Island of Death

The idyllic Greek island of Mykonos, where Zeus once battled the Titans, has long been a sunny vacation paradise favored by, among other populations, gay and lesbian holiday-makers. Although swamped during the high summer months by A-listers too cool for the sweaty EDM and glow sticks (or maybe just cell phones now) scene of Ibiza, the island takes on a more subdued character once the last throng of bikini and Speedo clad celebs have migrated elsewhere for the fall, leaving behind an eclectic population of salty locals, Bohemians, and artists. It’s probably no accident that director Nico Mastorakis chose this welcoming island as the spot to unleash his duo of deranged sociopaths in Island of Death, or that they inflict their warped and hypocritical brand of self-righteous justice on a laid-back population of weirdos that wasn’t doing anyone harm. Mastorakis has claimed frequently that there was no political, or even artistic, motivation behind making this infamous film, and that his motivation was pure mercenary profit, a way to turn a quick buck so that he could better establish himself in London after being effectively exiled from his native Greece. This may be the case, but Mastorakis also admits that just because he didn’t intend any political (or artistic) statement, that doesn’t mean it didn’t creep in regardless. He is, after all, a man with a considerable amount of political baggage.

The road that led Nico Mastorakis to his Island of Death was as wild as one of his films. His first career was in journalism, where he made his own headlines when he disguised himself as a member of a pop group and snuck aboard a yacht owned by Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Ari’s guests that day were a couple of Americans, Ted Kennedy and his Presidential brother’s widow, Jackie. Mastorakis was sniffing around rumors that Onassis and Jackie Kennedy were courting one another, and in service of breaking this story, he secreted a camera inside his guitar to snap clandestine photos of the two together. Unfortunately, he must have gone a bridge too far, because Teddy’s security detail caught onto the ruse. Mastorakis was able to escape the scene with his negatives, but he lost them shortly thereafter when the Greek secret police picked him up and confiscated the photos. Mastorakis still wrote the story, becoming the first person to publicly write that Onassis and Kennedy were bound for marriage, but the article was heavily censored and the photos were not allowed.

He worked in radio as well, befriended John Lennon, and later got into music promotions. His most famous accomplishment was bringing the Rolling Stones to Athens in 1967, less than a week before a coup overthrew the government and installed a military junta in its place. He also cultivated the career of young keyboard player Vangelis Papathanassiou, who would later drop his last name and go onto to a career of some slight acclaim. Mastorakis was also a pioneer in Greek television, but for every success, he was beset by a persistent proficiency in pissing off the government, something that got him into hot water on numerous occasions. Later he was used as a pawn by the government, which hoped to capitalize on his popularity to clean up their tarnished reputation after a particularly vicious crackdown on student radicals. After the government was overthrown in another coup, Mastorakis claimed he had worked with them under duress, but that wasn’t enough to repair his reputation in the eyes of the public. Effectively out of the television and radio games at that point, he left the country to pursue his fortunes in a place less volatile and less familiar with him. And that’s when he saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The lesson Nico took away from Hooper’s film wasn’t one about economical filmmaking. It wasn’t one about pacing. It wasn’t one about so effectively implying violence that, to this day, people assume The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is much more graphic that it actually is (and this even from people who have seen the movie). No, the lesson Nico Mastorakis took away from the film was that violence sells, so if he wanted to make a bundle to fund his new career as a filmmaker, he should make a film as sick and perverse as he could get away with. So he made a list of perversions, and he basically built the script out of that list, eventually forming it into the story. And so he made Island of Death, an utterly bonkers picture that became infamous when it made the United Kingdom’s “Video Nasties” list, also known as the list of every film British teenagers would want to see. Unlike many of the films that made that list, the inclusion of Island of Death wasn’t totally unjustified. It’s a film that begins with a man calling his mother to force her to listen to him have sex in a phone booth, which he follows up by raping a baby goat. After that, it starts to get weird.

