Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Where Living Is Worse Than Dying

I've been looking for the right opportunity to run this awesome poster image I found somewhere online (and I apologize that I don't remember where). Unless you're a connoisseur of crappy movies, you've probably never heard of Dimension Pictures' 1973 potboiler TERMINAL ISLAND, which is desperately in need of a decent DVD release (one exists, but it's just a VHS transfer on one of the budget DVD labels).

The reason I'm surprised it isn't on DVD—and the best reason anyone would want to see it today—is the appearance of a pre-MAGNUM, P.I. Tom Selleck, who plays a substantial supporting role as a heroin-addicted physician convicted of a mercy killing and sentenced to life imprisonment on the titular island. You may recall Selleck discussing TERMINAL ISLAND years ago on a LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN appearance, where he laughed about the film with good humor.

The premise of TERMINAL ISLAND, which was directed by Stephanie Rothman and co-written by her and her husband Charles Swartz (both partners in Dimension), is terrific. After the death penalty is rescinded in California, convicted murderers are sent to a remote island in the Pacific to serve their sentences. There are no guards or walls—none are needed in the middle of the ocean—and the prisoners—male and female—are free to set up camp, grow their own food, even raise families if possible.

Of course, a civilization made up solely of society's worst offenders can't be very civil, and the prisoners have split into two camps. The vicious Monk (Roger E. Mosley, Selleck's MAGNUM, P.I. co-star) and Bobby (Sean Kenney) rule a sadistic camp where the women are used as sex slaves. A more peaceful one, led by A.J. (Don Marshall of LAND OF THE GIANTS), of course, butts heads with the bad guys. Other familiar cast members include VEGA$' Phyllis Davis (whose enormously popular topless scenes here and in SWEET SUGAR may have distracted male viewers from noticing her forceful screen presence), LOST IN SPACE's Marta Kristen, VAMPIRELLA cover sensation Barbara Leigh, DAN AUGUST's Ena Hartman (the island newcomer through whose eyes the story is told), and THE VIRGINIAN's Randy Boone.

Rothman, one of very few women directors then or now to work exclusively in exploitation movies, delivers a fast-paced action yarn that takes the obviously absurd premise at face value and then rolls with it. The experienced cast essay their roles with great credibility and are always careful to play it straight all down the line. I suspect a remake made today would wink at the audience to let us know how silly it is, but TERMINAL ISLAND is all the richer for taking itself seriously. The nudity and violence probably played very well with drive-in audiences in 1973, and it holds up well now.


Moviezzz said...

Never saw the film, but remember Selleck talking about it. On Letterman, didn't he also hand out bumper stickers saying to rerelease DAUGHTERS OF SATAN?

Chicken said...

Yes! That movie rules. And Csiki gets killed in it.

Marty McKee said...

I remember the DAUGHTERS OF SATAN appearance too. I always thought Selleck was cool for being a good sport about those early movies.

Booksteve said...

Was surprised when I saw this in the early '80's on cable that it was as genuinely entertaining as it is! So many familiar faces and, as you say,Phyllis Davis! On VEGAS, she was supposed to be the mature, proper secretary (as opposed to the other, supposedly sexy one) but I always thought she was the hot one.

Temple of Schlock said...
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Amanda By Night said...

I like Terminal Island a lot too. It's a lot of fun and yeah, Selleck. I adore him.