“I always know right from the start if I’m going to love or hate a place.” So says Christopher (Bob Belling) to Celia (Jane Ryall), apparently his wife, as they arrive by boat to the beautiful, peaceful Greek island of Myknonos within the South Aegean. The same can be said of prolific Greek film director Nico Mastorakis’ Island of Death, a 1976 exploitation film which he freely admits was made to be “more violent, more perverse” than even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which he had seen at an open air screening in Athens.
“Movies are not always an artistic expression of the director,” Mastorakis makes clear in an archive interview included in the comprehensive Blu-ray package recently released by Arrow Films. Shot in only eighteen days with the sole intention of making money, the extreme low budget is apparent in the variable acting, with his handful of largely inexperienced principal actors supplemented by locals and tourists drafted on location and Mastorakis himself taking a significant role when an actor had to drop out on short notice.
“I’m a lousy actor,” he confesses, but it was not the performances audiences came to see, it was the parade of every conceivable shocking cinematic perversion Mastorakis brought to the screen, and to him his goal was achieved. “It made me a name, almost bankable.”
A name he may have been, but the film itself had many: Devils in Mykonos, A Craving for Lust (in an edit which removed much of the violence leaving what film historian Stephen Thrower describes in the new documentary Exploring Island of Death “a softcore porn travelogue”) and Island of Perversion.
Under the inexplicable title Psychic Killer II it was one of the titles prosecuted under the “video nasty” scandal of the mid eighties and refused a certificate. It was released with just over four minutes of cuts in 2002 and finally released uncut in 2010, and it is this version upon which Arrow have performed their 2K restoration from the original camera negative.
With every scene bursting with fresh colour, certainly Christopher and Celia’s trip to Myknonos has never looked more beautiful, from the opening harbour shots, the rippling water under the blue skies, the walks through the narrow streets between the uniformed whitewashed villas accompanied by a gorgeous period folk soundtrack, five tracks of which are also included as complete recordings on the disc.
Renting a room, Christopher asks the landlady whether he may have access to the unused room at the end of the garden as a dark room for his photography; he obsessively snaps the people of the island, but his hobby is in service of a darker truth. A call back home to London to taunt his mother in reveals that he is being tailed, that her telephone has been tapped, and their location has been revealed to Foster (Gerard Gonalons), the man hunting him.
For Christopher and Celia are not what they seem; he is a psychopath, a judgemental hypocrite who kills those he feels have fallen from the Lord’s teachings, and she is his lure, first with Jean-Claude, the friendly Frenchman they meet in a cafe whom Celia seduces to give Christopher his opening, beating him, nailing him to the ground then drowning him with whitewash.
They are equal opportunity killers; in a party of kaftans and candles Jonathan and Paul have announced their engagement, and while Christopher smiles at their happiness, he is seething inside. “How disgusting it was to see a man lying there like a whore… God punishes perversion and I’m his angel with a flaming sword.”
Disguising it as a murder/suicide, a crime of passion, Mastorakis is unable to disguise the day for night shooting nor the ropey performances, the apparent difficulty in delivering the lines astonishing considering how simple the dialogue is, but Christopher and Celia are not finished.
Their pursuer Foster is roped and dragged through the air (Christopher can fly a single prop plane), the lesbian barmaid is beaten, drugged and burned, the lonely and eager to please middle aged American Patricia (Jessica Dublin) is decapitated by a mechanical digger (Christopher can also use one of those), but despite this the tone of the film is neutral; Christopher may judge but the camera does not, and the film is neither as lurid nor sensationalist as Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
Beyond the unusual deaths, it is the inclusions which make the film remarkable; at a time when depiction beyond gender norms was unusual even in mainstream cinema, to feature first a gay couple then a lesbian encounter was quite remarkable, and while Island of Death is an exploitation film, none of these characters is treated as sensational or any way, they are simply part of the local colour, unexceptional to anyone but Christopher and Celia.
Inevitably, both receive their comeuppance; Celia is assaulted in their apartment by two (genuine) tourists when Christopher is out, and tipped off by novelist Demitri Spartas (Mastorakis, resembling a cast-off Bee Gee) who is suspicious of their behaviour the couple abandon the coast for the hills where they are given shelter by a sheep farmer noted Greek actor Nikos Tsachiridis who decides he wants Celia for his own, beating Christopher unconscious and raping him before leaving him to die, the indifferent Celia ignoring his pleas for help.
A twisted Love Story meets Bonnie and Clyde on their Big Fat Greek Killing Spree, the limitations and compromises are throughout, with Celia’s breasts requiring regular airing, the fact that nobody on the island locks their doors even after the bodies begin piling up and the out-of-season filming meaning the island is so empty as to appear as though it had been evacuated.
“Sometimes the story behind the movie is more interesting than the story in the movie,” Mastorakis explains, and certainly his career has been long and varied, and he has no pretensions about Island of Death. Recalling Belling as “a complex man” and Ryall as “sweet, innocent,” he says he would not like his own daughter to see the film, and hopes that if Ryall has children she has exercised the same caution.
A major player in Greek television, still working in black and white even in the seventies, Mastorakis was in production on this, his second feature after the telepathic thriller Death Has Blue Eyes only two months after seeing Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but the success of Island of Death next brought him the high profile The Greek Tycoon starring Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset, a thinly veiled biopic of Aristotle Onassis.
With a four part retrospective of Mastorakis totalling over two and a half hours as well as a half hour trailer reel of his work, his other projects include Blind Date (1984) with Joseph Bottoms and Kirstie Alley and The Time Traveller (1984), also known as The Next One, with Keir Dullea and Adrienne Barbeau, the package is completed by Mastorakis’ return to Myknonos, filmed in March 2015, forty years after the film was made.
Meeting some of the same locals he used as extras and visiting a restaurant still owned by the same family, there may be more cars than in 1975 but the island, beautiful and timeless, has not changed.