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The Island (1980)

August 8th, 2008 by unkle lancifer · 22 Comments

For a film that I do not often think about, I sure have a long and varied history with THE ISLAND, a 1980 wannabe-actioner based on a novel by JAWS scribe PETER BENCHLEY. The first time I saw it, my father took me and my brothers to go see it in the theater. I was about the same age as the young boy in the film and I remember absolutely loving the flick as a violent, forbidden spectacle that fanned my adolescent running away and joining the circus fantasies. The next time I saw it, I was in my early twenties and I hated it. I thought it was trash and I wondered what I was thinking as a lad. Now, after watching it once more as a theoretical adult, I have to say that early twenties me was a pretentious poser who wouldn’t know fun if it karate chopped him on the neck! MICHAEL CAINE stars as a delightfully lenient dad (nudie mags and a gun are allowed for his 12-year-old son) who just happens to be trying to solve mankind’s greatest and most relevant natural mystery, that of the dreaded Bermuda Triangle! (I cannot get enough of the Bermuda Triangle). What he finds instead is a bunch of crazy pirates who like to plant axes into tourists’ skulls and swipe their luggage. CAINE‘s son is brainwashed and groomed to become one of the pirates, thanks to his excellent marksmanship and CAINE himself is kept on a leash and used for breeding purposes. It’s all as insane as it sounds, and is probably one of the few examples of a big budget exploitation flick. I agree with 20-year-old me that it’s all pretty stupid, but 12-year-old me was smart enough to be satisfied watching literally dozens of men machine gunned down in an awesome climax that would become a video game staple 20 years later. My one complaint is that the actual pirates look like crap. Maybe this was the director’s lone unwanted nod toward reality, but they are a sickly, toothless lot that look like they could be swept away with a large feather duster. (Saving CAINE for “breeding” purposes is a bit sketchy too). Maybe I’ve read too many matchbook covers, but I thought pirates looked less like Tippy the Turtle and more like this exquisetly butch “DRAW ME!” specimen…

Anyway, as a kid not only did I covet the exciting lifestyle of CAINE‘s son who gets to murder people while pretending to be brainwashed and will never be acountable for his actions, but I was also very much fascinated by this girl…

Her parents were murdered in front of her eyes and now she operates as a decoy! She poses as if she needs help and then when someone tries to aid her, the pirates come out and slit their throats. I know it sounds sick, but I think that this is the best job ever! All she has to do is sit there and do a creepy smile once and awhile!

The most laughable scene in the movie happens when the pirates invade a boat of coke smugglers and come face to face with a BRUCE LEE impersonator who wears his shirt tied up around his waist like Mary Ann from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Something tells me this guy was in line to host DANCE FEVER right after DENEY TERRIO and ADRIAN ZMED. This is a full two years before the famous superfluous karate scene in PIECES and really has to be seen (and heard) to be believed…

I swore long ago that I would never use the phrase “So bad it’s good,” so I’m not going to start now, but make no mistake THE ISLAND is super-fantastic-awesome-genius if you take it with a very large grain of sea salt. If you’re lucky, it can also make you feel like you’re a 12-year old kid again.

And as for my 20 year old self, good riddance I say. What kinda ingrate thumbs his nose at a movie that is kind enough to throw this lovely image at the viewer in the first ten minutes?

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Tags: Tykes in Trouble

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 kittyleclawNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 12:32 am

    this exquisetly butch “DRAW ME!” specimen

    Tee-hee! Thanks for tossing in this giggle to distract me from my bone-jarring fear of the Bermuda Triangle. To even contemplate it makes me feel nauseous. Tied-Shirt Guy is not helping!

    Crazy movie, Dear Uncle. And, is it just me, or is Mr. Axehead a dead ringer for Pappy The Child-Molestin’ Good Luck Troll*?

    Registered Trademark, Russ Industries. All Rights Reserved.

