Sergio Martino made some pretty interesting Giallos in the early part of the seventies including “Torso” and “All the Colors of the Dark”. In the mid-seventies he drifted with the current of the Italian film industry, doing projects that mimicked both popular American films and Italian films that did well abroad. In 1978 and 1979 Martino took his act to the jungle and made a few adventure films to capitalize on the popularity of Mondo movies and the recent advent of the Cannibal subgenre.
His first effort was “Mountain of the Cannibal God”. The film features some abysmal animal death sequences, an aging but naked and lovely Ursula Andress who is coated with golden mud by awe struck natives and Stacey Keach and Claudio Cassinelli both sweating like much heavier men in the wilds of Sri Lanka. Martino finished his trilogy of tropical trips with the insanely bad “Big Alligator River”. Sandwiched in between these projects he did ‘Island of the Fishmen”. "Fishmen" features the same male lead as the other two films, Claudio Cassinelli, and the same female lead, Barbara Bach, as “Big Alligator River”. Bach is both exotically pretty and distressingly pelagic for someone playing a human in a movie about human/fish hybrids.
“Island of the Fishmen” takes place in 1891 on an uncharted Caribbean isle where a group of shipwrecked prisoners are attacked by strange amphibious monsters as they reach land. Dr. Claude Ross (Cassinelli), the sole non-criminal survivor of the shipwreck, and few others escape a fishy fate on the beach only to fall into the clutches of slimy plantation owner, Edmund Rackham. Rackham protects the island with a small army of African tribesman and a host of primitive booby traps. Ross begins to suspect that Rackham, his voodoo priestess and his young companion Amanda Marvin (Bach) are doing more than tapping rubber trees. Fishmen begin to stalk the island, Rackham reveals his true nature as a slave-driving venture capitalist and Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt, The Magnificent Ambersons) makes an appearance that must have had him crying himself to sleep, considering all that had once been.
There are some broader sociological substructures at work in the movie. One could view the Fishmen as drug-addled slave laborers plundering their sacred relics at the behest of an unprincipled colonial master. Eventually they revolt but decide to save Amanda even though she has served as pusher to Rackham’s pimp. Is this a loss of cultural identity through gentrification and subjugation? An internalized belief in their own lack of worth? Avatar? The truth is that I want to find a redeeming undertone to a film that cuts corners in all the wrong areas and brutalizes living things to squeeze itself into the exploitation category.
“Island of the Fishmen” was likely an attempt to cash in on the modest success of Don Taylor’s 1977 version of “The Island of Dr. Moreau”. A closer approximation of the total film is something like, ".13333 Leagues Below the Island of the Piranha from the Black Lagoon". The film is nowhere near as fun as “Mountain of the Cannibal God” and looks to have 14 times the budget of “Big Alligator River”. That places the movie in odd territory and as you watch you are sure to pick up on the strange inconsistencies at work.
The overdubbing is deplorable but the acting isn’t. The use of scale models to enhance wide shots of burning buildings is puzzling considering that they also set-fire to a full sized building for the same scene. The script is an affront to anyone who values cause and effect as a guiding principle of character, action and outcome. But the most troublesome piece is that Martino did not leave his animal cruelty back in the land of Cannibal God. The director apparently felt the need to dispatch a live snake, a live chicken and perhaps a live flamingo (we don’t get to see the killshot on that one) in a movie that turned out to be otherwise gore free and full up with horrible creature prosthetics and make-up work. Like all of his cannibal film brethren, I sure he’d plead ignorance or claim that the Japanese and German markets demanded it. The latter excuse has to be refutable by some corollary of Godwin’s law. .
I suppose I am firmly in the category of ‘hypocrite’ in that I am more willing to forgive Martino his cruelties if he makes a better movie, after all I am not ready to totally condemn “Mountain of the Cannibal God”. Clearly this is a flaw that I am going to work on. In the meantime, I guess I’ll say that if you have a desire to watch a Martino-helmed Jungle adventure picture, “Mountain of the Cannibal God’ is the best, “Big Alligator River” the worst but also the most cruelty free; and “Island of the Fishmen” is a mid-point that is worth skipping.