Silver Screams: The Island (1980)

Silver Screams continues with Jonathon Dabell taking a look at Peter Benchley’s  The Island starring Michael Caine.

Following the runaway success of Jaws, it was perhaps inevitable that producers Richard D Zanuck and David Brown would return to the works of Jaws-author Peter Benchley in search of more box office gold. Benchley’s novel The Island provides the source of inspiration this time round, and the result is one of the most downright peculiar big budget studio movies ever released.

The producers even manage to secure the services of Michael Caine for the leading role. In the early ‘80s Caine lent his talents to a trio of variable bloodcurdlers, The Island being the first of the three (Dressed To Kill and The Hand followed soon afterwards). Scripted by Benchley himself, with versatile director Michael Ritchie at the helm, The Island promises to be a pretty good film. Alas, it largely fails to live up to its potential… something just doesn’t quite click in the overall handling, resulting in a film that is something of a misfire.

Things get off to a spectacularly gory start when a group of holidaymakers are slaughtered by mysterious attackers who board their luxury yacht in the Bermuda Triangle. A hatchet is planted in a skull; a stomach is sliced open spilling guts across the deck; limbs are dismembered in glorious close-up. As horror film openings go, it’s a case of so-far-so-good during the first ten minutes.

This isn’t the first strange happening in the region, either. Investigative journalist Blair Maynard (Michael Caine) is intrigued to learn from coast guard figures that there are several hundred unexplained disappearances per decade in this part of the Bermuda Triangle. With his estranged son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) in tow, he heads off to delve further into the mystery.

All these killings and disappearances are eventually revealed to be the doing of a long-lost community of pirate throwbacks, who have survived undetected for several centuries by plundering passing pleasure boats and killing everyone on board to keep their existence secret. Or, as Caine eloquently describes them: “a bunch of arseholes playing Long John-Fucking-Silver!” Now they want his son to join their number and also plan to use Caine as a mating stud to regenerate their sterile inbred gene pool.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong with The Island. Individually the components are all there for a better film than the one we ultimately get. Decent performances, a good Ennio Morricone score, a uniquely unusual plot, plenty of gruesome mayhem… for some reason these promising ingredients don’t gel, and the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

There are not many genuinely scary moments, just lots of bloodthirsty action which eventually becomes dull through repetition. A few scenes rise above the banality of it all – an off-the-wall martial arts sequence, a rousing raid on a US Coastguard ship, a frenzied machine gun massacre – but between these highlights the film is rather disappointing.

It seems that we critics spend all our time grumbling about the lack of freshness and originality in the vast majority of movies we watch. Then along comes a totally unique and outlandish film like The Island and still we rip it to shreds. The fact is that this could have been a weird and wonderful action/horror film if handled more deftly. It’s best described as a good idea gone awry. Certainly there’s a valid shout here for a remake which might coax a better end product from the promising material.

Fans of the utterly bizarre will probably enjoy it more than others, but ultimately The Island must go down as a mis-hit.

FMV Rating **

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