But Island of Death doesn’t make Nico Mastorakis the Tobe Hooper of Greece. It wasn’t the content of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that inspired him. It was the financial return. Between that and the style of the grubby, sleazy, cheap but oddly competent film he made, it’s fair to claim that Nico Mastorakis is the Herschell Gordon Lewis of Greece. Comparisons in the vein of “this director is the that director of this country” rarely hold up under scrutiny, built as they often are on the most shallow readings of both filmmakers involved int he comparison. It’s why we have such a proliferation of “the Ed Wood, Jr. of whatever country.”

But on occasion, the temptation is just too much, the similarities just too striking. Lewis, the “godfather of gore,” got into filmmaking under the wing of legendary exploitation film impresario David F. Friedman, and their partnership yielded a glut of nudie camp movies and, once that had been run into the ground, a string of grotesque, bloody horror films, some of the first of their kind, including the granddaddy of them all, Blood Feast. In interviews, Lewis — by all reports a good-natured and even demure man — eschewed much talk about the cinematic legacy of his films and concentrates much more often on the bottom line. How much did the film cost, how quickly did they get it made, and what was the profit? And there almost always was a profit. No one except perhaps Roger Corman was as adept at turning a profit as Friedman and Lewis. It is in this fine carnival barker tradition that Mastorakis most comfortably fits. Or maybe he’s H.G. Lewis with a dash or two of John Waters, only without the latter’s actual artistic merit.

Sexy young couple Christopher (Robert Behling) and Celia (Jane Lyle) arrive on Mykonos during the off-season and are welcomed by the locals and the small community of quirky ex-pats. Although they initially seem to be nothing more than a horny young couple enjoying their quiet time on a quaint Greek island, it doesn’t take long before we get the sense that something is not quite right with Chris and Celia. For starters, they stop for a sexy tryst in a public phone booth. OK, really, nothing terribly sinister there — until Chris dials up his mom back home in London and makes her listen to their rutting. The call is also picked up by the London police, who are apparently quite interested in the whereabouts of our twisted young lovers.

It is quickly revealed that Chris and Celia aren’t a couple of free love hippies who just enjoying freaking out Chris’ square mum. Chris is an ultra-conservative raving lunatic who sees perversion all around him and feels compelled to cleanse it. Celia is his giggling accomplice. Neither one of them seem particularly smart, though at least Celia at times doubts that being conspicuous outsiders who arrive in a small town the same day a series of horrific murders start taking place is a great way to lie low and not attract undue legal attention. But Chris’ compulsion to first indulge in and then punish the sin he sees around him, all while he and Celia document it on film, is uncontrollable. So despite the fact that the finger of guilt would point obviously at them, they embark on a series of grotesque murders underpinned by a religious fervor that, like much religious fervor, conveniently is not applied to the couple’s own sin.

That’s the relatively normal part of the film. Before very long, it takes a turn for the surreal, and if you were watching the preceding minutes and wondering how the film would top its mounting looniness, rest assured that Nico Mastorakis has put a lot of effort into accomplishing the task. Twists are heaped upon grotesqueries are heaped upon perversions until the whole thing threatens to collapse into one giddily irredeemable pile of filth that happily violates any taboo of which it could think, and then finds a way to make it all weirder still. Mastorakis has stated time and again that it was all just a plot to attract attention and thus make money, but when confronted with something this out of its own skull, it’s difficult to fully accept that it was all just about the money. Maybe Mastorakis was going a little nuts after laboring for so long under the merciless boot of Greece’s revolving parade of oppressive military regimes. Maybe he had some issues to work out. Maybe he just wanted to shock and confound and infuriate.

He accomplishes all those things regardless of his motivation. Island of Death is a satisfyingly weird film, made all the stranger by the fact that, after spending so much time in television production, Mastorakis actually knows what he’s doing behind the camera. This isn’t some soiled, under-exposed, out-of-focus grindhouse quickie. Mastorakis keeps everything well-lit and in-focus. His camera wanders the narrow, whitewashed streets of old Mykonos like a tourist, stopping from time to time to peer into a window or attend a party. There’s an air of old-world decadence settled onto it all like a film of cheap musk and beach sand, and he choses to mount some of his most perverse and explicit scenes in the warm, beautiful glow of the rich Mediterranean sun. They’re almost lyrical, at times, even erotic rather than just explicit — at least up until the point where Chris and Celia are crucifying people, mutilating animals, and generally behaving like very poor guests.

