Sunday, July 30, 2023

Shadowed Mind, The (1988)

Directed by:
Cedric Sundström

Forget white-walled, sterile facilities in major cities with state-of-the-art equipment and a staff of competent professionals, or even quaint brick buildings with well-manicured lawns in the country, this particular psychiatric clinic is located inside a giant, remote warehouse with an always-locked, impenetrable front gate. Upstairs it's all cheap aluminum siding in cavernous, almost completely empty rooms with a few chairs for the cast to sit but down below we get crumbling stone archways and sleeping quarters tucked away in catacombs all lit up with bold, multi-colored lighting. Clearly, this place in no way reflects an actual clinic, which may or may not be a clue as to where this film is actually headed. One thing's established up front: This is a facility using experimental "treatments" on its patients, which involves a combination of group therapy, one-on-one sessions, mysterious pills and injections of multi-colored substances that are never explained. There are a lot of story elements here that are, shall we say, left open to interpretation.

Privately run, and up until now also financed by, Dr. Dieter Hildesheimer (Towje Kleiner), the unnamed clinic is awaiting approval on a million dollar government grant from the Foundation for Better Mental Health Care, which would conceivably enable them to expand their scope and treat more patients... granted that's even their intention. As it stands now though, they only have a small handful of patients who curiously don't appear to have benefited much from the doctor's methods.

As the film begins, the buxom, husky-voiced Stephanie (Adrienne Pearce) has just arrived. She's been shipped there by her father, who's embarrassed that his daughter has a compulsion to flash her breasts at nearly everyone she encounters. This has something to do with an obsession with her own mother's breasts ("If I couldn't have them, I had to see them!") and spying on mum having adulterous affairs ("My mother's exposure? Gloooooorious!") As we'll soon see, the rest of the bizarre patients at this place almost make Stephanie's exhibitionism and mommy fixation seem pretty mild by comparison!

There's the handsome but virginal Paul (Rufus Swart), who suffers from severe anger issues, emasculation nightmares, the inability to ever get an erection and "a stunted libido" that has "developed into a neurotic condition with psychotic undercurrents." All of that somehow had landed him in prison, though he's not willing to say for what. He's also not exactly who he claims to be and is scheming behind the scenes with the doctor. Speaking of "stunted," the soft-spoken, child-like and emotionally fragile Matthew (Simon Poland) was severely bullied as a boy and now clutches onto a teddy bear and channels all of his repression into obsessing over natural and spiritual matters. Oh yeah, and he also cut off his own dick at the age of 18 and now bemoans the fact no potential romantic partner will accept his "sexlessness."

A third patient, the pretty Julia (Hayley Dorskey), is also bitter about never being able to have a successful relationship, which seems to have something to do with childhood sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle which has, in turn, caused her to develop multiple personalities. A black man who goes by just General (Simon Sabela) doesn't seem to be a part of the rehab program at all and just wanders around dressed in military garb incoherently barking out orders. Is this all supposed to be some kind of warped, blackly comic parable about sociopolitical issues exclusive to South America in the late 80s? I'd say that's highly likely.

The clinic's additional staff is equally off-putting. Nurse Helen (Trish Downing), the doctor's full time assistant and part time lover, is cold, icy and driven almost exclusively by money and success. Some former patients now work there, including equal opportunity man-whore / orderly Kurt (Evan J. Klisser), whose mother died giving birth to him. As a result of that trauma, he may have been a serial killer who murdered "whores" in the city before being rehabilitated. Kurt has been sleeping around with whoever will have him, including the jealous Julia and the perpetually-tardy staff assistant Brenda (Debra Kaye). If that isn't enough, he also has eyes for a second female assistant - Alice (Jennifer Steyn) - and is secretly carrying on a booze-and-pill fueled same sex affair with fellow orderly Nick (Nicholas Ashley Nortier).

After one of Kurt's trysts, someone sneaks into Brenda's room and viciously stabs her to death. When the body is discovered the following morning, Dr. Dieter insists they don't get the police involved. If word gets out about what happened, there goes the clinic and there goes the financing. Because of his murderous past, Kurt is immediately suspected of the crime, but Helen enlists his aid in covering it all up and hiding the body. Kurt is soon removed from the suspect list himself after the same assailant knifes him to death in the shower. More murders will eventually follow and the clinic itself turns out not to be the place of care and healing that the staff profess it to be.

