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Monday, February 7, 2011

Mystery On Monster Island (1980) review


Ian Sera (Jeff Morgan), Terence Stamp (Taskinar/Skinner), Peter Cushing (William T. Kolderup), David Hatton (Thomas Artelect), Gasphar Ipua (Carefinatu), Blanca Estrada (Dominique Blanchard), Ana Obregon (Meg), Frank Brana (Birling), Paul Naschy (Flynt), Gerard Tichy (Captain Turkott)

Directed by Juan Piquer Simon

The Short Version: The late director of PIECES helmed this Spain-USA co-production. It's an ambitiously overstuffed and juvenile 1940s styled serial hokum that got frequent TV airplay in the early 80s. For most, there's limited to no appeal. Still, the rambunctious musical score, a few striking island location shots, opening and book-ending scenes by Peter Cushing and Terence Stamp and an opening five minute segment with pirate Paul Naschy--whose role sets the story in motion--may be enough to entertain curious, exploratory viewers for 90 minutes.

Before settling down to marry, Jeff Morgan wishes to sail around the world. With the consent of his wealthy uncle, Kolderup, Morgan and his teacher, professor Artelect, set off on an oceanic voyage around the globe. Entering a thick fog, the ship is attacked by reptilian creatures who destroy the vessel leaving Morgan and the professor stranded on a mysterious island populated by cannibals and giant monsters. Later encountering rifle bearing gold hunters, castaways and company soon learn the secrets of Monster Island.

J.P. Simon, the Spanish director of such impressively juicy gore drenched schlock as PIECES (1982), SLUGS (1988) and ENDLESS DESCENT (1990) also dabbled in childish fantasy schlock such as SUPERSONIC MAN (1979), the more serious FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1976) and 1980's MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND, adapted from Jules Verne's 'Godfrey Morgan' novel. Simon's movie is somewhat faithful to the source material in terms of some of the characters and situations, although the addition of monsters is exclusive to the film.

With such an amazing cast of performers, you'd expect this to be Euro fantasy gold. In some ways the film is a mildly worthwhile excursion and in other ways, it's a bit painful to witness for a few reasons. While the character of Taskinar is the films antagonist, the performance of David Hatton is the true villain of the piece with his shrill, ear piercingly exaggerated delivery that would be better served in a silent feature where the sound of his voice would not be heard. He appears to be channeling Cushing's similar 'professor' role from Amicus' AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976), but in a far more outlandish, disastrously over the top fashion. Hatton acts as comic relief--the butt of jokes to an endless string of pratfalls, repeated mispronunciations of his last name and playing stooge to both a chimpanzee with ADD and a parrot. While a few sparse moments with Hatton bring a smile to the face, four times as many moments make you cringe in accordance to someone raking their fingers down a chalkboard.

Racial stereotypes are in heavy abundance here in the form of a Chinese stowaway and a black islander named Carefinatu. While it seems this picture was shot with live sound, the oriental inflection is a bit insulting especially in this day and age and the native "Man Friday" spiel comes close to borderline offensiveness. Still, it becomes quickly apparent that the script doesn't take itself seriously in light of in-jokes to Jules Verne himself. It doesn't take long for the viewer to realize just what audience this infantile production caters to. In addition to Hatton's overactive silliness, the cartoon sound effects, the fake monsters and the juvenile atmosphere, additional comic relief is provided by an overly enthusiastic chimpanzee who makes a monkey out of the rest of the main cast by giving one of the best, most controlled performances of the whole thing. Trash fans will recognize lead, Ian Sera from Simon's phenomenally bad PIECES from 1982.

The movie itself possesses a nice sense of adventure even if it frequently resembles a bigger budgeted Banana Splits 'Danger Island' segment. The boisterous, grandiose score by Alfonso Agullo, Carlos Villa and Alejandro Monroy is pleasing to the ear, if a bit repetitive at times. The soundtrack definitely stands out just as the participation of both Peter Cushing and Terence Stamp act as the expository glue that holds the film together; the viewer patiently awaits their return as both disappear after the 15 minute mark and don't reappear till towards the end. It's really something else to see General Zod playing a bad guy in a film such as this the same year SUPERMAN 2 (1981) would hit theaters. Cushing of course is his usual reliable self even if his screen time amounts to a little over fifteen minutes total.

Both of Simon's fantasy adventures were likely inspired by the Kevin Conner/John Dark monster-fantasy productions that began with THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975) and ended with WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS (1978). For MONSTER ISLAND, the creatures are less than stellar creations, but the Scooby Doo styled finale serves up an explanation by Kolderup (a man with seemingly the deepest pockets the world has ever seen) that clarifies the veritable fakery involved. Furthermore, Simon puts more than enough gusto in the action scenes and generously fills the film with more than enough adventure elements.

The miniatures and explosions are quite good and robust even if the intentionally wonky monsters are not. Among the otherworldy creations: Gill Men brandishing flares(!), a giant dinosaur creature, giant steam blowing worms, another big lizard in a cave and moss monsters that recall SIGMUND & THE SEA MONSTER.

Adding to the curiosity factor is a five minute opening segment featuring Paul Naschy as Flynt, a pirate being pursued and shot at by gold robbers. Fearing they will make off with his gold, the injured Flynt sets off a massive explosion burying his treasure with him. It is this treasure that Taskinar is after and when he's outbid on the sale of Spencer Island to Kolderup, he provides the film with its one "real" threat.

With its barrage of monsters, high adventure, tropical locales, frequent, if heavy handed comedy, rousing music, pretty girls and determined villains, J.P. Simon's moderately expensive creature feature is a former Saturday afternoon television mainstay. Beautifully remastered looking better than it probably has any right to, MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND will likely be appreciated the most by those ages 2 to 8, fans of the director interested in checking out his non sleazy output and monster kids who remember catching it on a Saturday afternoon or as a late night creature feature.

This review is representative of the MGM/Sony/Fox Midnite Movies double feature paired with GORILLA AT LARGE (1954).


J. Astro said...

It's supposed to be fun, and maybe if I'd been in a better mindset I'd have appreciated it more, but man - this film made me ANGRY last time I watched it.

venoms5 said...

Yeah, it wasn't as good as I'd remembered it as a kid, but after watching it at least once more since I first bought it, it made for a better viewing experience even with that annoying, overacting performance by David Hatton. Still, there's such a great cast here both main and supporting and not to mention it's from the guy that gave the world some choice 'B' gore epics....okay, 'C' gore epics.

Carl Manes said...

Cant be any worse than the 1989 incomplete version of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH!

venoms5 said...

Never saw that one, but J.P. Simon did his own version of that one, too as FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, which, like MYSTERY, got frequent airplay on local channels under its other title, WHEN TIME BEGAN. The Code Red DVD is the longer Euro cut under its original title and that disc is OOP now. They are supposed to be re-releasing it, but the box has the US release title on the cover.

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