Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hubri5Ween 2017, Day 19: Screamers (1979 / 1981)

Roger Corman was never above out-right lying to sell a film. And, boy, with Screamers he managed to lie twice when trying to sell it to American audiences.

See, when Corman got his hands on the Italian film, Island of the Fishmen, it came at a time when violent and explicit horror films were where the money was at. Blood and tits, you might say. However, the film he got was more of a light-hearted adventure film that could easily have been released to a general audience.

Since that wasn't where Corman was at, he had Miller Drake write and direct a new opening for the film with make-up and creature effects by Chris Walas. (There were a few other new inserts later in the film, as well) The film was then re-titled Something Waits In The Dark, given a slasher-style poster, and then a hilariously dishonest trailer that added footage from Humanoids From The Deep and narration that sold the film as another story of lusty fishmen raping women.

Notice that this poster, at least, actually hints at a gillman.
Of course, even in the alterations he asked for, Corman didn't have Miller Drake add any scenes that suggested the fishmen had any libidos at all. They certainly didn't add any gratuitous nudity.

Corman liked to test his films in certain markets and see if additional changes were necessary to sell them better. (This is how so many of his films in the late 70s and early 80s ended up with multiple titles, in fact) And Something Waits In The Dark was not selling.

Corman turned to Jim Wynorski, then merely in charge of cutting trailers, to re-brand the film to make it successful. Wynorski came upon the demented idea to retitle the film Screamers and sold it as a story about men who have been turned inside out, but are still alive. He had a poster quickly commissioned that showed just that--complete with a warning label promising that audiences would see a man turned inside out--and he filmed and edited together a new trailer in a weekend.

The new trailer contained exactly zero seconds of footage from the film. Instead, it centered around a gooey monster in a high-tech lab menacing an attractive redhead, while an ominous narrator tells us more about these men turned inside out.

The story of drive-in audiences rioting when the movie didn't have a single man turning inside out is probably apocryphal, but can you blame them?

I suppose if you squint they look sort of inside-out...
Of course, the blatantly false advertising apparently worked well enough. Perhaps word of mouth was slow to get out and nobody actually realized how badly they'd been swindled until the film was almost over. (Wynorski claims Corman had him splice the trailer monster into a scene randomly in order to satisfy the plebes, but since it was only done on a handful of prints and not the source negative, this bizarre edit never ended up on any home video releases) Certainly the new prologue is much more in line with American horror films of the period.

Ironically, Island of The Fishmen was directed by Sergio Martino of The Great Alligator and also starred that film's leads, Barbara Bach and Claudio Cassanelli, as well as featuring Richard Johnson. This ironic because the new footage that Miller Drake filmed featured Mel Ferrer, who had been the ruthless resort tycoon in The Great Alligator but had not been in the cast for Island of the Fishmen.

Guess you just can't escape once Italian exploitation gets its claws on you.

In our new footage, we open in the Caribbean Sea in 1891 on a mysterious island with a notorious reputation. Captain Decker (Cameron Mitchell) has been hired to bring Radcliffe (Mel Ferrer) and his younger sister Samantha (Eunice Bolt) to the island in search of its fabled lost treasure. Decker and his first mate wait on the beach while Radcliffe and Samantha enter a mysterious cave.

For some reason they decided to search the island in the middle of a very foggy night, so we know it's not going to go well. Oh, sure, after being startled by a starfish landing on her shoulder (?!), Samantha finds a piece of gold on a skeleton--but while she's finding small trinkets, a half-glimpsed gillman is carving up Decker and his first mate. It isn't long before it does the same to Radcliffe, and then Samantha bizarrely finds herself accosted by a zombie (!) while fleeing the gillman.

"Hey, do I look inside-out enough?"
Samantha escapes the inexplicable zombie unscathed, but the gillman catches up to her after she finds the first mate's severed head in the boat. And I have to give Chris Walas serious props because we actually see his gillman costume full-on at this point, and it looks a lot like the fishmen from the original. Of course, it also looks way better.

Now we're into the original film, as a lifeboat drifts through the same foggy seas. The occupants of the boat are survivors of a sunken prison ship and, with the exception of Lt. Claude de Ross (Claudio Cassinelli) the ship's doctor, they're all prisoners. This understandably makes for a tense environment, as while some of the prisoners are grateful for Claude saving them, the others resent the fact that he'll just put them right back in prison as soon as they're saved.

Of course, it's a moot point if they're not saved at all. And any chance of rescue appears to evaporate when a huge dorsal fin charges at the boat and then they find their boat roughly dashed against the rocks. Whatever the fin belonged to also has claws (which, based on the prologue, we can safely assume is a gillman) and it kills two of the prisoners as they all scatter for shore.

Claude luckily meets up with the sympathetic Jose (Franco Iavarone) in time to save him from drinking from a poisoned pond. However, several other prisoners have managed to get carved up by the fishmen. So when the remaining survivors all meet up, things are understandably tense even before Claude and another prisoner unwittingly walk into a tiger trap. The other man is killed, but Claude only just caught hold of a root.

Jose wants to save Claude, but Peter (Roberto Posse) suggests they let him fall. Jose wins out, but only barely. Still, Claude tries not to hold a grudge and continues to guide the other two remaining survivors through the island. They find an eerily abandoned native village, where even the graves are empty, and Jose freaks out because he sees what he claims is a voodoo altar. However, the biggest upshot of finding the village comes when someone shoots the patently harmless snake slithering toward Claude.

