Color, 1979, 83m.
Directed by Sergio Martino
Starring Richard Johnson, Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Mel Ferrer, Cameron Mitchell, Beryl Cunningham
Scorpion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
One of the most lovable deceptions in movie history has to be the ad campaign used to lure moviegoers in to see Screamers, a mysterious early '80s release that seemed to pop out of nowhere with a baffling all-star cast and a brilliant tagline: "Be warned: You will actually see a man turned inside-out!" As it turned out, no one - male or otherwise - was seen turned inside out in the actual film, nor was any footage from its raucous trailer (featuring a screaming woman, sci-fi flashing displays, and goop-covered beasts) anywhere to be found. When audiences complained, the posters were modified and a handful of prints were supposedly augmented very hastily with some of that "inside out" trailer footage.
What we do have for sure is Screamers itself, which is actually a drastically altered version of a 1979 Italian fantasy directed by giallo legend Sergio Martino (Torso). Originally entitled Island of the Fishmen, the original story concerned a hirsute doctor, Claude (Cassinelli), who washes ashore on a remote Caribbean island after a shipwreck along with some burly convicts. There he becomes entangled with the inhabitants of a gothic estate on the island, namely suspicious Nemo-like scientist Edmond Rackham (Zombie's Johnson), the beautiful and haunted Amanda (The Unseen's Bach), her father (Cotten), and a mysterious housemaid (The Snake God's Cunningham). As the other shipwreck survivors start disappearing, Claude starts snooping around and discovers the monstrous experiments being conducted on the island which have resulted in, yep, mutated fishmen.
That story essentially remains the same in the American version (the film was shot in English), which was released by Roger Corman's New World Pictures. The film posed a bit of a marketing challenge since it wasn't particularly violent, Bach's star voltage was waning a bit more than two years out from The Spy Who Loved Me, and audiences were demanding far more graphic fare from their horror offerings like Friday the 13th. The film bombed in its original form in regional theaters under the title Something Waits in the Dark, so effects artist Miller Drake (who had just done second unit work on Alligator) was brought in to direct an entirely new 12-minute opening set at the turn of the century with Cameron Mitchell, Mel Ferrer, and some other unlucky souls stumbling upon the same island (with Bronson Canyon standing in for some of the foggy cave shots) and getting graphically dispatched. The creature and gore effects (by a young Chris Walas) were enough to earn the film a coveted R rating, and additional (superior) creature shots were studded throughout the rest of the film to make the fishmen far more menacing (including a brief new coda).
A post-Piranha Joe Dante cobbled it all together and whittled extraneous footage out of the original cut to speed up the pace, while Jim Wynorski (a future Corman regular), the film's advertising director, cooked up the amazing trailer and monochrome poster art. (Incredibly, he even penned the liner notes for the back of New World's LP soundtrack release.) While both versions have every right to exist and deserve a place in any monster fan's library, Screamers is easily the more entertaining of the two, a kind of batty cousin to its viscous New World cousins like Humanoids from the Deep and Forbidden World. Italian film fans can enjoy it as well for the familiar scenery (shot on the heels of Zombie on the same island) and the crazy cast, most of whom reunited immediately afterwards for another Martino film, The Great Alligator.
Screamers became a VHS mainstay for years from Embassy, but afterwards it vanished entirely from home video around the world for nearly 30 years. The 2014 edition from Scorpion (available on both Blu-ray and DVD) is a much-needed revival of this berserk curio as well as the first widescreen release ever of this version. The transfer looks great (especially on Blu-ray, naturally), and you can finally make out all the details during that dark, notorious opening sequence. The Martino footage isn't quite as pristine given the nature of the production (it has a more diffused, sepia appearance), but fans should be more than satisfied. The DTS-HD mono track also sounds solid enough and does justice to the score by Luciano Michelini. On top of that you get a heap of extras covering the background of the American release, starting with a four-minute interview with Dante in which he briefly explains "how little" he had to do with the production. That's followed by an 11-minute interview with Wynorski, whose best moment concerns the film's successful but volatile opening weekend and his fears that Corman might fire him. Then Corman himself gets a three-minute piece about the process of transforming the film and finding the right marketing angle, leading to eight minutes with Clark Henderson who did post-production for New World and talks about the cheap production at Corman's converted lumberyard in Venice. Finally the supplements wrap up with a 12-minute featurette with Miller Drake, who recalls the Bronson shooting, wrangling the cast members, and cooking up enough juicy splatter effects to please the tastes of the time. Also included are trailers for both New World incarnations (Screamers and Something Waits in the Dark) and a nifty gallery of behind the scenes photos. Deliciously slimy fun.