Some movies are so obviously flawed in so many different ways that you can't quite recommend them yet so uniquely weird in so many different ways they cannot be denied either. The Shadowed Mind is such a film. It's cheaply made yet also visually pleasing, completely preposterous yet enjoyably unpredictable and utilizes an overly-familiar murderer-in-a-nuthouse premise yet manages to make it seem somewhat fresh by setting things in a peculiar location with unique art direction, super stylized lighting and clever camerawork, and focusing on its strange characters and their even stranger psycho-sexual maladies. The bloody knife murders, sex and full-frontal nudity (male and female) will appeal to trash movie fans, the visuals are strong enough to rope in giallo buffs and the heavy homoeroticism (which goes just a bit beyond mere implication here) is pretty ballsy and also comes as a surprise for a film made in the late 80s.

Positives aside, this is still far from smooth sailing all the way through. It's very confusing to start, sometimes pretentious, often downright silly, riddled with unintentionally hilarious dialogue and features highly uneven acting, ranging from awkward, wooden and stilted (English doesn't appear to be the first language of several of the primary actors) to somewhat competent. Still, if you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary, this has you covered, and I respected what they were trying to do here even if they're not quite able to pull it all off.

Sundström, best known for making the third and fourth sequels in the American Ninja series, is the brother of director Neal Sundström (HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE; Slash). It was filmed entirely in South Africa with a mostly South African cast and crew, but was partially financed by Australian David Hannay and his namesake company. Hannay also turns up here in one scene as a potential investor in the clinic. One of the executive producers was Israeli-born Avi Lerner, who'd go on to become a top Hollywood producer with over 350 credits to his name to date. Most of the cast can be seen in other South African horror / trash films from this same time, like LETHAL WOMAN (1988), RETURN OF THE FAMILY MAN (1988) and HELLGATE (1989).

The Severin press release claims this was "immediately banned" by the South African government soon after it debuted. IMDb also (falsely!) claims that this was given a VHS release only in Panama (!) and that the film was given an NC-17 rating here in the U.S., which is strange considering it was never even given a release here until the 2022 Blu-ray, which is unrated.


Friday, July 21, 2023

Island, The (1980)

... aka: Dødens farvann (Waters of Death)
... aka: Freibeuter des Todes (Privateer of Death)
... aka: Fruktans ö (Island of Fear)
... aka: Het Eiland der Verschrikking (The Island of Terror)
... aka: Les zombies de l'île sanglante (Zombies of the Bleeding Island)
... aka: L'île sanglante (The Bloody Island)
... aka: Rémségek szigete (Island of Horrors)

Directed by:
Michael Ritchie

Big things were expected from The Island back in 1980. For starters, it was another terror-on-the-high-seas concept based on a best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, whose previous novel Jaws became the basis for the #1 highest grossing film of the entire previous decade. Jaws producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck returned and Benchley was even able to adapt his own book. Second, The Island had a production budget of 22 million dollars. While that sounds like peanuts for a major studio release these days, it was quite a large budget back then, equivalent to over 90 million dollars when adjusted for inflation. For a reference point, consider the budget of The Empire Strikes Back, the top grossing film of 1980, was 18 million dollars, and the budget of The Shining, which rather famously took forever to be planned, cast and filmed due to Kubrick's meticulous nature and demand for massive sets to be constructed, was 19 million. Throw in a director who'd made several surprise hits the previous decade, a score from the ever-reliable Ennio Morricone, a well-known cast headlined by Michael Caine and a plot touching on the then-topical Bermuda Triangle myth and what do you get? Well, in this case, a financial bomb that received scathing reviews and the worst kind of press imaginable.

Upon release, The Island debuted at #4 at the box office and sunk pretty quickly after that. Critics lambasted the acting, the plot, the often-laughable dialogue, the bloated production and (most especially) the level of violence. Several of the actors (including Caine) refused to discuss the movie or help promote it. The film was also included in the very first Razzie Awards ceremony, receiving nominations for Worst Actor and Worst Director. And, in some strange way, already knowing much of the above going in and setting my expectations accordingly actually helped my enjoyment of this one somewhat.

A boat full of old rich guys get slaughtered somewhere in the Caribbean but there's no sign of the boat, wreckage or any bodies later. If this were an isolated incident, New York newspaper columnist Blair Maynard (Caine) probably wouldn't think much of it but, in just three years' time, 600 ships and several thousand people have vanished in the same area according to Coast Guard records. When John asks for funds from his editor to go to Florida to investigate, he's greeted with skepticism ("Bermuda Triangle bullshit!") but manages to talk him into it. Afterward, Maynard learns that his ex-wife has slipped town with her new boyfriend and left their 12-year-old son, Justin (Jeffrey Frank), in his care for the weekend. Maynard decides to take Justin along with him to Florida, figuring after he asks a few questions and snoops around they may have time to swing over to Disney World.

