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Lost/Forgotten/Found #4: The Island (1980)

The Island (1980); Directed by Michael Ritchie; Produced by Universal Pictures and Zanuck/Brown Productions; Distributed by Universal Pictures

The Island is based on a book by Peter Benchley, best known as the scribe behind the blockbuster novel-to-film Jaws (1975). With its mysterious-terror-out-at-sea theme and heavily maritime marketing, audiences might be tricked into thinking that The Island is a kindred spirit. If it has any similarity to Jaws–both in terms of emotional resonance and type of fear–it is in the wave of ridiculous oceanic horror movies to surface in Spielberg’s wake. In that sense, The Island was in debt to Jaws, but it is also a “better” film than Jaws, in the same sense that such pretenders to the throne as The Deep (1977: directed by Peter Yates, though based on writing by Benchley) and Orca: The Killer Whale (1977: directed by Michael Anderson) “improve” upon their source. I’ve used quotations so extensively to draw attention to the fact that Jaws is, and will remain, a great piece of popcorn fodder with wide appreciability, while the other films just listed with go down in history as waterlogged failures. But, with that comes a glimmer of hope: if Jaws is played for emotional depth, than The Deep, Orca, and The Island are exploitation films, and as such can be as crazily committed to their (flawed, or laughable) premises as they like. Indeed, The Island opens like an adrift slasher movie, but quickly moves on to something quite shocking. The first scene shows a yacht-ful of rich American tourists on a vacation. A boat drifts nearby, seemingly housing a dead body. Upon removing the cover obscuring the top of the boat, the glimpsed hand comes to life, cleaving the unlucky discoverers’ head in two. After cutting to contemporary New York to introduce investigative reporter Blair Maynard (Michael Caine, wearing his ubiquitous Harry Palmer glasses whose frames have now become de rigueur for hipsters), the scene again goes to a boat whose occupants are similarly massacred in horror movie fashion. Maynard pitches a story about disappearing vessels to his editor, noting the statistics (hundreds missing or lost in three years, all occupants presumed dead). The editor, though not thrilled, agrees, and Maynard, with son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) in tow, heads to Florida to begin his investigation. At this early point, the film is set-up such that Maynard is the kind of Dr. Loomis who will uncover the cause of this series of murders. But, also at this point, the film begins to make incredibly strange decisions, quickly morphing into something that is quite crazier than my summary so-far allows. (Spoilers begin in earnest): After making it to a gun store (??) where son Justin guilts his father into buying him a .22, the two inquire about the disappearances and make for an isolated island chain, the Turks and Caicos. Their airplane crash lands, and the two eventually rent a boat from the eccentric Windsor (Frank Middlemass), a British ex-pat whose house, according to Justin, looks like Lux Luther’s lair. While at sea, Justin and Blair are attacked. Blair shoots one of the men, but is knocked out. Upon coming to, the pair discover that they’ve been taken hostage by a group of strange scavengers whose makeshift village and alarmingly ungrammatical, sometimes unintelligible speech suggest a social unit out of joint. The reveal is that these men–a group of wayward buccaneers who have been in-breeding and living in isolation for hundreds of years–has begun to actively raid boats, plundering their stores and kidnapping children in order to continue their ways. The children are indoctrinated into thinking that they have no parents and are then re-trained in the ways of the society. Blair was kept alive not as a prisoner per se, but rather because he killed Beth’s (Angela Punch McGregor) husband. Under their laws–a muddled version of the pirate code, with some 17th century British statues thrown in for good measure–she is allowed to keep Blair as a surrogate, a kind of sex slave who is now responsible for giving her a son. The central conflict from here is over Blair’s attempts to escape, Justin’s increased complicity with the pirate society, and the increased boldness of John David Nau (David Warner), the pirate’s leader. Thanks to a pact with Windsor, John has lead the pirates to increased affluence thanks to tips on boats to raid and a fresh supply of new members. So, what starts off as a seemingly routine horror film becomes an offbeat, sometimes hair-brained, and occasionally brilliant movie about a “lost society” that comes into contact with the contemporary world. While the plot revolves around a few central participants, the nature of the pirate hierarchy gives several character actors space to shine. Wescott (Zakes Mokae), the Caribbean customs man, acts as a sinister gatekeeper whose behavior hints at what is to come, while Rollo (Don Henderson, better known for his turns in Star Wars [1977] and Brazil [1985]) offers the typical physicality of a pirate. Best of all is Dr. Brazil (Dudley Sutton, whose most memorable work is with Ken Russell, especially The Devils [1971]). Here, Sutton plays an almost rabid man with no teeth, knotted hair, and an unpredictable sense of sadism. Benchley and Ritchie’s best decision was to keep the pirate’s language as a garbled mess, thus making their logic even more difficult to understand. While the film’s first sequence is probably its most brutal, The Island eventually settles into action territory, complete with the requisite explosions, machine guns, and crossbow bolts. Although Caine and Warner are not very physical combatants, they both embody the idiosyncrasies of their characters so well that it doesn’t matter. The mix of older technologies with contemporary ones anchors the film’s visual sensibility, which is helped quite a bit by the generally lush island locations. My recent viewing convinced me that, one day, some scholar who is braver than me should write an article on Michael Caine’s hair from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. I don’t have adequate words. The Island was long-ago available on VHS, but has been rediscovered thanks to a Universal Vault Series MOD DVD and Amazon Prime Enabled streamability.