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Sleaze-otica International: A Blood Island Primer

You’re just in time. Our tiny vessel was beginning to leave port. As the salty air swifts clearer and the sleaze bubbles just below the water’s surface, I believe I detect the clink of cocktail glasses on the main deck. Relax, grab that blue lei, and soak it all in. We’re headed for trash film paradise; we’re headed for Blood Island.

Yes, Blood Island. Beautiful lands! Isolated tension! Steamy sexual underpinnings! Insupposable monsters! Neon art-gore! Always surpassing innocence, but never pushing the exploitation TOO far, Hemisphere Pictures’ Filipino horror films set on the mythical shores of “La Isle de Sangre” are living pop-art comic books, tailor made for adult thrill-seekers. Grab an instrumental exotica LP, charm an issue of Eerie Publications’ “Terror Tales” to life, spice things up with a little sexual energy, and burn the combined effects to film. The results yield crude, yet accomplished works of template driven monster-art that never fail to fascinate. A juxtaposition of beautiful imagery with trashy drive-in thrills, these films are groundbreaking forebearers of the squelchy sex-n-violence that would dominate 70s horror. In other words, there’s reason to examine.

From 1959 to 1973, director-writer-producer Eddie Romero, director Gerry De Leon, and producer-distributers Sam Sherman, Irwin Pizor, and Kane Lynn foisted the voodoos of Blood Island onto unsuspecting drive-in screens throughout the U.S. While the films were largely successful upon their initial gimmick-fueled releases (and re-releases), the 80s weren’t so loving. Several titles went MIA and the majority showed up on unwatchable VHS tapes and television broadcasts, often cut to ribbons and looking thick as muck. Lucky for late-comers and reaquaintances alike, home video has come to the rescue.

The last two decades have seen the restoration and reissue of every Blood Island film on DVD and Blu-ray, thanks to the combined work of Image Entertainment, Retromedia, VCI, Wellspring, and Severin Films. A little known thread of bizarre horror film history has been completely unearthed. The time has never been more right.

Terror Is A Man (Gerry De Leon, 1959) sets the Blood Island blueprint, so let’s break ground. Washed up on mysterious shores, sole shipwreck survivor Will finds himself at odds. Dr. Girard (Francis Lederer from Return Of Dracula), together with wife Francis and assistant Walter, is performing secret experiments concerning the evolutionary link between man and animal. Gasp! When Girard’s mummy-puma beast escapes and kills a few villagers, Will finds himself torn between the good doctor’s logically brilliant experiments and his lust for Francis (Greta Thyssen from Journey To The Seventh Planet). It all comes crashing down in an avalanche of cruelty, unrequited love, confusion, and obsession. Wait a minute…are we really on Blood Island?

While it compiles a general plot template for the series (chiseled American hero gets tempted by heaving chanteuse, interacts with tampering mad doctor, battles visually bizarre monster), Terror Is A Man displays a level of classy sophistication that the forthcoming films would trade in for sheer thrills. Maybe it’s due to the loose cribbing of Drs. Moreau and Frankenstein’s central ideas? The believable acting, sympathetic situations, and Gerry De Leon’s tight black and white photography do much to propel Terror above what you’ve come to expect from this era’s b-movies. The small, likable cast and singular locations create some real tension, which leads to a few chilling moments. At the same time, you can feel the future exploitation lurking around every corner; the close up surgery cut, Will’s proposition to Francis (“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”), and Francis’s brief self-frolicking. About as multilayered as the Blood Island films get, Terror kicks things off with mysterious stature and stands as the most accomplished, at least in terms of emotional pull and technical craft. It’s solid and engaging b-horror fun, complete with a goofy warning bell, which is supposed to warn the audience of upcoming gruesomeness. The ring-a-ding occurs just once.

”It seems certain organisms on this island are undergoing drastic mutations.” Welcome to Brides Of Blood (Gerry De Leon & Eddie Romero, 1968). The formula falls into place and everything gets turned up a notch. I hope you remembered a life preserver.