Perhaps the film’s greatest feat is creating a duo of monsters, presenting them as our main characters, but then somehow keeping them…not exactly sympathetic, but complex. They are a repulsive couple of people who deserve a grim fate, yet there are a few scenes when Mastorakis convinces you to root for them, at least for a little while and against a couple of scumbags who are just as rotten as they are. Robert Behling tears into his role with foaming-at-the-mouth glee, and Jane Lyle is like a sweet, sun-dappled folk song of a nude hippie girl, only she is also really into torture, murder, and the wrathful judgment of God. They’re good examples of how a film can be about utterly loathsome people you hate while still keeping them worth watching (as opposed to simply rendering them annoying) — especially once the film shifts from the town to a bizarre cave for its loony final revelation.

These sudden tonal shifts cause people to misinterpret the film’s voice, taking it as tacit approval of Chris and Celia. This is not the film’s intent, however. Chris and Celia are monsters informed by Mastorakis’ many run-ins with political and religious hypocrites. However, he choses to infuse them with some degree of humanity, if for no other reason than that’s often what human monsters are like. In the case of Chris and Celia as well as a couple of scumbags who blow into town to mess with the local produce and commit a little rape, the evil characters are outsiders and the locals, no matter how weird they might be by mainstream standards (the couple prey on everyone from gay men to old swingers to divorced women), are the good guys. In this sense, there’s an air of folk horror about Island of Death, both in how the film is shot and in how the peaceful existence of a small town is upended by the arrival of aggressive newcomers. Perhaps if the inevitable political content of his film had been more at the forefront of its development, Mastorakis’ darkly satirical intent would have been more clearly rendered. As it is, however, it emerged despite the director’s best efforts to make nothing more than a catalog of bankable cruelty and goat sex, and as such is perhaps a little half-baked. In the end, however, half-baked social commentary fits the film’s surreal style much better than a more explicitly defined agenda.

Nico Mastorakis accomplished what he set out to do, since he enjoyed a modestly successful film career that included a number of cable television and direct-to-video fixtures. He directed the terrible slasher film Zero Boys (a film that has its fans, though I’m not one of them), a thinly veiled film about Aristotle Onassis called The Greek Tycoon and starring no less than Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset, and a string of late-night action films like Terminal Exposure, Ninja Academy, and Hired to Kill (featuring Oliver Reed). In looking back on Island of Death, which he regards it seems with no small amount of fondness since it’s the film that launched his career and since, by his account, it was a thoroughly fun film to make, Mastorakis points out that for all the sleaze in the film, for all the revulsion it triggers in people, the content is less twisted and perverse than the average episode of a modern cable television series.

He’s not incorrect. Shows like Game of Thrones, Black Sails, and that Spartacus series that was on Starz trot out sleazy perversions on a weekly basis that would have sent many a film in the past to the “banned in 31 countries” scrap heap. There’s more gore, incest, twisted sex, and nudity in those shows (less certain about the goat sex, though it seems like something at least one of those shows would have gotten to eventually) than in Island of Death, and yet most viewers, including viewers not accustomed to scummy exploitation films, accept it lovingly into their lives while still finding something like Island of Death to be “too much.” There’s something about context, or about presentation. Sleaze and weirdness is always more effective when it’s presented in a rawer, less technically polished medium, and perhaps the concentrated weirdness, cinematic style, and film grain render an old exploitation film more shocking even when, quantitatively, it should be less shocking. Whatever the case, decades after it’s release, decades after it became one of the star attractions of the video nasties list, Island of Death has lost none of its ability to shock, confound, and repulse. In the world of exploitation filmmaking, that’s something to be admired.