Drive-In Dust Offs: SCREAMERS (1981)

2018/09/29 16:54:27 +00:00 | Scott Drebit

The saying goes that books and their covers aren’t always the same or words to that effect; this particular logic had long been applied to the hallowed halls of the video stores, as eye-popping box art used to lure an unsuspecting victim could lead to atrocities or worse, boredom. And then there’s Screamers (1981), which promises something cool and twisted on the cover yet delivers a completely different film – an Italian period adventure tale with killer fish guys filleting to and fro. Different? You bet. Kind of delightful? Definitely.

The cover of Screamers boasts well, a screaming man who has been turned inside out, or rather appears just to be wearing his veins like an Italian horror wetsuit. Groovy, right? Well you can thank Roger Corman and his New World Pictures for the hucksterism; Screamers original title is The Island of the Fishmen, made in ’79, director Sergio Martino (Torso)’s somewhat elegant take on The Island of Doctor Moreau. When New World acquired it for release in ‘81, they chopped about 20 minutes out, filmed and added a 12 minutes prologue that gets down to some flipper swipin’ to tell people they’re watching a horror movie (because heaven forbid they should wait awhile to have someone mauled onscreen). When that didn’t work, Rog re-titled it Something Waits in the Dark and re-released it with a new trailer, hilariously stuffed with nudity and gore from their other aquatic horror, Humanoids from the Deep (’80). Alas, this didn’t put terror loving tushies in seats either, but I will always admire Corman for trying to push his wares on the movie going public.

So, I’ve seen both versions, and I actually dig the prologue in Screamers, so that’s the version we’ll chat about: It’s The Caribbean Sea, 1891. A ship comes ashore on a seemingly deserted island at night, and off steps Mel Ferrer (contractually obligated to appear in every Spanish and Italian horror film throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s), Eunice Bolt, some other fish fodder, and one Cameron Mitchell (see: Mel Ferrer) as the ship’s captain, complete with cap and pipe, sans parrot. Mel and Eunice have come for a fabled treasure on the island hidden within the caves; as the fog swirls outside, Mel and Eunice are soon split up after finding some baubles, and within moments meet their grisly demise. Next up is our squinty seafaring captain, who with one swift swipe is de-Cameronitated. (My apologies. I’ve been sitting on this horrible pun for awhile now.)

Onto our (and Martino’s) story proper, as a crashing vessel filled with prisoners and an army doctor washes ashore the island; soon the men, led by the good doctor Claude De Ross (Claudio Cassinelli – Hercules), are on their way inland. When one of the men meets his fate in a stake pit, the rest are found by Amanda Marvin (Barbara Bach – The Spy Who Loved Me), the mistress of the island who tells them to leave, yet advertently leads them back to the massive estate she shares with Edmond Rackham (Richard Johnson – Zombie). As the overlord of the island, Claude is immediately suspicious of Rackham’s control over the natives and why he has settled on the island in the first place.

Enter Amanda’s daddy, Professor Ernest Marvin (Joseph Cotton; see: Ferrer, Mitchell); it seems he’s concocted an elixir that puts the amphibious carnivores at his bidding, which actually turns out to be Rackham’s: the creatures are evolutionary citizens of the lost city of Atlantis, and they’re recovering all their baubles for Rackham, who in turn will use the funds to further Marvin’s research. So he says. Did I mention that the island’s volcano has grown very restless during all of this?

Screamers has very little to do with exploitation, no matter how hard Corman tries to inject it, or due to Martino’s giallo reputation. It’s much closer in tone to Kevin Connor’s ‘70s fantastical tales At the Earth’s Core (’76) and Warlords of the Deep (’78) than it is to Corman’s at the time in-house productions, which catered strictly to the sleazy side of the street (a place I often frequent, as well). There is no nudity (unless you count Bach in a wet dress), and the gore is minimal, save for the tacked on prologue, where the makeup was handled by an up and coming Chris Walas (The Fly). Perhaps this is why it didn’t land with U.S. audiences, or maybe they just didn’t appreciate the wool pulling with the advertising.

On its own terms then, Screamers succeeds because of its ambition as an old fashioned story filtered through some inevitable Italian tropes; the dubious dubbing is in full effect – it’s never crinkled my molted feathers however, it’s simply an acclimation that I’ve long grown accustomed too and embraced. Martino does his best to class up his borrowed tale (it really is Moreau with a side swamp of Creature from the Black Lagoon) with fetching widescreen photography that elevates the material; well as much as he can when he has fish guys lapping milk as Bach pours it into their webbed hands. Have no fear; in Martino’s hands, there is still weirdness to be had.

It is Johnson who plays best to this particular hand; two steps removed from Snidely Whiplash, with a majestic ‘stache and an effete lilt in his usually booming voice, he revels in enacting the type of villainy he probably witnessed as a boy at the Saturday matinee. As for the rest of the cast, Bach is engaging and lovely, Cassinelli is a bland lead, but Cotton is lively for the brief time we spend with him. Whether this is a group that draws box office at this point in time is debatable (okay, they’re really not), but for fans of B’s, it’s a more than solid ensemble.

Those looking for “pure” cuts of Italian cinema will point to The Island of the Fishmen as Martino’s real vision, and see Screamers as an unworthy hack job; while the former retains a certain innocent panache amid the occasional bug-eyed and waddling creatures, the latter has that plus veteran actors chewing the scenery before they themselves are chewed upon. Perhaps Roger and New World should have trusted that what they had would please horror hungry audiences; and then maybe throw in one inside out victim, for insurance. I’m sure one of the fishmen would have been happy to oblige.

Screamers is available on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DEVIL’S EXPRESS (1976)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.