10/27/2017 – Greece: Island of Death (Ta pediá tou Diavólou) (1976)
Directed by Nico Mastorakis
For my third country profile of the year after China and Switzerland, I will be taking a look at Greece. As I described in the review of the latter, much of scoping out potential films was just entering in random countries and finding out if they had a horror film available to discuss. Europe though has been especially well represented with 19 of the 51 (though that number is debatable) nations represented thus far with at least one more to go in the transcontinental Turkey. They also represent 19 of the 44 nations spotlighted period aided by the large number of countries (second most after Africa) and especially the large number of developed countries.
The cinema of Greece dates back to the 1910s with the first feature film, Golfo, being released in 1911. It wasn’t until the 1950s however when Greek films started making an impact abroad. Films such as The Counterfeit Coin, Stella, and The Ogre of Athens jumpstarted the industry in the mid-50s and the 60s brought even more acclaim. Three of the country’s five Best Foreign Language Film nominations (1962’s Electra, 1963’s The Red Lanterns, 1965’s Blood on the Land) saw their release as well as the big hits the dual Greek/English language films Never on Sunday and Zorba the Greek. In addition, Greek expat Costa-Gravas (probably the most famous Greek director) won an Oscar for his film Z, based on a Greek politician.
That era was largely brought to an end by the takeover of the government by Greek military (and the requisite accompanying censorship). It’s fall in 1974 however allowed for a number of acclaimed works such as The Travelling Players (ranked #102 on the Sight and Sound Critics Poll) and Iphigenia in the late 70s and Rembetiko, Sweet Bunch, and Voyage to Cythera in the 80s, and Eternity and a Day in the 90s.
The country wouldn’t see another rebirth until, like so many other nations, in the 00s. While A Touch of Spice got mainstream appeal, it was 2009’s Dogtooth which launched both Greek Cinema and the career of Yorgos Lanthimos who would later direct Alps before moving to English for the fantastic The Lobster and this year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. As a result, films such as Plato’s Academy, Attenberg, Worlds Apart, and Suntan have received an increased critical attention even if none have really reached the notability of Lanthimos’ work.
Once again, I have to point out that none of those films are actually horror. In fact, there’s probably only two notable films in the genre from that nation. Singapore Sling is a cult-art horror title, but Island of Death is easily the most famous. Granted, Island of Death is mostly notable for its status as a video nasty (maybe one day I’ll take a dive into that topic) and being banned across the world. It’s low budget exploitation film made solely to capitalize on the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre though that film has little in common with this one.
Filmed in English with only a bit of non-subtitled Greek, Island of Death is set on the island of Mykonos, two Londoner newlyweds wanted by the cops rent a house with the help of an effete gay man who is about to get married. Together they go on a rampage, bringing terror to this small island in this early slasher. I’ve criticized before movies that seem to be pure plot and this one is little different. In fact, it recalls Salò or I Spit on Your Grave in the way it feels like a series of awful things happening in a row. Unlike those films, I never found Island of Death all that difficult to watch even at its worst since it is comparatively tame visually and lacks any sense of tension.
The guy (who is always taking pictures and seems to hate all the “perverted” people of the world) calls his mom from a phone booth and makes her listen to him fuck his new wife, SPOILERS an act that seems even more cruel given the twist. END OF SPOILERS Yet this is nothing for him, as his next task comes in the form of raping and stabbing a goat to death. The wife starts talking to and having sex with a local painter, an encounter that ends with the young couple nailing the painter’s hands down in a crucified pose and pour paint down his throat until he dies. Unsatisfied and fearing that American knows too much, the man bursts in on the couple on their wedding night and slices the one man to death with a sword while she shoots the other in the head as he fellates the gun, the two framing the whole thing as a murder-suicide
The two are pursued by a police officer who had been pursuing them back in England and a local crime writer. The subplot about a police officer is resolved quickly and anti-climactically when they kill him using a plane to hang him, and it almost feels like the writer is just half assedly written in as a replacement. The wife starts having concerns about continuing their rampage, at first mostly out of boredom and concern they will get caught in a small town, but later she starts to appear to be more genuine lack of interest in tormenting others anymore as he starts pressuring her more and more to continue.
