From among the Video Nasties

In the special features of a very carefully and lovingly assembled 2002 DVD - the film's first legitimate release in several years - director Nico Mastorakis admitted that the motivation behind his debut and most famous work, 1976's Island of Death, was entirely financial. One year before he started making his film, a certain Tobe Hooper released a certain proto-slasher film called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it made a lot of money. Mastorakis wanted to make a lot of money too, and reasoning (sadly, with more than a little justification) that it was TCM's notoriety that had contributed so much to its box office take, he decided to make the most nasty-minded, envelope-pushing exploitation film he could possibly muster up. And that is exactly what he did.

It is good to have that story in the director's own words, for otherwise it would be cynical of me to suggest that every last frame of Island of Death reeks of calculation. I'll say this for Mastorakis, he certainly got one thing right: his movie is indeed jam-packed with offensive content, but it isn't organically offensive. It's like watching a drunk clown yelling "fuck my cock" at a kids' party, shocking and obnoxious but also kind of sad. Plainly, Mastorakis (who wrote the script in one week) was working from some kind of mental checklist, his process going like this: "Who else can I piss off? Hey, what about lesbians, okay, so I'll put in a bit where a lesbian gets torched to death by burning aerosol."

But let's return to that. For now, the plot: we watch a man sitting in a pile of rocks, narrating how all this happened because of the "Celia", and every shot fades in from white and then back out to white, in a staggeringly unearned bid to be "artsy". Before you can say, "this is the final scene, I take it?" we flash back a few weeks, to see the man, Christopher (Bob Behling), arriving on the Greek island of Mykonos with that same Celia (Jane Ryall). They claim to be married, but something about that doesn't seem entirely right - maybe it's just Christopher and Celia who aren't right, given that just about the first thing they do after buying a little red diary from Paul (I can't match up most of the credited actors with the characters they play, unfortunately), a gay local homosexual shopkeeper who gives them mincing, effeminate advice on where to find a FABulous place to stay. Obviously, it would take an idiot to expect progressive depictions of gay people in '70s Eurotrash, but I still wasn't prepared for the... enthusiasm... with which this particular stereotype was played out. I SAID, the first thing they do after buying the diary is to call Christopher's mother from a phone booth and have sex for her to hear. The actress doesn't play up her reaction to this shameless act - you'd think that she was sending back a bowl of cold soup - but what matters more is that her phone is being tapped by Foster, a British cop of some sort, who is able to learn that they're on a small Greek island.

Let's cut to the chase: Christopher is some kind of hyper-moral nutcase (with a Christian-flavored bent, though he seems to hate God as much as he worships God), and he sees it as his duty to kill perverts, ranging from Mykonos's queer population to the French painter that he makes Celia seduce, to the middle-aged whore and hotelier Patricia (Jessica Dublin). At first he and Celia are equally aroused by this killing spree, but the longer it goes on, the more that Celia gets bored, and worried that in a place this tiny, they're sure to get caught.

Incidentally, just to make sure that we "get" that Christopher is a hypocrite, he goes out and fucks and kills a goat after Celia rebuffs him, their first morning in town.

It only takes about a third of the much-too-long film (102 minutes in the director-approved DVD) to get the point which is: sexualised violence. Literally, that's the only driving force behind any of this. Not "sexualised violence and therefore X", just "Hey, hey, look at all this sexualised violence! Ain't it saucy?" To which I must reply, no, not actually. In all the annals of cinematic sex & violence, there are few examples I've seen where both of those things seem so dismally functional - the tone of the movie is unremittingly sour and, well, nasty. It's profoundly obvious that Mastorakis didn't actually want to make Island of Death, because there are virtually none of the little tell-tale grace notes that an inspired, engaged filmmaker manages to stud into his film. In fact, the only point in the whole thing that seems to indicate that Mastorakis was actually pleased with what he was doing is a single graphic match, a cut from a wall splattered with brain matter to a bowl full of fruit preserves. High comedy it's not, but at least it has a cheeky self-awareness.

Otherwise, it's just a laundry list of kinky sex and rape scenes (and the really sad thing is that Island of Death is not remotely special amongst exploitation films in the way that its rape scenes are cut from the same cloth as its consensual sex scenes). Both male and female homosexuality, voyeurism, water sports, bestiality, cuckoldry, sexual masochism. Plus a thing that I can't even mention without giving away the film's legitimately unexpected final twist (unexpected largely because it is just one last attempt to be shocking for the sake of being shocking), so the whole thing all boils down to brother-on-sister incest.

According to the director and the Director of Public Prosecutions, this is all depraved and horrid; I say it's just plain tacky (near the end, Christopher receives the ultimate degradation of being farted on - that kind of tacky). Honestly, what offends me the most out of all of it is that Mastorakis was trying to capture some of that Texas Chainsaw Massacre magic, for two films more wildly divergent in effectiveness than Island of Death and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can barely be imagined. Hooper's masterpiece was a brutal thing, a banshee howl of ugliness and depravity that dredges up the most closely guarded private terrors of the civilised world - all with hardly any onscreen gore. Island of Death is scuzzy and aimlessly degrading. It knows that it's going to shock the squares, but it does not have a truly probing soul, just an unhappy one. You need look no further than the perfunctory way it treats Paul and his fiancé to see that: without making us like or identify with Christopher's decision that they must die, it still manages to present their homosexuality as something weird and vaguely disgusting. That's still better than the women get: Jane Ryall is stripped naked and fondled so often that I started to feel really humiliated for her, and even she's not so miserably treated as Jessica Dublin, filmed to look as pinched and haggard and leering as possible.

