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Screamers
(1979/1981)

Director: Sergio Martino
Cast:
Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Richard Johnson


As you probably know, Hollywood is the king of the box office pretty much everywhere in the world. With that in mind, the logical thought that comes from that is that Hollywood seems to know what it is doing. So it should come as no surprise that foreigners want to get involved and get some of that box office gold. I've seen countless times over the years as to how foreigners have meddled with releases of Hollywood movies over the years. One of the ways they do so is with changing the titles of Hollywood movies when they get into their country. Now, I do know some things can't be exactly translated from English to a foreign language, but all the same I find some title changes downright weird. For example, when the 1990 movie Home Alone was released in France and French Canada, its title was changed to Maman, J'ai Raté L'avion - which translates to Mom, I Missed The Airplane. While that does happen to the central character in the movie, it doesn't really tell what the movie is really about, which of course concerned a young boy being alone at home. Sometimes it doesn't just stop at translating titles badly, but messing with the plots of Hollywood movies. An example of this can be seen with the 1952 John Wayne movie Big Jim McLain. In that movie, the Duke played an agent of the House of Un-American Activities Committee who stopped at nothing to track down communists and bring them to justice. When the movie was released in several European countries, not only was the title changed (to Marijuana), the dialogue was changed so that the Duke was chasing down not communists, but instead people involved in the illegal narcotics trade.

I could write more examples of how foreigners fiddle with Hollywood movies when they reach their country - or for that matter, movies not from Hollywood, like how Hong Kong filmmakers often stole music from Italian movies scored by Ennio Morricone. But you probably already had some idea about this practice, so it's probably not necessary. Besides, it's not like Hollywood is innocent of this kind of practice itself. Over the years, Hollywood had fiddled many times with movies both foreign and domestic in nature. One of the most popular kinds of interference has been by adding newly shot footage. One of the earliest examples of this I could find was with the 1949 movie Not Wanted. Despite the movie dealing with the then-controversial subject of unwed motherhood, it was a tasteful and serious affair, no doubt because of the uncredited input of Ida Lupino. But some time after the movie's initial release, another outfit got the rights to the movie, injected graphic birth of a baby footage into the movie, and released the movie with a new title (The Wrong Rut) to grindhouses - making it an exploitation movie. There have been many other examples of this kind of practice, and quite a few of them have had the legendary Roger Corman behind them. A example of this was when he got the rights to the Japanese movie Submersion Of Japan. After retitling it with the flashier title Tidal Wave, Corman not only cut out a significant amount of footage, he filmed new footage with American actors (including Lorne Greene) as American government officials wondering what to do about the ongoing destruction of a foreign country.

As I said, there are other examples of Corman interfering with foreign movies he got the rights to, and I'll get to another example shortly. Anyway, you might be wondering as to what I think about this practice of altering someone else's movie with newly shot footage. Well, I generally think it's a kind Screamersof an insult. By doing so, you are telling the people who spent a lot of time and money making a movie that their vision is simply not adequate. So it should come as no surprise that whenever it is possible, I seek out the original version of a movie. But in the case of Screamers - which was a case of Corman adding footage to a movie - I decided to make an exception. One reason was that this altered version was more freely available than the original 1979 Italian version, which has the title Island Of The Fishmen. The second reason was that I read more than one report stating that Corman's version was against all odds an improvement over the original version, which intrigued me enough to get the Blu-Ray of the altered version of the movie. This version of the movie starts off with a new and lengthy opening with Cameron Mitchell (Raw Force) and Mel Ferrer (The Norseman) among others exploring a mysterious island but eventually get slaughtered by creatures that are half man and half fish. What follows is reportedly more or less how Island Of The Fishmen played out, though with minor changes here and there. A prison ship is wrecked in the Caribbean in the late 19th century, and several survivors, lead by one Lieutenant Claude de Ross (Cassinelli, Hands Of Steel), find their way to the same island where the opening events took place. Exploring the island, Claude and the others come across Amanda (Bach, Force 10 From Navarone). Amanda takes the survivors back to her home on the island, a mansion where island owner Edmond (Johnson, The Haunting) also lives in. It soon becomes clear to Claude that Amanda and Edmond are hiding some big secrets, and Claude makes it his mission to uncover what it is despite Amanda's repeated pleas to Claude to leave things alone and find a way off the island. But one by one, the other shipwreck survivors start to disappear, and Claude soon starts to realize he might disappear himself before finding out what's going on.

