THE ISLAND (1980): Getting Sleazy And Subversive On Hollywood’s Dime

When a blockbuster goes awry, it’s usually because too many resources were applied to too little story.  The Island is a fascinating exception to that rule: it had a $20 million budget (big money for 1980), the same producing team that handled Jaws and the author of Jaws adapting his own hit novel for the screen.  However, the result was off-putting and strange in ways that blockbusters seldom have the courage to be, which led to a quick death at the box office.  However, The Island is entertaining in its own defiant way, the kind of film that you could describe as a blockbuster made from horror/exploitation elements that has an unexpected and a wicked satirical streak.

The Island takes the late 1970’s fascination with the “Bermuda Triangle” and comes up with a novel way of explaining it.  The hero is Blair Maynard (Michael Caine), a reporter who talks his editor into letting him go down to Florida to study a recent string of boat disappearances on the open sea.  He’s also an errant divorcee dad who takes along his precocious son Justin (Jeffrey Frank), trying to convince the smartalecky kid that they’re on a vacation as he searches for leads on his story.

Unfortunately for Blair and Justin, dad finds his story: it is revealed that the islands off the coast house a group of pirates who have formed their own bizarre culture, separate from the rest of humanity, with its own code and weird English/Spanish/French hybrid language.  Their world revolves around the attack and plunder of boats that allows them to maintain their strange existence and the leader, John David Nau (David Warner), is determined to take Justin as a son/successor and reduce Blair to a slave for Beth (Angela Punch McGregor), the wife of a pirate he killed during his capture.  As the days pass, Blair realizes he will have to escape before this society turns his son against him.

This is a highly unusual plot for a would-be blockbuster but Benchley had hit adaptations of Jaws and The Deep to give himself the brand name needed to pull it off.  His script is a little weak on logic at points (no one ever comes to look for Blair despite the fact that he’s on an assignment).  The structure feels more novelistic than cinematic and this often gives it a stop/start pace, which is a danger inherent to a novelist adapting his own work for the screen.  That said, the film’s oddball blend of adventure, shock horror and social commentary elements is truly unpredictable.  It’s also not bashful about the violence element of its adventure scenes – and it’s shockingly bloody and/or vicious in a few spots.

Another thing that makes The Island unique amongst would-be blockbusters is the quirky, semi-satirical approach it takes to its scenario.  That can most likely be attributed to its unusual choice of director in Michael Ritchie, a filmmaker who was better known for satires of American society like The Candidate and Smile.  However, he also has the similarly odd and bloody Prime Cut in his filmography and that film provides an apt comparison for the work he does here.

Ritchie weaves in the kind of satirical elements you’d expect from his other work, like a scene in a gun shop that subtly sends up American gun culture and a funny gag where looting pirates seize on a t-shirt as prize booty but throw out a huge cache of cocaine.  He also shows some daring when satirizing the action and violence components of the film, particularly in oft-misunderstood moments where the grisly pirate raids are scored with rousing “swashbuckler music” by Ennio Morricone.  Often criticized as a bizarre misstep, the odd score in these scenes is actually Ritchie’s way of skewering the machismo that informs the pirates’ culture and the “boy’s own adventure” tone of Benchley’s narrative.

The blend of content and style doesn’t always gel but it’s a lot better than it gets credit for.  The fact that the film had big-budget resources ensures that it has an impressive look and sound that lives up to its pedigree.  Accalaimed French cinematographer Henri Decae handles the visual chores and does an excellent job, creating a lush and lovely tropical style that makes an ironic backdrop for the grim goings on.  There’s also a fine score from Morricone that includes everything from jittery suspense cues to the aforementioned ironic swashbuckling music.

The budget also made it possible to get the kind of actors who normally wouldn’t be seen in such a bizarre, bloody story.  Caine was in the middle of a long stretch of oddball for-the-money gigs here but he does professional work, carrying his weight no matter how strange the going gets.  Warner brings a suitably regal tone to his evil pirate captain character.  Frank is often criticized for his work here but perhaps that is because the script goes out of its way to make his character a brat and he’s very convincing at delivering early-teenage attitude.

Most of the pirates are played for pure grotesquery but McGregor is a surprise, making her character sympathetic and oddly likeable in her own subtle way.   There is also an amusingly witty from Frank Middlemass in a pivotal supporting role and an early appearance from future The Serpent And The Rainbow star Zakes Mokae.

In short, it’s easy to understand why The Island didn’t make the grade as a blockbuster – but its combination of an eccentric storyline, major studio resources and unexpectedly satirical direction make it a one-of-a-kind proposition for the cult movie-minded.  It’s rare to see such a handsomely produced slice of oddball entertainment.

Blu-Ray Notes: This title was recently released by Scream Factory as a blu-ray/DVD combo pack.  The transfer is gorgeous, capturing the tropical look with rich colors and sharp detail.  Better yet, the disc also includes an excellent new 5.1 lossless stereo remix that features a lot of depth and activity in the rear speakers.  Extras are limited to a trailer gallery but the excellent transfer and the added value of the blu-ray/DVD bundling make this a strong value for fans of horror and big-budget exploitation.

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