The man takes a wealthy woman to bed and urinates on her, beats her unconscious and then drops the plow off a bulldozer on her next to decapitate her. Two stereotypical hippies wander in randomly and unexplainedly and attempt to rape her, but they are caught and murdered. Then the wife is forced to have sex with a local woman and junkie who may know too much only for the man to come in and murder her with a lethal dose of heroin after forcing a bunch of alcohol down her throat, sealing the deal by burns her face with an improvised flamethrower (the last bit for seemingly no reason except to make it obvious it was a murder). Feeling motivated by this, he tries to rape another woman and when she escapes, he chases her down and murders her with a scythe.
It’s all just completely senseless and violence for its own sake. Even the twist SPOILERS where it turns out they are brother and sister feels like something added purely for shock value. The sister keeps having dreams about a strange local man (who is probably mentally challenged) raping her and then killing the man and well it comes true, with the guy taking pictures when he wakes up and sees it instead of helping. The local man then rapes his unconscious body as she watches on smiling before throwing him into a pit of lye. The film ends with the two new lovers going at it as the brother is trapped until the storm comes to dissolve him (not shown). END OF SPOILERS
I can’t say I was disappointed because frankly I expected the movie to suck. I was expecting at least something more interesting though. I was expecting a Greek answer to Cannibal Holocaust in terms of content but instead it failed to shock and the kills aren’t even very interesting. There is a good deal of full frontal nudity but none from any males (it is painstakingly made obvious that they are avoiding even an accidental shot of one), which make clear the exploitation intentions. The film lacks any real visual style. Okay it has a style as is has a number of weird shots that almost look like a fish eye lens and is has some of the lamest day for night work as night is represented by a really noticeably blue filter. It’s just that the style feels too much like generic exploitation film and it’s just a parade of lame kills with no substance behind it. A plot that is simultaneously too slow and threadbare.
Bonus Episode #14 – Natural: Willard (1971)
Directed by Daniel Mann
Yes, I know I was beaten to this review already but that’s not gonna stop me from looking at Willard (and Ben on another night). I’ve seen the 2003 version of Willard starring professional weirdo Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey and directed by the guy who did Black Christmas and can best describe it as fine. Obviously, the brunt of the film is placed on Glover playing a version of his popular persona and that is basically the extent to which the film succeeds. The original however was released in 1971 and is a bit more down to Earth of an affair if basically the same story in the broad strokes.
A put upon, introverted, and meek employee (played by a young Bruce Davison in only his third role, the first being in the very good but hard to watch Last Summer) dealing with both his asshole of a boss (played by Ernest Borgnine) who stole the company from his father and his overbearing mother (Played by Elsa Lanchester of Bride of Frankenstein fame). Ordered to kill some rats living on the property where he and his mother live, he instead saves them and starts to train them, especially a white rat he names Socrates and a giant black rat named Ben. He is able to communicate (growing closer to Socrates) and order them about with the more violent Ben even learning how to read.
Now if you are grossed out by the sight of rats, this is not the film for you because there are rats everywhere, but the idea of them is treated seriously and not as just some shock device. Growing tired of being mistreated Davison starts to use his rats for his own ends. He unleashes his rats on a party hosted by his boss to completely embarrass him. After losing his mom who leaves him nothing be a heavily mortgaged house, he plots to use them to help him steal from his boss. SPOILERS However, the rats are spotted and Socrates is killed by Willard’s boss. While Borgnine plays a thoroughly slimy character, this is a move cheered by basically everyone who isn’t Willard so it is really only Willard (and the viewers who have grown close to Socrates) who views this as anything evil.
This finally gives him the nerve to confront his boss and ultimately order his rats to kill him. It also gives him newfound confidence to help him with a budding relationship with a cute temp. However, the rats start overwhelming his basement and he is gruesomely killed when he tries to poison them all. It’s a tragic story of a man who gets mistreated by the world and the moment he finally gets everything he wanted, his Faustian bargain (with the rats) comes to collect. END OF SPOILERS
The rat effects are good, and the film is far less cheesy than it could be. This is no classic to be sure as quite a bit of the acting is well… off as there is far too much ACTING. Borgnine is always great when called upon to chew scenery and Davison at least keeps things mostly in check. I quite enjoyed the film as a quirky little horror title.
Next up: I knock off another country with the Laotian film Dearest Sister.