As I suggested in the previous paragraph, I have not had the opportunity to see Island Of The Fishmen so that I could compare it directly with the alternate version known as Screamers. But a little online research revealed that the changes Roger Corman made to the movie were almost all confined to that new Cameron Mitchell opening as well as adding some quick scenes of blood and gore (which the original version was reportedly almost free of.) Knowing that when sitting down to watch Screamers, it was pretty easy for my mind to figure out how the original version more or less played out. Which of course leads to the question: Does the inserted Corman footage improve the movie? Well, I'll start with the new Cameron Mitchell opening filmed for the movie. This new opening does start off the movie with a little punch, with atmosphere generated by a combination of elements that include fog, some striking illumination of this night time setting, and some mysterious breathing noises on the soundtrack. Also, it's always amusing to see Mitchell make a fool out of himself as he often did in low budget movies of this period. Naturally, he does get slaughtered, and that just adds to the amusement of his presence. Speaking of slaughter, this opening does boast some pretty good gruesome material, such as rotting corpses and bloody killings (including a head being ripped off.) All of this stuff is indeed fun to watch. But at the same time, all this entertaining material does not hide the fact that this twelve minute new opening has absolutely no bearing on what is to follow. As you watch the rest of the movie, likely you will eventually realize that this opening was essentially just gratuitous padding.

However, at the same time you can see why Roger Corman added this opening, because you will see that the original version of the movie only had a few brief trickles of blood on display. The opening of the movie, as well as a few other inserted new scenes (like a prisoner finding a bloody corpse on the beach and then getting slaughtered himself) do fix that problem. It is odd, however, that Corman didn't add any sex or nudity to the movie, since despite the presence of Barbara Bach in the original version there wasn't any attempt to have her undressed or generate a little erotic steam. But while the original version of the movie may have been light on exploitive elements, director Sergio Martino (The Violent Professionals) does manage to show competence in other areas. The movie for the most part looks pretty good. The island location looks appropriately bleak, dirty and tangled, if you can overlook that it doesn't look very Caribbean. The various sets are well dressed by the prop department, with a slight trace of rust and filth that seems just right for being far from civilization in the nineteenth century. The special effects, ranging from the monster creations to some modelwork, are also not bad at all. However, when it comes to directing the unfolding story and the characters in it, Martino stumbles quite badly. The biggest problem with Martino's direction is there is no feeling of great mystery or tension for the most part. When people start disappearing, or when the character of Edmond (who of course is hiding some big secrets) starts to reveal his true colors, the feeling that you get from the movie is, well, kind of a casual one. In fact, the movie has more than its share of slow spots throughout when a slowly rising feeling of horror that occasionally shows off its deadly fangs would have been far more appropriate.

Some of the blame for this mostly passionless direction does have to fall on the screenplay, though since Martino was also one of the screenwriters, he still has to take the brunt of the blame for the failure of Screamers. One fault with the screenplay is that the protagonists are thinly written. Claude and the other shipwrecked survivors are not only awkwardly and quickly introduced, they are given very little opportunity in the rest of the movie to show any real personality. Amanda, on the other hand, is so aloof for so long that when the screenplay eventually exposes her painful secrets, we just remember how brusque she had been. She doesn't even look much better when compared side by side to the character of Edmond, who we find out had been controlling her. Edmond is a really disappointing villain, sorely lacking spark or passion of any kind. It's not really a spoiler to reveal that it turns out he is another Dr. Moreau (there are many blatant clues to this before this "surprise" is revealed.) What is surprising is that he assigns almost all of his dirty work to various other people on the island instead of doing things himself; the genetic work, for example, is all done by Amanda's father (Citizen Kane's Joseph Cotten, who is given almost nothing to do.) I've heard of outsourcing, but here it's done to ridiculous levels, so much so that the character becomes more of a joke than anything else. Screamers in the end is nothing to shout about. Corman was on the right track when he decided to add the extra footage, but he would have done even better had he just dumped the entirety of Island Of The Fishmen in the trash and filmed seventy-seven minutes of more new material of his own to be tacked on after that Cameron Mitchell opening.

(Posted February 8, 2017)

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See also: Mosquito, Shark Hunter, Troll 2

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