Review: Terminal Island

Convicted criminal Ena Hartman gets sent to San Bruno Island (AKA Terminal Island, which according to the films’ brilliant tagline is ‘where we dump our garbage’) off the coast of California, a place where hardened murderers and rapists are essentially left to fend for themselves away from polite society. On the island she discovers that it’s the duty of female prisoners to service the sexual needs of the male prisoners, led by Sean Kenney and Roger E. Mosley. However, after a while some of Kenney’s followers decide to break off, gather the women and create their own little world. Kenney and Mosley are unhappy about this and a mini war breaks out. Phyllis Davis, Barbara Leigh, and Marta Kristen are among the women on the island, whilst Geoffrey Deuel and Tom Selleck play two of the least sadistically inclined men, the latter a drug-addicted former doctor who illegally euthanised some of his patients.

More interesting to think/write about than to watch, this 1973 prison escape movie is one of the few exploitation movies directed by a woman. The fact that director and co-writer Stephanie Rothman (“The Velvet Vampire”, “The Student Nurses”) apparently only made exploitation movies like this because she wanted to work, is really at the crux of why this film is interesting to ponder but not terribly enjoyable as an example of the subgenre it belongs to. Despite being a disciple of B-movie king Roger Corman, she wasn’t comfortable making this sort of stuff, and apparently she particularly had a problem with scenes involving rape or graphic violence. I get that, and I too am put off by depictions of rape on screen as I would hope most sane people would be. However, this film just isn’t anywhere near as much fun as you want it to be, and I think it’s because the director doesn’t find this sort of film fun to begin with. Honestly, the chief difference with a woman at the helm on evidence here is really just a lot less exploitation material, kinda defeating the purpose of the whole damn thing in the first place. That said, if you want to see a prison escape movie feature two cast members of “Magnum P.I.” and one cast member of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (The pneumatic Phyllis Davis), here’s your movie I guess.

After an absolutely awful Johnny Cash wannabe opening song by Jeff Thomas, we’re greeted by a curly-haired Tom Selleck playing a dope-head euthanasia doctor, in what is hardly his finest hour. Much better is a scene-stealing Roger E. Mosley as one of the more antagonistic residents of the prison island. A very underrated actor. he’s not in the film enough to make it truly worthwhile, but he’s easily the best thing in it. Also making an impression is the aforementioned Ms. Davis, who (although I prefer her as a brunette as in “BVD”) is an absolute stunner and briefly shows us the goods. Her performance is probably a distant second behind Mosley’s, though she seems to be the only one enjoying herself at least. She gets the film’s one bit of levity, a funny bit involving bees and and arse-load of honey. After that we’re back to the violence and bleakness, though. Ena Hartman isn’t a terrible actress either, certainly better than the Jeanne Bells and Gloria Hendrys of the world, if not quite having the presence of a Pam Grier.

In addition to making the film less ‘exploitation fun’, the neutered approach Rothman takes actually makes it both hypocritical and chicken at the same time. I mean there’s no getting around the fact that the film does actual deal with the sexual exploitation of women, but not in any real graphic manner in terms of on-screen detail. So not only is it useless to anyone who is a fan of such films on that crass level (and I for one won’t deny that I enjoy certain aspects of exploitation cinema greatly, just not the ‘hard’ stuff), it doesn’t really work in terms of getting its serious message across, either. The director has kind of shot herself in the foot in that respect if she was actually trying to make something more than an exploitation film. Yes there’s some blood and nudity, but so what? You can get blood and nudity on TV any day of the week in 2017. Honestly it wouldn’t bother me so much except that there are clearly scenes in the film that cry out to be more graphic, and I’m not talking about rape or any of the nasty stuff.

In addition to some interesting locales, the one thing I really do like about this film is that it’s pretty fucking bleak. I mean the situation set up here really is one of seeming hopelessness and futility. These people have been left to rot, and there’s much in-fighting going on as well. I may prefer my exploitation films to be more ‘fun’, but I can certainly appreciate the film’s rather nihilistic tone. It’s really stark and bleak stuff. Good acting is far from necessary in an exploitation flick, however more consistently good performances might’ve helped this one in the filmmaker’s aim for it to be taken as more than an exploitation film. Sadly a lot of the performances are pretty amateurish including Geoffrey Deuel who is as uninspiring here as he was as Billy the Kid in the otherwise fun John Wayne flick “Chisum”. Also not helping things is that in the screenplay by the director, Jim Barnett (producer of “Chamber of Horrors” with Patrick O’Neal, Wayne Rogers, and Marie Windsor) & producer Charles S. Swartz (producer of “The Student Nurses”, “The Velvet Vampire”, and “Sweet Sugar”) characters disappear for far too long stretches. Selleck’s character (which is far more interesting than Selleck’s actual performance) for instance barely seems to be a part of the film at all until the final quarter or so. Worse, the film seems to set up Hartman as our leading lady only to lose her in the shuffle somewhat in the climax. The hell? I think there’s an overabundance of characters here and not enough screen time to be able to properly deal with them. The finale is pretty violent for 1972, though. I’ll give it that, even if it does make one question whether the director finds violence more palatable than sex.

In some ways one of the more competently made films of its type, but that may be beside the point. An interestingly bleak tone is the highlight of an otherwise strangely and unhelpfully neutered exploitation film from a filmmaker who doesn’t seem invested in making one and hasn’t quite managed to pull off the more serious alternative she’s attempting to give us, either. I mean, we don’t get to see all that much of the nastiness that Mosley and the others inflict on our protagonists, which takes away from it quite a bit. More of a stretched out climax of a prison exploitation movie than a real entrant in the subgenre, I can certainly appreciate the lack of graphic rape and torture here. However, there’s not all that much in the way of consensual sex or graphic nudity on display here, either. What gives?

Interesting as a curio, but I think its status as a feminist outlier in a mostly sleazy genre is somewhat overrated. There are moments of interest, but perhaps exploitation films should be made by filmmakers who actually enjoy them.

Rating: C+


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