Dr. Paul Henderson (Kent Taylor) and his wife Carla join tag-along Jim Farrell (John Ashley, making the first of several Blood Island appearances) on our favorite isle of mirth. Paul is investigating mutations on the island, a result of atomic energy exposure in the 40s. Mutations — you can say that again! Writhing killer trees, a violent butterfly on strings, and the top tier of trash film weirdness: “The Evil One,” a wet, hairy glob of melted rubber and 6 AM hangover eyes. Did I mention that the natives perform a nightly ritual to appease the satisfactions of Monsieur Evil One? Yep, the girls draw straws, get tied to stakes, and are then molested by this behemoth villain, who literally rips the unfortunates apart while engaging in heavy breathing of the most hilarious kind. Meanwhile, Carla, the nympho-slut (Beverly Hills), takes every opportunity to twitch her upper lip and sneak onto late-nite mattresses. Before you can say “John Ashley karate chop!” bodies pile up and the mysterious Mr. Esteban, a reclusive nobleman, begins to freak out as a result of his “epilepsy.” But is all what it seems?

If there’s one film that personifies the colorful Blood Island allure, Brides is the ticket. Retaining a bit of the emotional melodrama from Terror Is A Man, but armed with exploitation that’ll smash your facehole, it just doesn’t get much better than this. Epic in length for these types of films (97 minutes), Romero and De Leon pace their chops evenly, allowing us time to stretch out and take everything in. The acting gets a little hammier (helped by the post-dubbing) and the set pieces even more absurd. The tropical tension is ever-present, whether it be in the form of bodily danger or lustful intent (check out Beverly Hills as she’s about to be uh, propositioned, by a shipmate…instead of fighting, she’s all for it!). The plan was to provide audiences with an ever-escalating level of exploitive wallops. Romero and company deliver the juice, but never at the expense of experienced filmmaking. That’s why Brides remains an apex of archetypal trash.

In the gimmick department, The Evil One ties the knot. Housed in luscious crushed velvet, brave female patrons were handed plastic engagement rings upon paying for their drive-in ticket. I can hear the pitter-patter already.

Does the middle kid always get the shaft? Part two of what has come to be known as a trilogy, starting with Brides and ending with Beast Of Blood, Mad Doctor Of Blood Island (Gerry De Leon & Eddie Romero, 1969) makes me mope. Nasty!

A nude woman is clawed to pieces by a mossy monstrosity that best resembles a messier version of Steve Ditko’s Lizard from the early Spider-Man comics. Dr. Bill Foster (John Ashley returns in out-of-date Elvis locks and a hairy chest) makes his way to Blood Island, along with girlfriend Sheila (Angelique Pettyjohn, she of Star Trek, Biohazard, and stints in porno). Bill is there to set up some medical help, Sheila wishes to find her father. Why Pop is on Blood Island is anybody’s guess. Also in tow is Carlos, a young turk searching for his mother. Is his supposedly dead father still alive? Care for some more loose plot strings? The gang soon meets sinister Dr. Lorca (Ronald Remy, vamp from The Blood Drinkers), who seems to be conducting experiments involving chlorophyll-contaminated humans. The results? Green blood, kick ass over-use of the “monster zoom,” ultra-gory beastie attacks, a laughably sultry Ashley-Pettyjohn sex scene, awful day-for-night shots, and lots…I mean LOTS of dirty native dry humping. Confused yet?

Just as Brides upped the ante, Mad Doctor strives to do the same. Unfortunately, the film lacks a little thing called substance. While the bloated gore gets way too extreme (wet innards laid out in the fly-infested dirt) and the acting takes a dive off the deep end, dozens of semi-related plot lines ramble on until you’re forced into not caring. Since so many characters grace the screen (and inexplicably disappear), it’s impossible to get any real insight, which makes for some convoluted viewing. By the time the abhorrent scenes of pig and goat slaughter reared around, I knew it was over. Bottom line: too much sexed-up, gross-out emptiness, not enough likable pull. A marked turn from the previous two films, so you know what they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. At least the monster looked amazing.

Gimmick depot: reach for the Tums! Audiences were distributed packets of “green blood” before the film began. During the tacked on prologue, groups of teens were shown drinking the stuff “for their own protection.” The audience was encouraged to knock back their shots during this blood oath. After all, it was their only insurance from becoming raving “green ones.”

“Reactivate the artificial head!” Sure, I’ll get to that. Just as soon as the Hardy Boys help me plan out my jungle warfare strategy. Beast Of Blood, (Eddie Romero, 1970) the only direct sequel of the entire series, turns the tables again…but this time, Hemisphere gets it right.

