Monday, October 15, 2012

Island of Blood (1982) dir. William T. Naud

 a.k.a. Scared Alive; Whodunit

Logline: A gaggle of no-talent actors are stranded on an island and are picked off one by one according to the lyrics of an unusually masochistic punk rock song until then there were none.

Crime in the Past: Not applicable? I can't be too sure of this. There's an opening murder that seems to bear no relation to the events that follow, and if there's any sort of coherent explanation of its relevancy then that passed me right by. In any case, this isle of hemoglobin was not sprung by any crime in particular.

Bodycount:11, none of whom will ever hit the big time.

Themes/Moral Code: I was pleasantly surprised at the overt cynicism of Island of Blood. It's not as if cynicism is a rarity in horror cinema, but this cheapo slasher borders on the nihilistic: the world is shit, it argues, full of people who will exploit, kill, or blow you up (indeed, there's even some very light political commentary here), and the worst part is that none of it matters. The fact that few of these people will leave this island makes very little difference to the world they live in or to us as viewers. Fittingly, the film puts across this theme both on strictly narrative and meta levels.

This cynical nature is easy to see in the film's proper narrative. When members of their company start turning up dead, the characters don't express the amount of concern or fright that you'd imagine-- but maybe that's not surprising, as these "characters" are hardly recognizably human, the film instead choosing to set them up as mere bowling pins with painted faces. They value neither the lives of their fellows nor themselves-- one character talks of shooting himself so that he can be the first in line at the pearly gates because he "hates long lines." If we only have these characters to judge it upon, then humanity is shallow, vapid, and not worth saving.

On a meta level, the film's organizing principle is a congregation of creative "talent" on the titular island with the goal of creating what the director and producer refer to as a "very positive [...] up up movie," one that's "not a downer" like the rest of contemporary cinema and which demonstrates "what is right with the world." The film they aim to produce is a teen rock musical about saving a school scholarship fund, but Island of Blood encapsulates their earnest cinematic ambitions in a slasher film bloodbath, which both belittles their aims and stands as an argument against them-- from the perspective of the audience, it's probably more fun to watch them all die than to watch them create such "up up" junk. One might even hazard that the film is attempting to send up the early '80s movie-going culture that would prefer to see cynical, pessimistic slasher films over life-affirming, optimistic films-- but this is a direction complicated by the fact that, on most levels, Island of Blood is exactly the sort of exploitative horror film that the film itself (from this perspective) would be arguing against. More likely, this film enjoys its cynicism. Its filmmakers were able to produce a cynical film that sneers at itself, its audience, and those who make films like it, while partaking of the most cynical act of all: cashing the checks they collected from it.

Killer's Motivation: In standard kooky mystery-thriller tradition, we aren't allowed a peek at the surprise motives until the film's final moments, but the twist here is an enjoyable doozy. The killer is the film's producer, Steve (Terence Goodman), who actually gathered all these aspiring thespians together with the intention of killing them and filming all those deaths in order to create the greatest snuff film of all time. Now besides the logistical unlikelihood of any such set up (where were his crews? how did he stash and operate the cameras all by himself?), this revelation adds a real sweet layer of nihilism on top of an already quite cynical film: even the supposedly earnest producer claiming his desire to create an "up up movie" is full of it, and instead produces a piece of pure, grisly exploitation, an act that effectively evacuates all meaning from both human life (by way of its indiscriminate murdering) and human intention (morality ain't exactly a concern here) in the interest of a senseless capitalistic venture. To top it all off and somehow make the film even bleaker, Steve then coerces BJ, the final girl, into shooting him immediately after she discovers his plot, dismantling the very pretext of his actions being inspired by his desire for financial gain. He coerces her to do this blankly, without affectation or emotion, droning "shoot me" until she finally does, rendering even his "evil" act ultimately pointless, in his own eyes and those of the narrative.

Final Girl: I thought the film was setting up Lyn (Jeanine Marie), a girl on crutches, to be its heroine. I liked her: despite her mild infirmity, she's no nonsense, a little snotty, and possesses an unnerving conviction (at one point, she dares another character, in all earnestness, to slit her throat if he doesn't believe her). But no, she dies, and it turns out our final girl is BJ (Bari Suber), a character who up until it's revealed that she is the last woman standing has distinguished herself only through her horrible acting (within the film and within the film within the film) and eagerness to sleep with her director. She's the antithesis of the expected final girl, though not in an endearing or progressive way. Rather, she seems to be a deliberate swipe at the significance of the final girl's role, which would certainly be keeping in step with the rest of the film's aims.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  Like American Nightmare, Island of Blood is a surface-level quasi-giallo more so than a slasher, deriving a greater amount of inspiration from Agatha Christie than Friday the 13th. (This allegiance is put on full display in one of the film's alternate titles, Whodunit, which is more accurately phrased Whocareswhodunit). The rather incompetent slaughtering is offset by an unending string of corny, goofball attempts at humor, which are occasionally amusing in spite of themselves. I liked the character of Bert (Red McVay), a cantankerous caretaker with a basic (and ultimately well-founded) mistrust of the buffoons he's taking care of. I also, perhaps against my own wishes, began to enjoy the plot device of the swinging cassette player that emerges from above frame and begins blaring a quite repetitive punk rock song ("Face to Face") every time the murderer is about to strike (which is often), the song's lyrics pointing out ahead of time the exact method of execution to be enacted on the latest victim ("BOIL ME, BOIL ME, SET ME ON FIRE," etc.). (This is a slasher plot device that would be parodied to amusing effect in the almost note-perfect slasher send-up Club Dread (2004)). Appropriately, Island of Blood is extremely light on plot and character-- it launches almost immediately into its barely competent killing and before you know it the credits are rolling. It's a crass, cynical film with a brash, cynical message-- I kind of dug it.

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