It's one thing to watch a Jess Franco film, a Nazisploitation picture or women-in-prison picture, or any of the tits 'n gore movies of the '80s, and walk away feeling coated in sleaze; those movies all have a certain kind of playful cheesiness to them, and it is this key X-factor that Island of Death absolutely lacks. Deliberately, at least. What Island of Death does have, what makes this joyless, scum-sack of a movie that I've just described a secretly edifying wallow in filth, is that it is badly made, to a fairly remarkable degree. For one thing, there's not a good performance in the cast - a surprise, I am sure. But there are so many completely failed line-readings, many of which are clearly the result of Greek actors speaking phonetically-learned English; and the characters' expressions so frequently tend towards the garish and silly, with the example that leaps to mind being a scene where Dublin lolls her head around like she's trying to get water out of her ear while having a nice conversation.

As for all of those notorious moments of sexual depravity and murder? Not only are they filmed indifferently, they are often filmed incompetently. It's obvious throughout that the male actors in the various sex scenes have not removed their pants; and Mastorakis is so desperate to make sure we never see a penis, that he has his actors blocked in the most unlikely positions and movements, craning around to make certain that their crotch is always safely out of view.

Most of the death scenes, meanwhile, cross the line from "offensive" to stupid on account of the director's attempt to out-Herod Herod. There is, for example, a decapitation-by-bulldozer scene that is just about the most contrived death I have ever seen in a body count film. The aforementioned burning aerosol sequence is so obviously faked it hurts, and goes on for what feels like five minutes - a notable bow to realism (that kind of flame would never get terribly hot, and it would take quite a while to do the kind of damage we see), that runs afoul of the need for movies to, y'know, move. And there is a really elaborate, and doubtlessly costly airplane death that cuts from wide shots with an obvious dummy to close-ups that are just as obviously on the ground.

And yet, somehow Mastorakis convinced himself that he could get away with treating all this cheap, dispirited meanness like he was a real fucking artist, so at every turn there are super-clever editorial tricks, like the way that some of the murders are presented like a series of photographs taken in quick succession (Christopher and Celia document their killings for future masturbation material, the latest in a long history of sentences that I didn't foresee ever having to construct when I was a film student), or the scene transitions that consist of black video with the audio of a camera shutter, or the frankly surreal moment when Christopher realises that he's almost been found out, and the image stops and all the color values reverse, and the image gets blown up and then shrunk in quick jump cuts. I didn't describe that properly, but mostly that's just because the effect is not one that should ever possibly exist, like R'lyeh - in the same way, it cannot be described using human vocabulary.

Mostly, though, what makes Island of Death a garish delight, instead of gaudy self-torture, is the music. Owing I expect to budgetary concerns, this is massively dependent on synthesizers, which is one thing; but the staggering mismatch between the visuals and the music is truly special. This is, let's recap, a film about spree killers who get off on punishing those they view as sexual miscreants. So the best way to represent that aurally is surely with a repeated cue that sounds like it's being played on an electronic washboard. Or better still, with the worst goddamn folk songs ever written - by the director, in fact, with Nikos Lavranos providing music (the ELO washboard shit is his, too). It's the songs that redeem all of Island of Death: no matter how unpleasant the murders are, when they're contrasted with the hilariously wretched musical noodling, the movie can't help but be funny

So instead of actually concluding this review, I'm just going to post a YouTube video that someone nicely made (extremely NSFW): a montage of scenes from the film, set to the song "Destination" that appears at least three times throughout the thing. I've also included, for those who can't or won't view the video, my own transcription of the lyrics, with my best guess for the unintelligible parts.


Mother, I see the wonders of the day
Millions of people left like clay
Millions of whispers saying, "I'm dying"

Mother, I see the wonders of the day
Millions of people left like clay
Millions of whispers say, "I'm dying"

I see the earth move under my feet
The giant pillars made of concrete
I shout, "I'm happy, and I'm dying"

Desperation, understanding
Destination isn't ending
Desperation, understanding
Destination isn't ending

Get the sword, get the sword
(Get the sword!)
Get the sword, get the sword
(Kill them all!)
Get the sword, get the sword
(Kill 'em!)
Get the sword, get the sword
(Get it, the sword!)
Get the sword, get the sword
(The sword is salvation!)
Get the sword, get the sword

Truth was born in a thousand meanings
And I was made from evil spinnings
Why jizz a sad, look I'm flying

There is a polecat in my hole
To save the raindrops for the fall
That means I'm rich 'cause I'm crying

Desperation, understanding
Destination isn't ending
Desperation, understanding
Destination isn't ending

Get the sword, get the sword
(Get the bloody sword!)
Get the sword, get the sword

Body Count: 10, a nice round number, not including the goat.

Scenes of Sex or Rape: About 14, including the goat. It's hard to know how exactly to parse some of the sequences.

Nastiness Rating: 4/5, pretty damn Nasty. The whole thing is slack and perfunctory, which means that none of the conceptually vicious things going on have any kind of bite to them at all - and paradoxically, the same slackness reveals the incredibly curdled disregard for humanity underpinning it all. That is: not for a second was I disturbed or disgusted, but at the end I still felt covered in slime.