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Cult Classics Revisited: SCREAMERS (1981)


(Italy/US - 1981)

Directed by Sergio Martino and Miller Drake.  Written by Sergio Donati, Cesare Frugoni, Sergio Martino, Miller Drake. Cast: Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Richard Johnson, Beryl Cunningham, Joseph Cotten, Mel Ferrer, Cameron Mitchell, Franco Javarone, Roberto Posse, Giuseppe Castellano, Francesco Mazzieri, Eunice Bolt, Tom J. Delaney, James Alquist, Bobby Rhodes. (R, 90 mins)

The story of how the 1979 Italian fantasy adventure ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN became the 1981 Roger Corman drive-in splatter movie SCREAMERS is one of the more entertaining examples of hucksterism in the annals of exploitation cinema.  Just out on Blu-ray and DVD in its SCREAMERS incarnation courtesy of Scorpion Releasing, the circumstances surrounding the metamorphosis of ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN into SCREAMERS are covered in great detail in the set's bonus features. Contrary to popular belief, Roger Corman didn't have anything to do with the changes despite SCREAMERS being released by his New World Pictures. It came to him with the changes already in place. Richard Kay and Harry Rybnick were two veteran B-movie producers of such titles as 1956's CURUCU, BEAST OF THE AMAZON, and both had a hand in bringing Ishiro Honda's GOJIRA (1954) to the US and its restructuring into GODZILLA in 1956.  By 1980, Kay and Rybnick were still eking out a living on the fringes of Hollywood, with their company United Producers picking up foreign exploitation fare and frequently retitling them for their second and third runs through American drive-ins and grindhouses (for instance, Pete Walker's 1974 imprisoned-fashion-models thriller HOUSE OF WHIPCORD was twice relaunched via United Producers, first as PHOTOGRAPHER'S MODELS and then as the even more lurid STAG MODEL SLAUGHTER). Kay and Rybnick acquired Sergio Martino's ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN, a bizarre aquatic Italian ripoff of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU that blended elements of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, and approached PIRANHA director Joe Dante about beefing it up with some American actors and gory killings. Dante was busy with THE HOWLING at the time and sent the guys to his buddy Miller Drake, a trailer editor at New World who had been wanting to branch out into directing.  Drake took the job, recruited cinematographer Gary Graver, a longtime exploitation fixture whose main claim to fame among his friends was working on Orson Welles' shelved and never-released THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND in 1972, and assembled a crew comprised mainly of moonlighting New World staffers looking for some quick cash and some additional experience (future TERMINATOR producer and eventual James Cameron ex-wife Gale Anne Hurd is credited on SCREAMERS as "Maui location manager," even though no scenes were shot on Maui). Drake wrote and directed a prologue to be added to the beginning of FISHMEN with Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell, aging warhorses who had been in the business long enough to remember the glory days of Hollywood but were now taking any job that came along if it paid enough, being stalked and killed by slimy creatures that didn't really look like the ones in FISHMEN. Drake was supplied with a $50,000 budget for the prologue and the additional footage was shot in four nights at the caves at Bronson Canyon in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, a favorite location of Corman's going back to the 1950s.

Though Dante, who paid his dues at New World and clearly had bigger fish to fry by this time as he was about to break into the big leagues after THE HOWLING, declined the offer to shoot the new footage and wanted to keep his involvement under the radar, he did help Drake out by editing the footage and overseeing the overhaul of FISHMEN into SCREAMERS. Using the pseudonym "Giuseppe Dantini," Dante worked with Drake to streamline the 99-minute FISHMEN down to its basics, cutting it down to about 75 minutes to work in approximately 12-13 minutes of Drake's footage and a couple of other changes sprinkled throughout, like the addition of one character (James Alquist) who appears briefly only to get killed by one of the fishmen, and a later shot in a laboratory where Drake and soon-to-be-revered makeup effects maestro Chris Walas (THE FLY) replaced a shot of one of Martino's fishmen in a tank with their own, more CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON-ish monster--shot in a makeshift tank in Dante's garage--and the seams barely show until they're pointed out to you by Drake in his interview segment. The film, now running 90 minutes (75 minutes from FISHMEN, 13 minutes of Drake's material, plus new credits) was retitled SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK, given a new English dub (star Claudio Cassinelli dubs himself in FISHMEN, Italian accent intact, but has been revoiced by someone else for SCREAMERS) and even though it wasn't a slasher film, that's how Kay and Rybnick wanted it marketed, and they began shopping it around to distributors. Because of their knowing Dante and Drake having used a number of off-the-clock New World guys, Corman was happy to take it off their hands.  And that's where things got really interesting.

