In the early days of the VHS tape, my family’s video outlet was a glorified kiosk in the mall called “Stage Door Video.” The horror section was about the size of a closet door and I’d be surprised if I didn’t watch every one. The selection may have been limited but the memories of the movies I viewed via that joint are among my strongest and richest horror memories. I’m not sure if TERMINAL ISLAND really belonged in the horror section, it’s more of an exploitation/action flick but the synopsis on the back of the box suggested something not unlike ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (although TI predates EFNY by 8 years) so I was more than game. You rolled the dice back then.
The premise of the movie involves the aftermath of the abolishment of the death penalty. Murderous criminals, rather than being jailed, are thrown on the titular island and left to fend for themselves. I only retained one memory of this film but it stuck to me like Velcro. A female prisoner seduces a male prisoner, applies honey to his junk and then grabs a stick, whacks a bee hive in a tree stump and chuckles as the bees swarm his private Benjamin. It really disturbed me. I couldn’t tell you why a person (or a bee for that matter) would behave in such a way. The idea was atrocious.
I never saw TERMINAL ISAND again. I never stumbled across it in another video store and I like to think I covered those grounds like an obsessive archaeologist in my day. Recently I was informed by Amazon that TERMINAL was being released on DVD by CODE RED. I waited the allotted time to purchase a used copy and prepared to confront my tormentor head on. When the DVD arrived, I threw it in the machine in the spirit of a private dare and expected an onslaught of depravity. I wasn’t looking for scares just SILKWOOD-shower inspiring psychological grime and garden-variety existential dread. What I wasn’t expecting was a dragon with puppy eyes. TERMINAL ISLAND is not evil, it’s nice.
Well, truth told it IS super violent, there’s plenty of that almost pink-hued, seventies tempera-flavored blood flowing; axes pierce flesh, bullets and explosions rain, people are whipped and kept as sex slaves and political correctness is not even a glimmer in a schoolmarm’s eye. Still, I was kind of shocked not by the rampant degeneracy but by the winking social commentary. I got this movie all wrong. Even the dreaded bee attack I came to find was not so much psychotically malicious as it was a deserved comeuppance. That lady even worked alongside her bee victim afterward toward a common goal (which is pretty forgiving considering all the attempted rape between them.) I won’t wreck the ending but suffice to say, it’s nearly golly-gee hopeful.
The island is a mad LORD OF THE FLIES meets BATTLE ROYALE microcosm overruled by grotesque, primitive “might makes right” ideology and the simple fact that the assholes outnumber the non-assholes. The many work as slaves for the few. (Could never happen!) That is until the last remaining women team up with a small band of tight-jeaned revolutionaries and they, using their superior brains, overthrow their oppressors by any means necessary. Here I was expecting to be all scandalized by this movie but I found myself instead enthralled, vaguely inspired and really happy when the bad murderers died and really sad when the good murderers died. It doesn’t hurt that our heroes include a pre-MAGNUM P.I . TOM SELLECK and a post LOST IN SPACE , MARTA KRISTEN. In any case, if you fancy fisticuffs and have a soft spot for chika-chika- wow porn music here ya go; consider TI cloud nine. It’s probably not everybody’s incarcerated cup of T & A, but what the hell is?
Frankly, I’m most shocked that TERMINAL ISLAND is not more wildly notorious and that’s not just my nostalgia-bias talking. Not only is it action packed and covertly clever but I found out it was directed by STEPHANIE ROTHMAN, a rare female exploitation director and the very first woman ever awarded a Directors Guild of America fellowship. It’s nothing new to return to a KINDERTRAUMA after some time and discover that it’s not quite the creature you left it. Usually it’s lost some steam and its fangs have become dentures. In this atypical case, I have to say maturity is on my side because no, it’s not the film I remember, it’s better. In this case, my monster is now my friend because the years have taught me to take a peek beneath the camouflage tarp. I know now that just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, by the same token, sometimes a beehive is much more than a beehive. That lady with the honey wasn’t crazy, she was pissed!