Picking up just minutes after Mad Doctor ends, Dr. Bill Foster (wouldja believe John Ashley?!) survives the viscious onslaught of the returning creature, only to have his entire ship (and girlfriend Sheila) blown to bits in the process. Some guys have all the luck. Seeking revenge against the Beast, Dr. Bill gathers his marbles and returns to Blood Island, with new busty blond Myra in tow (Celeste Yarnall). Once there, Bill’s posse spends time digging around ol’ Dr. Lorca’s spooky abandoned castle, which is filled with booby traps and secret passageways. When his girlfriend is kidnapped by the still-living Dr. Lorca (Eddie Garcia from Blood Of The Vampires), Foster and sassy native sidekick, Lana, engage in jungle coverts to get her back. Lana makes the moves on Bill. He refuses…his love for Sheila will never die! She tries again. Nothing! Bill and Myra are placed in the same bamboo hut, “guests” of Dr. Lorca. Instant steam and bomp! What a guy. Meanwhile, Lorca continues his chlorophylled human experiments, resulting in oodles of caviar-faced natives and a bizarre series of exchanges with the disconnected head of the monster. Cue the battlefield cannons!

Less horror quirk, more mystery-survival action-fest. That about sums it up. Wisely, writer-director Eddie Romero keeps things simple and direct this time around, pinching in a dash of that lovey-dovey syrup for good measure. Given Romero’s previous output in the war film department, it’s not surprising that he chose to let Beast morph into a warped action pic. The budget seems lower (some of the natives wear blue jeans and sneakers), the photography leans on the grit, and Ashley gives it all he’s got. Celeste Yarnall acts rings around her previous counterparts; the rest of the cast is stuffed to bursting with ham sandwiches. Check out the Skipper! Amazing. This one’s a little light on the gore, save for a disgusting mondo surgery scene, but piles on that sexual electricity. Surpassing Mad Doctor by leaps, but falling short of the first two films, Beast reaches a nice middle ground of decent, cheap-o gook. Besides, where else are you going to see a discussion between an eye-patched man and a bodiless monster head played totally straight?

Eddie Romero and John Ashley were full steam ahead for a fourth Blood Island film; Beast Of The Yellow Night (Eddie Romero, 1971). Due to creative differences, Hemisphere and Sam Sherman passed on the project, going on to produce Brain Of Blood instead. With the core Hemisphere team now disbanded, Romero took his film to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The result? A disjointed flub that pales in comparison to the previous films, but retains a few moments of that ol’ Blood Island fun.

After 25 minutes of bafflement, I finally figured out what was going on. Joseph Langdon (John Ashley) was an evil emperor in the 40s. On the run and dying of starvation, Langdon is offered eternal life for the sale of his soul to our pouty devil (Vic Diaz). One cannibal chowdown later and we learn that Langdon’s mind travels from body to body, inciting the “inert evil” that lies within each person. Which brings us to his latest incarnation: a businessman in the Philippines with a wandering wife and scheming brother. For reasons that are never fully explained, Satan forces Joseph to turn into a glop-faced green monster that goes on gory killing sprees whenever he gets a stomach ache. Vic Lucifer gets bored with that and enables Joseph to change whenever he gets angry or emotional, just like Bruce Banner! Pretty soon, the cops catch on and you know the drill.

Although Yellow Night best resembles a 50s monster romp, just updated with gore and a couple of steamy (but tame) sex scenes, the film ultimately comes up short due to its convoluted storytelling. If the script was fleshed out in a clearer fashion, the film would be much better off for it. That said, John Ashley’s perky monster will make your day; in fact, this demonic green slime may be one of the greatest looking b-monsters of all time. Yellow Night also takes a quality cut when compared to its siblings. Although we’re still soaking up the dense exotic backdrop, the sets are dumpier, the day-for-night is ludicrous, and the effects are cheaper. Check out those rubber window bars and still-breathing gore effects! And since when do monsters bellow with a stock lion’s roar? Bottom line: out of context, Yellow Night makes for a few decent thrills. Placed within the series, it’s a dud.

What happens when Al Adamson and Sam Sherman concoct their own version of a Blood Island film with Eddie Romero’s blessing? I’ll clue you in: it has something to do with a homicidal dwarf, a canteloupe-headed monster, and an extended brain surgery sequence. Short answer: Brain Of Blood (Al Adamson, 1972), one of Al’s best.