Original 1979 Italian ISLAND OF
THE FISHMEN poster art.
Using United Producers' artwork and assorted promo material, Corman sent SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK out to ten drive-ins in Virginia for a test run and it bombed.  Refusing to lose money on an investment, he pulled the film from distribution for a marketing overhaul that was assigned to New World advertising honcho and future filmmaker Jim Wynorski.  With SCANNERS being an early 1981 hit, Wynorski proposed the title SCREAMERS and it stuck.  He devised an ad campaign that made it look completely American, with Cassinelli renamed "Charles Cass," FISHMEN producer Luciano Martino changed to "Lawrence Martin," and a non-existent "Dan T. Miller" credited as director (the original Italian names remained intact in the film itself).  Most importantly, the new one-sheet boasted "Be warned: You will actually see a man turned inside out!" and on a Sunday afternoon, Wynorski quickly shot a TV spot that featured just one quick opening shot of actress Eunice Bolt screaming from the new SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK scenes and no footage whatsoever from ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN. Instead, it featured Wynorski's then-girlfriend running around the still-standing sets from the same year's GALAXY OF TERROR and a quick shot of a monster thrown together by his pal Rob Bottin (soon to make his mark with his makeup work on THE HOWLING and John Carpenter's THE THING) for free as a favor to Wynorski. A few weeks later, Corman picked Georgia for the new test run, and blitzed Atlanta and the surrounding areas with Wynorski's TV spot and sent out ten prints of the newly-christened SCREAMERS and its second test run was a smash hit.  But there was a problem: exhibitors and customers were furious that there was no scene of a man being turned inside out. Word got back to Corman, who told Wynorski that the scene needed to be there. The prints were recalled, and the shot of the Bottin monster from the TV spot and a couple of additional test footage shots were spliced into the fourth reel when Cassinelli is peeking in some various doors in a hallway. More prints were struck, and SCREAMERS became a decent drive-in and grindhouse hit in the summer of 1981. Unless you saw SCREAMERS on the big screen in 1981, you've never seen the complete "man turned inside out" footage. When Corman had the Bottin monster from the TV spot spliced into the existing prints, no one bothered splicing it into the negative. The prints are long gone.  The footage isn't in the negative, and it was the negative that was used for the Embassy Home Entertainment VHS release in the '80s and the subsequent interpositive utilized for the new Scorpion release (Dante, in his interview segment, is under the mistaken impression that the footage has been restored).

"Look, do you understand that I was
SCREAMERS is definitely an improvement over the lethargic ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN. Opening in 1891 with the prologue as broke fortune hunter Radcliffe (Ferrer) charters a boat to a Caribbean island captained by wily old sea salt Decker (Mitchell) only to have the entire party offed by rampaging fishmen in an orgy of throat-slashing, disemboweling, and decapitations, the action quickly shifts to Martino's original film, also set in the Caribbean in 1891, after the sinking of a prison ship, with a small band of survivors led by the doc in charge, Lt. Claude de Ross (Cassinelli).  They end up on the titular island of the fishmen, which is home to the fortress-like compound of the dastardly Edmund Rackham (a hammy Richard Johnson). Rackham believes the island lies over the ruins of Atlantis, and tells de Ross that the Fishmen are the amphibious descendants of the original inhabitants of Atlantis. Of course, he's lying.  The fishmen are actually mutants created from the remains of dead men by doddering, senile mad scientist Professor Marvin (Joseph Cotten), who believes he's doing altruistic work in abetting humanity's adaptation to the world's future (perhaps the insane doc was an early proponent of climate change?). In reality, Marvin and his daughter Amanda (Barbara Bach) are being held prisoner as Marvin's gill-man creations are being used to raid Atlantis--depicted in miniatures that would make Antonio Margheriti turn away in shame--for the endless buried treasures desired by the despicable Rackham.