Claude's "savior" is quickly revealed to be Amanda Marvin (Barbara Bach), on horseback. She warns that the island belongs to Edmond Rackham and he does not welcome trespassers. Rather than take her advice, they follow her and get to meet this Edmond Rackham (Richard Johnson) for themselves. Rackham runs some kind of a plantation on the island, largely staffed by Caribbean natives led by by the strikingly gorgeous Shakira (Beryl Cunningham).

Yes, at one point her name is said twice in succession.
Rackham is obviously a weasel even at this point, with Richards Johnson affecting an extra nasally accent in the role, but he's also as charming a gentleman as he can be. He invites Claude to dinner and explains away the deserted nature of the island by claiming that the island's natives fled in fear of the volcano, even casting their dead into the sea. Claude mentions having seen evidence of voodoo on the island and, to my delight, Rackham tells him to talk to Shaira about that because she hails from "Hie-ee-tay," which has to be the most astounding mispronunciation of "Haiti" that I've ever heard.

Of course, while Claude is trying to play a good guest, his two companions are still convicts. Jose is content to toe the line, but Peter is a different story. Seeing Amanda sneak out that night, he follows her. He someone fails to see the part of her midnight stroll that involves giving a strange milky fluid to a gang of gillmen and attempts to rape her on her way back from the water. Luckily for Amanda, one of those gillmen quickly kills Peter.

Gillman keggers take some getting used to.
Claude tries to confront Rackham about Peter's disappearance, but that goes nowhere and then Jose tries to flee. Claude follows him, but is too slow to keep up. Unfortunately, Jose ends up captured by Rackham and secreted off to places unknown. And Claude finds himself face-to-face with one of the fishmen. The fishman does not like him and it's only Amanda's intervention that saves him.

Amanda tries again to tell Claude he needs to leave. However, he just becomes more obsessed with finding out what the hell is going on and he opens a secret door--and discovers that Professor Ernest Martin (Joseph Cotten) has been hiding in the walls. Martin is Amanda's father, but he's not doing well--and Rackham reveals he kept Claude alive because he needed a doctor to keep Martin alive.

You see, Martin is the secret to Rackham's operation because he has figured out how to communicate with the fishmen. Rackham reveals to Claude, via diving bell, that this island is the highest peak of the sunken continent of Atlantis. And several thousand feet below the water, the ancient sun temple is filled with treasure but no human can reach it. Luckily for Rackham, the natives of Atlantis had evolved into fishmen and Martin was able to concoct a drug to make the creatures obey him and bring their treasure up for him.

"Can you believe someone was just throwing this stuff out?"
Sounds a little too convenient, doesn't it? Claude sure thinks so, especially when he remembers how he had heard of professor Martin previously: he was caught conducting illegal experiments.

Claude leads Amanda into her father's secret lab. It's full of strange creatures (all added to the American cut), but the centerpiece is a tank where a human is in the process of transforming into a fishman (which was also altered for the American cut). Claude realizes the hapless bastard is Jose, which means that all the other fishmen also used to be humans but were transformed into monsters...

"Actually, I'm much happier this way!"
To say that Screamers is a rip-off of the 1977 adaptation of Island of Dr. Moreau is pretty plain, though it obviously takes pains to alter the story just enough to make it distinct. It's also pretty obvious that the film it started off as is very different from the movie Corman had it altered to become.

And yet, in spite of all that, the only Corman addition that really doesn't fit is the inexplicable zombie. I'm actually kind of amazed that the edits to the film were as restrained as they are, since it means that the spirit of the original film remains largely intact. Hell, it would have been very easy for Corman to insist on a quick flash of breasts be hastily inserted in the scene where Rackham walks in on Amanda in the bath--or to find a way to insert footage that made good on the first trailer's promise of raping fishmen.

Thankfully, Corman either resisted that impulse or it never actually occurred to him. The result is that Screamers is just a bloodier version of the original film, with a few marked improvements in the effects here and there. Frankly, that's for the best, as sometimes it's nice to get a more old-fashioned monster-centered adventure story instead of a hyper-exploitative one.

Of course, old-fashioned can be a bit of a double-edged sword. This movie is more than a little racist, as you may or may not have noticed. All the black characters in the film are either mindlessly loyal to Rackham or, like Shakira, they are secretly violent voodoo fanatics who want to sacrifice the white woman to appease the Gods. Yet the part that gets me is the fact that the fishmen are clearly supposed to be the island's missing natives.

I mention this because of what happens after Claude finds Jose the fishman and kills him out of mercy. Martin storms in, too late to stop Claude, and yells at him that in killing Jose he killed the first specimen with "actual human intelligence." There's more than a few ways you can interpret that, but I can't help but feel Martin means that it's because Jose started off as a white guy. Sure, a movie can have a racist character without being racist, but this ain't one of those times.

However, if you're able to get past some of the film's more unfortunate implications, Screamers is a lot of fun. Of course, my opinion is swayed more than a little bit by the fact that I find the film's fishmen to be adorable.

Welcome to the Day Nineteen of Hubri5Ween 2017, the fifth year of this nonsense! Click the banner above to see what everyone else did for S!

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