Just two years after AIP released THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU starring Burt Lancaster, Italian filmmaker Sergio Martino (SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD) made ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN, which was a loose and uncredited adaptation of the same H.G. Wells novel. What Americans saw was a whole lot different than Martino intended after Roger Corman bought the U.S. rights, changed its title, recut the heck out of it, and created one of cinema’s most outrageously false advertising campaigns to try to make it a commercial hit.
But first, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN. A prison ship sinks in the Caribbean in 1891. A handful of convicts and Claude (Claudio Cassinelli), the ship’s doctor, wash up on an uncharted volcanic island overrun by slimy man-sized amphibians that kill off most of the survivors. Claude and two others make it through the jungle to the home of Edmund Rackham (Richard Johnson), who lives with Professor Ernest Marvin (Joseph Cotten), Marvin’s daughter Amanda (Barbara Bach), voodoo priestess Shakira (Beryl Cunningham), and several servants.
Rackham, who has an unreciprocated hankering for the sexy Amanda, claims the monstrous fishmen are descendents of the legendary underwater city of Atlantis, which is located directly below the island. Claude discovers that Marvin is a geneticist who is surgically altering humans against their will and turning them into amphibious creatures that the unscrupulous Rackham can use to swim to Atlantis and loot the city of its treasure.
Outside of Cassinelli’s stiff performance, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN is quite entertaining. Widescreen photography and score provide the pulpy story with sumptuous production values, and Johnson (ZOMBIE) is enjoyably diabolical. Bach just has to be beautiful, and Cotton does even less, yet both bring much to the table just being themselves. The creatures’ rubber suits may not fool anyone, but they are imaginatively conceived, and Martino’s underwater footage of them intercut with the Atlantis miniatures is impressive. The climax has a lot of action and derring-do.
That’s the film everyone outside the United States saw. Roger Corman bought FISHMEN for domestic release, but must have been turned off by its lack of gore. He hired director Miller Drake (SMOKEY BITES THE DUST) and cinematographer Gary Graver (GRAND THEFT AUTO) to take some actors to Bronson Caverns in Los Angeles one night and shoot a new twelve-minute prologue. Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell play treasure hunters who arrive on Rackham’s island and are graphically murdered by monsters designed by Chris Walas (THE FLY) that don’t much resemble Martino’s creatures. Joe Dante, director of THE HOWLING, may have edited this footage using a pseudonym. Sandy Berman either composed the score for the prologue or cut in music from other Corman productions. Either way, the prologue is pretty dumb and has nothing to do with the film that follows, either narratively or stylistically. Gale Anne Hurd (THE TERMINATOR) is credited as the Maui Location Manager, but Drake never went anywhere near Hawaii.
Because slasher films were big in 1981, Corman changed the title from ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN to SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK. It played a couple of small engagements and bombed big time. Still hoping to make a small profit (the indefatigable Corman was loath to ever give up on a film), Corman asked his advertising director, Jim Wynorski, who went on to write and direct several pictures for Corman, to create a new campaign for it.
Wynorski changed the title again, this time to SCREAMERS, and filmed new footage of makeup artist Rob Bottin (THE THING) dressed in a monster costume and chasing a gorgeous model in black lingerie around the futuristic sets used for GALAXY OF TERROR. All of this went into the trailer—and just the trailer—along with a grossly misleading ad campaign that promised, “You will actually see a man turned inside-out!” Which, of course, was untrue.
New World released 26 prints of SCREAMERS at 88 minutes, cut down from FISHMEN’s 94. It did terrific business its first weekend, but incited anger in audiences who demanded to see a man turned inside-out. Realizing that he was going to have to live up to the lurid marketing, which he hadn’t seen before it went out, Corman assigned editor Clark Henderson (GALAXY OF TERROR) to piece together about a minute and a half of Wynorski’s trailer footage and insert it into SCREAMERS as a dream sequence. Instead of editing the new scene into the negative, New World recalled all 26 prints and spliced it by hand into each of them. Consequently, when Embassy released SCREAMERS on VHS, it used Corman’s original negative, and the fake “inside-out” scene hasn’t been seen outside of those 26 theatrical prints, which may or may not exist anymore.