Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where We Dump Our Human Garbage

Seven years before MAGNUM, P.I. premiered on CBS, Tom Selleck and his co-star Roger E. Mosley (T.C.) appeared together in TERMINAL ISLAND. The director was Stephanie Rothman, who made this highly entertaining drive-in picture for Dimension Pictures, the studio she helped found with her husband, producer Charles S. Swartz, and former Roger Corman colleague Lawrence Woolner.

Selleck, who plays a doper doctor convicted of a mercy killing, has poked fun at TERMINAL ISLAND on talk shows, but he appears to be a good sport about it, and, really, he has no reason to be ashamed of it. It bears an outrageous premise, and dishes out steady portions of nudity and violence, but with an offbeat feminist twist. It’s close, but not exactly a women-in-prison picture, and since Rothman is the director, the misogyny and meanspiritedness often found in the genre are absent.

In addition to Selleck and Mosley, the cast is packed with familiar faces, many from television shows future and past, that provide the loony premise with credibility. After the death penalty is rescinded in California, convicted murderers are sent to an island to serve their life sentences. There are no guards or walls, and the prisoners (male and female) are free to set up camp, grow their own food, and fend for themselves.

The prisoners have split into two camps: one sadistic, led by the vicious Monk (Mosley) and Bobby (Sean Kenney), in which the women are used as sex slaves, and one peaceful, led by A.J. (LAND OF THE GIANTS’ Don Marshall). Phyllis Davis (VEGA$), Marta Kristen (LOST IN SPACE), Barbara Leigh (THE STUDENT NURSES), and Ena Hartman (DAN AUGUST) are the women who escape to A.J.’s side, which spurs guerrilla warfare between the two sides.

Rothman’s direction is not clever, but it’s colorful, sharply paced, and delivers the action with tongue slightly in cheek. Shot (almost?) entirely on location in Malibu and on the Paramount Ranch, TERMINAL ISLAND is silly, lively fun, despite its faults.

The script by Rothman, Swartz, and James Barnett (DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE) is oddly structured, as it starts out from the point of view of the Hartman character, but switches its focus to Kenney and Marshall, and then finally makes Selleck the hero at the end of the movie. The schizophrenic music score, credited to Michael Andres, rarely fits the action, though it admittedly matches Rothman’s comic-book tone. The bizarre country song performed under the opening titles does neither.

Rothman directed only one more film after TERMINAL ISLAND, the sex comedy THE WORKING GIRLS, though she did write the screenplay for another comedy, STARHOPS, which was directed by Barbara Peeters (SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS). It’s interesting that the two filmmakers would be drawn together, as Rothman and Peeters were among the few woman directors working in exploitation movies during the 1970s and almost certainly the best. By the time STARHOPS was made, Rothman and Swartz had left their executive positions with Dimension.

Code Red’s DVD of TERMINAL ISLAND is the best the picture has ever looked on home video. In fact, the source print is a 35mm master belonging to Stephanie Rothman. The chief extra is a scene-specific audio commentary reuniting Marshall and Kenney and moderated (moderately) by William Olsen and filmmaker Scott Spiegel (INTRUDER). Unfortunately, the four spend the first five minutes trying to identify character actor Richard Stahl, even to the point of wondering if he’s Albert Cole. If you’re moderating a commentary track of a picture like TERMINAL ISLAND, you need to be able to know who Richard Stahl, who isn’t exactly an obscure performer, is.

Marshall and Kenney also sit for lengthy on-camera interviews in which they talk about other projects, in addition to TERMINAL ISLAND. Phyllis Davis appears via telephone only for a brief chat. Code Red has also included a full-frame TERMINAL ISLAND trailer, as well as previews of several other ‘70s drive-in flicks that may or may not receive Code Red releases. Also, props to Code Red for dressing the DVD box with the film’s original arresting poster art.

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