Sergio Martino’s horror/adventure hybrid exists in several versions under different titles, including Screamers, L’Isola degli uomini pesci (Island of the Fishmen), and Something Waits in the Dark. More on that later, but at heart this is a charming, Jules Verne-style adventure with romance, sci-fi elements and rubber monsters. In the late 19th Century, survivors from a wrecked prison ship – including heroic Lieutenant Claude de Ros (Claudio Cassinelli) – are washed ashore on an uncharted island. Amidst quicksand pits and hostile natives, they stumble across mad scientist Professor Marvin (Joseph Cotten) and his mutant fish people, descended from the lost race of Atlantis. Marvin has devised a means of controlling these creatures, which pistol-wielding cad Edmund Rackham (Richard Johnson) plots to abuse and have them retrieve sunken treasure. Rackham imprisons and murders the shipwrecked crew, but Marvin’s beautiful daughter Amanda (Barbara Bach) rescues Claude. A voodoo priestess (Beryl Cunningham) prophesises doom. Sure enough, and the natives chase Claude, a volcano erupts and the island begins to sink. Meanwhile, Amanda discovers she shares a telepathic link with the fishmen.
An engaging swashbuckler, Island of Mutations benefits from Martino’s solid pacing, and committed performances from the cast. No matter how absurd things get, nobody camps it up. Cassinelli (who was killed in a tragic helicopter accident filming Martino’s Terminator rip-off, Fists of Steel (1986)) is pleasingly intense during his early scenes, involving us in his character’s plight. Former Bond girl (and future Mrs. Ringo Starr) Barbara Bach makes an enchanting heroine. Her sensitive performance throughout the poetic climax is a remarkable feat considering she’s emoting amidst rubber monsters. The story and its fishy fright-figures are strongly reminiscent of Jacques Tourneur’s War Gods of the Deep (1965), featuring Vincent Price in a role not dissimilar to Richard Johnson’s, or even Hajime Sato’s delirious Terror Beneath the Sea (1966).
Roger Corman’s New World Pictures purchased Island of Mutations and, since Jules Verne adventures were out of vogue, reworked it into a bogus slasher movie. Joe Dante and Noah Drake were hired to shoot a new prologue featuring exploitation faves Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell getting gorily mauled by new fishmen created by effects whiz Chris Walas. This version, titled Something Waits in the Dark, found little favour with grindhouse patrons. Corman then hired Jim Wynorski to rework the ad campaign. Wynorski re-titled the film Screamers, and concocted a bogus trailer including newly shot footage (with effects by Rob Bottin) set in a futuristic space lab where a sexy scientist loses her clothes, and an outrageous claim that the film featured a man turning inside out! Screamers was a success, although moviegoers were angered about the absence of a man turning inside out, and Wynorski had to edit in his space lab sequence into one of Cassinelli’s scenes. Ah, the glory days of low-budget exploitation. The full story behind Screamers can be found in Maitland McDonagh’s fascinating book “Filmmaking on the Fringe.”
Martino indulged in some cut-and-paste antics of his own. He snipped footage from Island of Mutations and his post-holocaust actioner 2019: After the Fall of New York (1982) into the deeply weird, kiddie-oriented sequel, The Fishmen and their Queen (1995). But that my friends is another story.