This is the original fishman-in-progress creature discovered
in a tank in Prof. Martin's laboratory in  ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN, but
Richard Kay and Harry Rybnick didn't like the design, so
it was replaced with...
...this creature, designed by Chris Walas, for an insert shot
done by Miller Drake in a makeshift tank in Joe Dante's garage 
In its original form, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN was a harmlessly goofy adventure with a little violence but minimal gore.  It would've easily gotten a PG rating in America, but Kay and Rybnick told Drake they wanted R-rated gore and splatter but, being the old-schoolers that they were, weren't interested in nudity (Drake says he could've easily gotten Bolt, as Radcliffe's female companion, to go topless, but the old-timers shot it down). The SCREAMERS prologue delivers splatter and then some, with Mitchell getting his gut sliced open, Ferrer's throat being ripped out, and another guy getting his head torn off in graphic detail. The biggest cuts Dante and Drake made to FISHMEN in their streamlining it into SCREAMERS was cutting out a good chunk of Beryl Cunningham's screen time as Shakira, a priestess who spends most of FISHMEN blathering on about voodoo and accomplishing little more than slowing the movie down until Martino and co-writers Sergio Donati and Cesare Frugoni finally find a use for her in the climax.

Bach may have been a minor factor in whatever success was enjoyed by SCREAMERS. It's surprising New World didn't play up her involvement a little more, considering that in the summer after John Lennon's murder, anything involving the Beatles was big news, and right around the time of SCREAMERS' release, Bach was a ubiquitous media presence thanks to her marriage to Ringo Starr after the two became an item while shooting the surprise hit comedy CAVEMAN, which hit theaters a couple months before SCREAMERS. Bach's potential breakout role as a Bond girl in 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME got her the global notoriety that came with being a Bond girl, but like many of her predecessors, it evaporated quickly, and by 1979, she was back doing the same European B-movies she was prior to her time with 007, starting with back-to-back aquatic horrors with Martino, first FISHMEN and then THE BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER, which debuted in America on CBS in 1982 as THE GREAT ALLIGATOR.  At the ripe old age of 37, Bach retired from acting after she and Starr appeared in Paul McCartney's 1984 vanity project GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET. In the early 1990s, she enrolled in UCLA to get a Master's in Psychology, and in the years since, the now 66-year-old Bach has been involved in humanitarian work for numerous charities, generally staying out of the public eye but almost always seen accompanying Starr at red carpet events. Most of FISHMEN's main cast returned in ALLIGATOR, including Bach, Cassinelli (whose tragic 1985 death on the set of another Martino film is discussed here), Johnson, and Bobby Rhodes, who appeared in FISHMEN as a servant and would later go on to cult movie glory for his roles in Lamberto Bava's DEMONS and DEMONS 2. ALLIGATOR also featured Mel Ferrer, who had no idea he'd inadvertently be part of the FISHMEN reunion in a roundabout way thanks to the SCREAMERS additions. Johnson and Cotten were both busy hamming it up in Eurotrash at the time, with Johnson also starring in Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE the same year as the Martino films. Cotten, who appears to have been granted the privilege of live-on-set sound, really dives into his mad scientist role with the utmost enthusiasm--he only has two or three scenes, but judging from his work here, you'd think he was as invested in this as he was CITIZEN KANE, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and THE THIRD MAN decades earlier. That's a pro.

Mel Ferrer collecting an easy
$10,000 for his work on SCREAMERS
ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN was never officially seen in its original form in the US until Eurocult outfit Mya Communication released it on DVD in 2009.  The Mya transfer is acceptable for the most part, with some very murky bits and various rough spots. Scorpion's SCREAMERS presentation essentially makes the FISHMEN DVD obsolete--not only is the quality better (except for one exterior scene with Bach offering some blue potion to the fishmen that's still quite murky, which must just be the way it was shot), but SCREAMERS, even with its patched-together nature, is the far more entertaining and fast-paced film. The Blu-ray also offers reversible artwork if you prefer the SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK poster design (both one-sheets can be spotted adorning the walls of the Civic TV offices in David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME). Corman knew how to make a movie play, and he obviously taught guys like Dante and Drake well, not to mention Wynorski, whose carnival barker act of an ad campaign upped the hyperbole factor past a point where even Corman was left bewildered.  In the bonus features, Wynorski talks of getting the call from Corman on Saturday morning after he received word of the Friday night debacle of drive-in owners and audiences furiously voicing their outrage at not seeing a man turned inside out.  "Jim, is there a man turned inside out in the picture?" the always soft-spoken Corman asked.  "No, Roger.  There isn't," Wynorski sheepishly replied, expecting to hear the words "You're fired." Instead, Corman told him to get down to the office so they could figure out what they were going to do to fix it. "You mean I'm not fired?" Wynorski asked.  "No, Jim.  You put people in seats.  I'll never fire anyone for putting people in seats.  But we need the inside out man." Roger Corman:  a man who always knows what his audience wants.

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