Upon arrival in Miami, Maynard charters a plane from the sketchy Stark (Brad Sullivan), whose half-burnt face red flags how successfully he's pulled off his previous flights, to get them to the barely-populated island of Navidad located deep within "the asshole of the Western world." Stark manages to get them there... barely. The plane blows up soon after skidding down the runway with the wheels still up, prompting local cop Westcott (Zakes Mokae) to arrest the pilot until he can be compensated for the damages. The following morning, Maynard and Justin are able to charter a boat from Dr. Windsor (Frank Middlemass) to go fishing. While out on the ocean, the two run across a young girl floating in the water and, next thing they know, they're being attacked, knocked out and awakening somewhere else entirely.

The island of the title is an uncharted one lost in a sea of over 1200 others that's populated by a fairly large group of dirty, rotten-toothed buccaneers who have somehow managed to avoid civilization for the past 300+ years. Of course, they're also the ones who've been responsible for the rash of disappearances; attacking various boats, pillaging their goods, killing most of the adults and kidnapping the children to add to their ranks. Due to the amount of inbreeding over the years, most of the pirate population is infertile, so they must replenish their numbers by kidnapping whatever children they can get their hands on, as well as some of the more youthful adult females to use as "breeding stock."

The pirates (played almost exclusively by British character actors) speak broken, sometimes incoherent English with some Spanish words and some seemingly made-up words sprinkled throughout their banter, often making their gibberish a real headache to get through. The society has a majority-rule democratic governance of sorts, as well as a guide book of laws they call "Covenant". The book claims that that "A child shall lead" them and pirate chieftain John David Nau (David Warner) starts to suspect that child may be Justin because he shares a last name with the man who killed Blackbeard and thus may be one of his descendants. Justin is promptly separated from his father and goes through a torture / brainwashing regime conducted by Hizzoner (Colin Jeavons).

Meanwhile, Caine's character has to make amends for his past actions. Prior to blacking out, he had shot and killed one of the pirate men and is now required to take that man's place. That also means taking over husbandly duties and impregnating the now-widowed Beth (Angela Punch McGregor). After he's nursed back to health, Caine is shackled in the woman's hut, walked around on a chain like a dog on a leash, gets a Vaseline handjob (!) and is basically treated like a sex slave. Maynard, a Korean War vet who possesses some survivalist skills, attempts several unsuccessful escapes and somehow manages to avoid being executed despite constant threats of such. Developing feelings for him, Beth becomes somewhat of an ally and helps save him multiple times, but will he be able to escape and find a way to deprogram his son, who has now been turned against him?

I've seen some cinematic tonal nightmares in my day, but this about takes the cake! Part of the time it feels like a kid's adventure movie. The entire set-up of a busy career man and his estranged son trying to reconnect over holiday, which takes up most of the first half hour, has been used a number of times in various family movies. In addition, quite a bit of focus is put on the juvenile characters, there are dumb gags involving things like stinky feet, cartoon-like scalawags constantly acting goofy and mugging for the camera and out-of-left-field attempts at humor, including an embarrassing scene where the pirates attack a schooner transporting cocaine and have to do battle with some martial artist who makes kung fu movie "hee-ya!" noises as he fights (!)

Needless to say, none of the above blends well with the more adult-oriented content. There's nudity, sex, a high body count, slasher-style gore murders with hatchets going into heads, throats being slashed and an bloody axe disembowelment, kidnapping, drugs, and even jellyfish nipple torture. Sometimes the film seems like it wants to be taken seriously, at other times it doesn't, and there are many scenes where you have no clue what kind of tone they were even shooting for. That's especially obvious in a bit where the pirates slaughter an entire Coast Guard crew, which is set to heroic-sounding swashbuckling music and - I think - was supposed to be funny. I'm also not sure if the finale, featuring Caine mowing down nearly the entire supporting cast with a machine gun Rambo-style, is supposed to be hilarious or not, though it is.

On the plus side, the Antigua and Barbuda locations are nicely-photographed by Henri Decaë, the production values are lavish and the art direction, costumes (from Ann Roth, who'd later win two Oscars), props and such are all good. The action scenes are proficiently directed and edited and the cast (also including Don Henderson, Dudley Sutton and Reg Evans as pirates) isn't terrible. So while this can certainly be considered a misfire, it's at least not a boring one.

As is the case with most other major studio films, this has been well-distributed on the global home video market ever since its 1981 VHS debut on the MCA label. Universal gave the film a DVD release in 2011 as part of their "Vault Series" and that was followed by a 2012 Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory. Both of these releases are bare bones with no notable special features, which I suppose is to be expected when it comes to a bastard stepchild movie that most of the key players would rather forget.

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