  • 2 TankNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 3:10 am

    Well done, my man!  I visit this site every day, addicted to reading everyone’s recollections of their pop-culture scars. I have been wanting to join in for some time, having whittled down a list of my own run-for-mommy’s-arms moments from various films and TV programs. And THE ISLAND was at the top of my list! In the early ’80s, when I was roughly 9 or 10, my family finally spritzed for our 1st VCR. My dad would always rent a couple of titles for the whole fam, but then 1 or 2 R-rated flicks for him, that he would hide from us kids and watch in the later hours. Of course, I made it my mission in life to suss out this secret stash, and try to watch as many as I could before the old man got home from work. Because of my dad’s responsible parenting, I was a fairly sheltered child, at least when it came to graphically violent films. Which was not very good preparation AT ALL for the time I found THIS gem in his not-too-well-thought-out location for hoarding. (The cabinet above the fridge. Real stealthy, Pops.) I had invited my best friend over to check this one out, as we had vivid recollections of the striking video box art (that pale, grey hand rising out of the water, grasping an axe). We popped it in and sat real close to the TV, the better to quickly switch it off and return it lightning quick back to the Rated R Cabinet. As stated in your article, the film gets off to a running start, with the murderous hijacking of a scooner by the (yes, now ridiculous) baddies of the film.  My wimpy 10-year-old ass, however, was NOT ready for that jump-scare moment of head-splitting gore when that 1st axe comes up out of nowhere and goes THWACK right through some poor bastard’s melon. I remember hauling ass backwards on ass and elbows, and uncontrollably BAWLING at what my eyes just sent to my brain for permanent registry. Of course, my asshole best friend (whose parents were a lot more leniant on his viewing habits) just sat there and mercilessly tore into me for being such a goddamn ninny. The bastard didn’t let up on me, never letting me forget this unfortunate episode for the rest of our friendship. (Of course, I gave it back to him later when I witnessed him yelping and diving into his dad’s lap during the face-ripping scene in POLTERGEIST). Like many die-hard horror/exploitation fans, my love for this type of cinema grew out of being completely affronted by something I didn’t understand…but wanted to very badly. After a few years (and some therapy), I went back for more and soon became a huge fan of the genre. You are correct that this is, to put it very kindly, a flawed film. The last scene grab posted above was the EXACT moment of my freak-out. Funny how painfully absurd and fake it looks today. But I’ll always hold it near and dear for being my gateway into the darker, nastier, and (particularly in the case of THE ISLAND) goofier realms of fringe cinema. Thanks for sharing this one, my man! Ahhh, memories…THWACK!

  • 3 AbsintheNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 8:01 am

    You forgot to mention Mr. Wanna-be-Bruce-Lee’s awesome John Ritter shorts -=- that is enough to send most children running for their mommies.

  • 4 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 8:51 am


    Please don’t let this review convince you to cancel our plans to go on a troll hunting expedition in the Bermuda Triangle later this summer. We must unravel the mystery!

    Thanks for the excellent memories and a comment that far surpasses the actual post! I love that your father hid his copy of THE ISLAND from you. Such a fascinating (and rare) aspect of the movie is the relationship between father and son. Remember that great scene when the son has to shoot a melon of some kind from M.C.’s hands? Then the boy informs his now covered in mellon pulp father that he’s no longer his son? I love how they played on the father’s fear of his son eclipsing him while also playing attention to every kid’s secret wish to rebel and run wild. If Hollywood really must continue with the remakes then this movie would be a perfect one to take on. All it really needs by way of improvement is competent casting and better art direction. Can you imagine how cool they could make the pirate village if they really tried?

    I just had to avoid those shorts! Mr. Furley would never approve. Seriously I had to be very careful with my screen shots to keep Kindertrauma SFW!

  • 5 TenebrousKateNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    You had me at “drawing test pirate” (I did not have to draw a pirate OR a turtle in order to get into art school–which still disappoints me) and then you RE-had me at Danny Terrio.  “Dance Fever,” “Dracula,” and “Josie and the Pussycats” were serious influences on pre-school-age Me.

  • 6 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    The troika of entertainment you describe, Dance Fever, Dracula and Josie and the pussycats, are according to me findings, directly responsible for the Bermuda triangle phenomenon.

    NOTE: In the interest of clarification it should be said that No, that is NOT your own Unkle Lancifer and his high school sweetheart FRIGHT NIGHT’s Amanda Bearse shown cutting a rug on the DANCE FEVER clip provided, as some have suggested.

  • 7 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    My father took me to see this and the Black Hole when I was a kid. Oh yeah, and the In Laws. One of the reasons I love him so much is because of this. I mean, what was he thinking? My parents were pretty free reign on my viewing pleasures, even though my dad was not as happy as I was that horror became a passion. Still, he supported it. My dad was cool.

    This brought back some nice memories for me. I guess being traumatized was pleasant for me! Thanks for the post!

  • 8 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 2:23 pm


    Since my dad took me to see THE ISLAND as well, the whole time I was watching it I was thinking about how cool my dad is. (In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that THE ISLAND is the perfect Father’s day movie, they should show it every year on that day.) The subject of appropriate times to allow kids to see certain movies comes up every once and awhile around here and because I don’t have kids I usually don’t chime in. The fact of that matter is though, when I look back at watching THE ISLAND with my father I think of him fondly and about how cool he is… Not so much with THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG RIDES AGAIN (79). Now there’s a movie that makes me think “What was he thinking?!”

  • 9 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 2:27 pm


    I just remembered that my dad thinks Tim Conway is the funniest person who ever lived. THAT’s what he was thinking!

