When I was told I would be receiving the DVD release of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, I was thrilled: at last, a chance to add to my collection the classic H.G. Wells adaptation, a late-night popcorn favorite with Bela Lugosi, first glimpsed by my young self between interlaced fingers while staying up to watch the PLENTY SCARY MOVIE on a rainy Friday night. Hooray! Milk and cookies for all!
Imagine my downcast expression upon discovering that this was not the aforementioned cinematic legend, but a senselessly retitled release of a Mexican drama about the horrors of daily life in a Latin American prison, directed by Rene Cardona Sr., the man who also gave the world THE WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY. You could have knocked me over with a hamster's dick.
The film is actually titled THE ISLAND OF LONELY MEN, loosely based on the popular novel of the same name by Jose Leon Sanchez, which became a literary sensation in Latin America. Based on Sanchez's own experiences during a 20-year stir in a Devil's Island-like prison camp located in an unnamed dictatorship, the film uses a series of loose vignettes (you can't really call this a "story") to depict the grim hell on earth experienced by the convicts unfortunate enough to be exiled there. Even more vaguely, it's the on-again, off-again story of a man named Juanito - whom we are told is a mere pup, but played by an actor in his early forties (Erik Del Castillo). Juanito is ostensibly based on the author and presumably the same voice we hear providing rather spotty narration (I'm guessing he's quoting passages from the book, but if so, they aren't very compelling, or don't translate well).
Courtesy of a painfully-long prologue (which devours more than 20 minutes of screen time), we meet Juanito as he cavorts in smarmy, slo-mo shampoo commercial fantasies with his lovely bride-to-be. Their forthcoming bliss is destroyed, however, by the arrival of the new lord of the pueblo, Don Miguel (Mario Almada), a good friend of El Presidente with a fondness for jailbait and lascivious intentions toward Juanito's intended. Two rapes, one marriage, a child and two suicides later, Juanito loses everything that mattered to him, and fills the void with bloodthirsty revenge, leading to the messy machete murder that lands him in the title institution.
With one abrupt cut and no exposition whatsoever, we're plunked directly into prison life, where Juanito's plight is largely forgotten in favor of an episodic approach to the various convicts' trials and tribulations; the ragged editing style has us jumping in and out of various convicts' lives with little or no narrative focus, as if to say, "Move along, there's nothing more to see here, please disperse." We're left with lots of scenes of grimy, sweaty and disturbingly hairy men breaking rocks, fighting among themselves, getting infections from their crude leg-irons (one contracts gangrene and undergoes an impromptu amputation), and relieving their sexual frustrations in really creepy ways; I was at least grateful for Cardona's cut-and-run editing style when the trustee undertaker decides the young corpse before him looks like "a pretty young girl…" Cut! Cut! CUT!!!
In between these delightful feel-good escapades, the cons also find time to plan seriously lame escape attempts (including one man's scheme to swim to freedom disguised as a pelican… I'm not kidding), and indulge their dismal musical tastes: every other scene, we see and hear one man plink out a quaint little ditty on his guitar… again, and again, and again. And again. Then some more. This tune appears no less than eighteen times throughout the film's 95-minute duration. For variety, the song is heard in two forms: strummed on the aforementioned guitar, and in a screeching, nightmare-inducing performance by the "orchestra" - a group of prisoners who seem to be playing on instruments made of driftwood, tin cans and bits of their own filth. We are gifted with this version in its entirety during the end credits, during which viewers may experience spontaneous bowel distress.
In what apparently passes for a second act, the delusional prison commandant Colonel Venancio (Wolf Ruvinskis), who envisions himself a kind of father figure to his charges, receives an official reprimand for the brutal murder of a prisoner with an influential family (not influential enough, I guess). He responds to the order by declaring the island a sovereign republic independent of the motherland, and decrees that all the prisoners are now free citizens… who will, by the way, be promptly executed if they try to leave. Well, at least they get their own flag, so that's new. Needless to say, this is met with some trepidation by El Queso Grande, and soon the navy sends a well-armed patrol to crush the rebellion forthwith. Suddenly, as if the movie suddenly remembered its nominal protagonist, we finally get back to Juanito and a pair of his fellow ex-cons, who realize that their brief "freedom" is on shaky ground, and plan a hasty escape to one of the neighboring islands.
Not having read the source material, I have no idea whether it was a poetic, heartbreaking and compelling tale of man's inhumanity to man; It was certainly well-received in Latin America at the time, so I'd be inclined to believe it was quite a page-turner. According to the promotional materials, the film adaptation was a resounding success as well… which leads me to believe that people who loved the novel would flock to the movie, regardless of whether it turned out to be a pile of crap. Not that it isn't an interesting mess; nearly everything foisted on Mexican audiences by Cardona and son has been both insanely weird and hilariously awful - usually at the same time - but very seldom are their films boring. That goes for everything from Sr.'s Santo films from the '60s, on down to Junior's seriously loony '80s output. Still, I think it would be a bit of a stretch to label their cinematic output "art," even on their best days... although I'd say NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES or BEAKS: THE MOVIE come close.
I'm kidding. They also suck.
VCI presents ISLAND in a serviceable DVD package, no doubt the first DVD release of this film. (Whoopee.) I'm unaware of a prior home video release, or whether this the original negative was available, but it appears the DVD was struck from a rather degraded tape master, as occasional dropouts can be seen. Scratches and dirt are plentiful, but the colors are fairly strong. The murky, under-lit interior scenes are pretty tough going, but the contrast is strong enough to pick out most of the foreground characters, which is probably enough. The exterior shots are sharp - taking into account the cheap film stocks employed - and have less evident grain. The 1.85:1 matting preserves some well-composed images of the dense jungle and some surprisingly dramatic shots of the vast shoreline and crashing surf. The Dolby mono track is the English-dubbed version only, but the dialogue is clear and the dubbing is actually pretty decent. (Again, however, be warned that the alleged "theme song" will hurt you mean bad.) Extras are pretty light - just animated bios of the main cast and director, the English-dubbed trailer (again, titled ISLAND OF LONELY MEN... still not sure why VCI decided to go with the whole "LOST SOULS" thing), and trailers for other Cardona atrocities.
I'm kinda ambivalent about this flick... sure, it may have come with an impressive literary pedigree, thus bolstering its box-office success in its native country, but putting this kind of historic material in the hands of a notorious hack might have been an ill-conceived creative decision. It's confusing, muddled, grating, depressing as hell and doesn't seem to have much point beyond the concept "prisons are filthy, soul-sucking hell-holes, especially when run by paramilitary dictatorships." Wow, there's a fucking news flash.