Greek popular television.
Such a shamelessly cynical move clearly did the trick as shortly after Island of Death’s release, having secured international distribution, Mastorakis was able to move to Los Angeles and continue making films in the US. The quality varied, but he did produce a number of films with cult-ish followings including 1984’s Blind Date starring Kristy Swanson, 1987’s The Wind (aka Edge of Terror) with Meg Foster, David McCallum and Robert Morley, and 1988’s Nightmare at Noon which paired up eighties video stars Wings Hauser and Brion James. (This last one being a particular guilty pleasure.) Meanwhile, Island of Death had been placed on the UK’s video nasties list, becoming part of the infamous DPP39, effectively banning the film until a heavily cut DVD release in 2002. There had been a theatrical release in 1976, under the name of A Craving for Lust, which was trimmed by approximately 13 minutes, but it was the uncut 1982 VHS which incurred the Director of Public Prosecution’s wrath. Subsequent attempts at a UK pass - as was the case in 1989 under the title of Psychic Killer 2 - failed to gain BBFC approval despite being pre-cut by the distributor. And so it is only now, as with a number of other Arrow Video discs, that Island of Death finally sees a fully legal, fully uncut release in this country.
No doubt those wishing to sample this video nasty unexpurgated will make up the vast majority of potential viewers. And as a piece of pure exploitation Island of Death certainly does the trick. The plot revolves around a newlywed couple holidaying on a small Greek island. Initially everything seems quite idyllic, complete with sun, sand and sex in a phone booth. Yet whereas you would expect the young couple to become the subject of a psychopath’s attentions, the twist here is that the pair are the killers. Soon enough they’re off crucifying a local and drowning him in paint, cutting up and shooting a homosexual couple, and so on. The motivation is that of religious fanaticism, thus various sinners and fornicators, the perverse and the promiscuous become the target. Added to the mix - the other part of Mastorakis’ “recipe” - is sundry nudity, lipstick lesbianism, bestiality, sodomy and urolagnia (golden showers to the layman). The director’s intent - to go more extreme than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre - is undoubtedly satisfied.
Such a combination of outré sex and violence will perhaps prove satisfying enough for those seeking out Island of Death solely for its exploitation/grindhouse qualities. Yet it doesn’t necessarily translate into particularly good filmmaking. Given Mastorakis’ “recipe” construction he’s ended up producing a very episodic venture. The film moves from sex scene to death scene to sex scene etc., until our killers either get away their violent acts or receive their comeuppance (I won’t spoil as to which). There’s little in the way of progression and, indeed, the one source of tension - a man aware of their psychopathic tendencies who traces them to Greece - is abruptly curtailed by having him killed off at the midway point. Furthering the scrappy nature is the screenplay’s recourse to voice-over (and some shoddy post-production dubbing over scenes which were clearly filmed without any dialogue intended) as a means of shoehorning in the basic motivations - “I like to punish perversion” - or allowing the film to skip from one scene to the next. Ultimately it all becomes rather wearying, although Mastorakis’ ability to make each set piece more outrageous than the last does perhaps prevent genuine boredom.
On the plus side, Island of Death is at least decently photographed and the Greek setting provides a little novelty alongside contemporaneous American and Italian exploitation flicks (The Devil’s Men and The Rape Killer were also in production around the same time, but both shot on the mainland). The acting from the central leads is generally competent given their scant experience, although the same can’t be said of the mostly wooden supporting players, either due to their being complete novices or being hampered by the demands of encapsulating grossly obvious stereotypes. Indeed, what pleasures are to be had from Island of Death are primarily guilty ones. It’s an unashamed exploitation pic and in that respect does as much as could be expected - just don’t count on it being great cinema as well.
Arrow Video’s handling of Island of Death extends to DVD only but nonetheless does a perfectly decent job. The disc is encoded for Region 0 PAL and comes full of worthwhile, or at the very least interesting, additional features. In terms of presentation this is undoubtedly the best the film has looked on any home video format. Here we find Island of Death in open matte 1.33:1 aspect ratio and with the original mono soundtrack in place. Both are mostly clean and clear throughout - at times the picture displays instances of dirt (mostly during the opening scene), but never to any distraction, whilst some of the darker scenes can be a bit heavy on the artefacting. For the most part, however, the level of detail is impressive whilst the colours remain strong and natural. (Optional subtitles, for the hard of hearing or otherwise, are not available.)
The majority of the extras centre on writer-director Nico Mastorakis. He provides an audio commentary alongside critic and writer Calum Waddell, teams up with Waddell again for a recording of a Q&A which accompanied a screening at Dublin’s Horrorthon, and is also present for a 17-minute solo interview. Understandably there’s some crossover between the three - we repeatedly here the anecdote about its screening at Cannes, the influence of seeing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at an open air theatre, etc. - but each piece deserves its inclusion for their own respective approaches. The interview is the place to go for a concise, focussed look over the production and reception, whereas the commentary throws up much the same information but in a looser, more relaxed manner. The latter also provides a welcome general discussion of Mastorakis’ later films around the midway point in which the director recalls working with the likes Kristy Swanson and Wings Hauser. (Stick around for the end of the interview too as this contains a ‘best of’ clips show from Mastorakis’ US productions.) Unsurprisingly, he’s reluctant to read anything into his film despite Waddell’s best attempts - for him it was all about the money and nothing more - an element which comes across most strongly in the relaxed and jokey Q&A. After all, it is during this particular addition where he makes the “piece of shit” comment.
Elsewhere the disc finds room for a couple of pieces dedicated to Island of Death’s soundtrack. The first contains full versions of the three main songs over an assortment of clips and stills, whereas the second sees one particular tune, Destination Understanding, receive a quintet of cover versions in various styles by different bands. Here we find a folk cover, an extreme noise cover, a punk cover and so on. In each instance the respective bands/musicians introduce themselves and discuss the song before breaking into performance. It’s arguably a less significant inclusion that the three Mastorakis additions, but kudos to Arrow Video for trying out something novel and a little different.
Finally, the disc also features the original theatrical trailer, whilst the package includes an eight-page booklet with notes by David Hayles. They make for a worthy read placing Island of Death within the context of the video nasty scare and Mastorakis’ subsequent career, whilst also pulling out some unexpected comparison points (such as Derek Ford’s Diversion). It’s also copiously illustrated, the last image (on the back page) rather fittingly being of lead actor Robert Behling in close contact with a goat.