  • 10 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    I actually like the Apple Dumpling Gang. I do.

  • 11 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    As far as enjoying THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG, I plead the fifth.

  • 12 micksterNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Oh boy! I needed a good laugh today. Is this awesome specimen available on DVD? I will check Netflix immediately. That dude with the shirt tied at the waist and hot pants is too cool for words! He definitely would have been a better host than Adrian Zmed for the outfit alone.

  • 13 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    I hate to say it but THE ISLAND is not available on DVD except as a German region2 import. They do have a download version on Amazon strangely enough but I have a feeling it will be a VHS rip (this movie deserves to be seen widescreen). I’ve never attempted the Amazon download thingy but it may actually be worth it for the karate scene alone.

  • 14 micksterNo Gravatar // Aug 8, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Unkle, I also found it on ioffer.com. I don’t know if you have looked there before, but I have found a few hard to find titles there that were of decent quality. Too bad you aren’t in Alabama because it is going to be a Love Boat and Fantasy Island double feature at my house Saturday night!

  • 15 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 9, 2008 at 8:58 am


    Alabama here I come! Also, I’ll make sure to check out ioffer, It’s amazing how many great movies like THE ISLAND that are still not available on DVD!

  • 16 FilmFatherNo Gravatar // Aug 9, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Oh man, that girl with the creepy smile! I totally forgot about her (and much of THE ISLAND, I must admit).

    What makes her smile extra-creepy is that in the film, it’s intercut with shots of the pirates hacking up the people she tricked!

  • 17 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 9, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    It’s settled. I have to read the book. I must find out more about “creepy smile girl”…

  • 18 micksterNo Gravatar // Aug 9, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Unkle L, You missed out tonight! Christopher George played a race-car driver in the episode of Fantasy Island we watched. He was wearing some super groovy leisure suits. Oh, and Alan “The Skipper” Hale was in the episode too. Were you able to find The Island on ioffer?

  • 19 sbdNo Gravatar // Aug 10, 2008 at 1:14 am

    I’m curious about an exploration of the concept of the “big budget exploitation flick”.  I think you’ll find there are tons of examples out there.  All of Peter Benchley’s movie adaptations should fall into this class for one thing – JAWS certainly, and how could you not count THE DEEP in this class?  With pirates, murder, creepy critters and Jacquie Bisset as a one-woman wet t-shirt contest, this movie is tops on this list, IMHO (unfortunately I haven’t seen THE ISLAND so I can’t say this definitively).  Like JAWS, any movie that preys on any relatively universal phobia should be included as well: EARTHQUAKE, AIRPORT, TOWERING INFERNO – basically all the (usually) low-on-substance, big-on-mayhem disaster movies can be considered exploitative.  Need I go on?  I’m certain Aunt & Unkle and the rest of the Bloggers can rape this subject more thoroughly than I ever could 🙂

  • 20 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 10, 2008 at 9:36 am


    I think you may have something there but I gotta tell you THE ISLAND goes above and beyond the call of duty as compared to the films you mentioned. Besides the gore (throats slashed, axe in head), violence (gunning down dozens of men at a time), and sex (CAINE is a sex slave, though not complaining) the overall tone celebrates mayhem like most Hollywood pictures wouldn’t dare dream. I think the reason I even used the term “exploitation” is because it reminded me so much of the film TERMINAL ISLAND from a few years before (but with a budget). Those disaster/action flicks you mentioned certainly prey on the audience’s baser instincts, but they do follow some code of taste and propriety. I think that’s probably what I was trying to say and that didn’t come out clearly. Regardless of its budget, THE ISLAND operates similar to an exploitation/grindhouse flick in that it revels in its sleazy nature and asks the audience to do the same. That stuff would never fly in AIRPORT.

    You had me at CHRISTOPHER GEORGE!!!!!

  • 21 sbdNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2008 at 3:20 am

    I certainly bow before your much vaster knowledge of the genre – if THE ISLAND is as over-the-top as you say, then I stand corrected.  Even though EARTHQUAKE had gratuitous shots of folks with glass sticking out of their faces, TOWERING INFERNO had people running around on fire for no other reason than to deliver the message “FIRE, BAD!!”, and AIRPORT ’75 had Karen Black, they must all be at the far low end of the exploitation spectrum.

  • 22 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 11, 2008 at 9:26 am

    I hope I didn’t oversell it!(I don’t want ya to be dissapointed.), It’s just kinda unusual for a “mainstream” movie but I guess times and tastes have changed much since 1980! You definitely got me wanting to see EARTHQUAKE again, it’s been awhile. I remember the first time they showed that on T.V you could tune into a local radio station and blast the volume and it was supposed to give you a surround sound effect!

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