Amir, the emperor of middle eastern Kalid, is dying. What’s a government to do? Why, send him over to the states for an immediate brain transplant, that’s what! Dr. Trenton (Kent Taylor from Brides Of Blood) is hired to perform the delicate switcheroo, with the help of his golf-capped dwarf assistant, Dorro and man-thing Gor (Angelo Rossitto and John Bloom, both from Adamson’s Dracula Vs. Frankenstein). When Gor damages the ripe replacement body, Trenton has no choice — he must place Amir’s brain into Gor’s battery acid-burned noggin. Meanwhile, Dorro drains the blood of young shackled females and Amir’s posse is blown to fiery hell. This can only mean one thing: Regina Carroll will smoke cigarettes, look really surprised, and get chased through the mountains by our behemoth monster. Everybody gets it and the bad guys win. Mucho bien.

First things first. This is not your typical Al Adamson film; this is the Al Adamson film. Al’s work always hold a daffy draw of its own, no matter the sub-genre. With Hemisphere’s Brain Of Blood, he and Sam Sherman manage to distill what those charms are all about: making the most with your available budget. The film was shot in Hollywood, but intentioned to have the feel and guts of a Blood Island potboiler. Accepting the stale acting and slight padding, “Brain” delivers in spades, spazzily shot and somehow effective at times. Take for instance the elongated brain surgery sequence. Employing tempera paint blood and (what looks like) an actual brain, Al avoids guffaws and invokes uneasiness, all through the use of his technique; extreme zooms, cuts from bloody hands to eyes to the gory brain, and piercing echo-plexed squeals on the soundtrack. The flow of events are intercut with some great set pieces, including Dorro’s cackling torture scenes and a swell rooftop chase. This is still an Adamson film (check out Zandor Vorkov, again from Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, as Mohammed…method acting at its finest), but it’s technically light years ahead of mind-frying challenges like Blood Of Ghastly Horror. Oh, and in case you were wondering about the literal connections to Blood Island…the soundtrack for Mad Doctor and Brain Of Blood? One in the same!

Ready for one last tour before we head back home? Take gander at The Twlight People (Eddie Romero, 1973). After dipping into the women-in-prison genre with Black Mama, White Mama, director Eddie Romero teamed up with John Ashley for one last hurrah on the shores of Blood Island. Terror Is A Man meets Beast Of Blood at James Bond’s house for brunch; my face hurts.

Just like Terror Is A Man, this film is a none-too-subtle rip of “The Island Of Dr. Moreau.” Only ten times cheaper. Mad Scientist Dr. Gordon oversees a jungle compound filled with his super being experiments, aided by Neva, his raven-haired daughter. The Doc decides to kidnap All American Bad Ass Matt Farrell (John Ashley), in hopes of turning him into the greatest experiment. Farrell says: “Get to the point goddammit.” Experiments?! Of course! Gordon takes glee in turning people into human/animal hybrids. You’ve got your bat-man (unbelievable — a must see), panther-woman (an unrecognizable Pam Grier), dog-lady, ram-guy, etc. Neva catches wind that her Pop is up to no good, so she enlists Farrell’s help in freeing the manimals. The escape is on.

There’s no getting around it: Twilight is ultra chincy and hilariously stupid. Although the surface elements of the series are present, albeit in a watered down form, this film dwells in a different mindset. The script reeks of a tepid men’s adventure paperback and the production values never rise above a TV Movie Of The Week. Styrofoam dungeon walls? Survival of the fittest with blazin’ guns? Monster makeup from your kid sister’s boudreau? All accounted for, thank you. The gore is relegated to some heavy neon bloodshed and the steamy love making scenes are MIA. What you’re left with is some boredom (the “escape” sequences take up nearly half the film) and a whole lotta laughs. See the bat-man fall down and go boom! Hear the awful dubbing of real animal grunts spewing forth from embarrassed actors’ mouths! Gasp as the mongoose-man attempts to persuade Neva to join him in the horizontal bomp! Bad. Enjoyable. Hysterical. There’s even a badly animated ending, looking like it stepped straight out of the 40s.

The end of a holiday is always a bummer…but don’t get too depressed. On your way out, snap the last of your polaroids and think about getting nostalgic. In addition to the films covered here, Image has released two additional DVDs as part of their “Blood Collection”; The Blood Drinkers (1966) and Blood Of The Vampires (1971), both directed by Gerry De Leon. Aside from the familiar locales and Hemisphere ties, neither film fits into the Blood Island mold, but both expertly throw the normal vampire conventions for a loop.

And with that, the plank rises and the anchors lift. As we barely escape intact, stank breath of The Evil One gliding over our shirt collars, we can rest easy. With a digital scrapbook as readily available as a carton of orange juice, the memories of La Isle de Sangre will never fade. “The doctor is not afraid of death…death is on his payroll!”

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