Cult Cinema: Screamers

The 1979 film, Screamers was released to the home viewing market a few months ago with little fanfare. Here's our review. 

"Dude. This place is boring."
A bizarre time-capsule of the later days of drive-ins and the early days of VHS, this semi-notorious Roger Corman-ized Italian horror flick has, against all odds, been resurrected for the digital age by Scorpion Releasing. Screamers is one weird film – a pulpy, rather camp mash-up of Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Island of Dr. Moreau filtered through a Lucio Fulci-esque Italian exploitation lens – but the story of how it came to exist (in this form) is even weirder. Made fresh on the heels of Fulci's Zombie, Screamers appears to have been strongly influenced by that film in its setting, style, and use of Richard Johnson (Zombie's Dr. Menard) as the villain. American distributor Roger Corman also seems to have wanted an answer to that film, for the drive-in circuit that increasingly wanted more gore and sleaze in their horror flicks. But director Sergio Martino (Torso, Slave of the Cannibal God)'s film just wasn't that kind of movie; it was more of an old-fashioned fantasy/adventure tale, largely without gore despite the occasional exploitation elements. That wasn't what Corman wanted, so in a decision pretty typical of his sensibilities (one that a studio could never get away with today, as it would be considered highly unethical) he hired a team of his own filmmakers to shoot additional scenes of gore and creature attacks to splice into the film, and had them totally redo the movie's structure and pacing. And so, the more mild and leisurely-paced Island of the Fishmen, as it was originally called, became the patchwork oddity known as Screamers. And what an oddity it is: around this time, most Italian imports to the U.S. had substantial amounts of gore removed to fit the confines of an R-rating, but this is probably the only one that had substantial amounts of gore added to earn it.

"So, what did you say about that Creature from the
Black Lagoon lawsuit?"
The team that Corman hired to shoot his additional creature-attack inserts is quite a who's-who of 80s sci-fi and horror, including filmmaker Joe Dante, visual effects artist Miller Drake, and producer Gale Anne Hurd. They took their job very seriously too, providing some strong special effects, and a whole new opening sequence that works great on its own as a nifty little short monster movie. It has little to do with the rest of the plot, and features guest-stars who aren't even in the original (including Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell- again, pure Corman), but it's a cool, atmospheric sequence that starts things off with a bang. The rest of the film concerns the survivors of a wrecked prison ship who wash ashore on an uncharted island inhabited by fish-monsters, and ruled over by a megalomaniac (Richard Johnson, chewing the scenery like a poor man's Timothy Dalton) who has set himself up as a god over the creatures. The influence – or blatant theft – from The Island of Dr. Moreau is immediately obvious, but the plot hardly stops there. Through wacky twist after wacky twist, the movie becomes progressively sillier and more unhinged, throwing in every possible monster-movie plot trope you could want, and turning it into a delightfully cheesy cauldron of B-movie ridiculousness that's a lot of fun, if nowhere close to actually good. Like Zombie, it even manages to work in tropes of voodoo, in its totally camp – if casually racist – portrayal of the native islanders. Add in a couple of major actors looking for a paycheck as their careers decline – Barbara Bach and Joseph Cotton, whose tired performance just screams “what did I do to deserve this; I used to work with Hitchcock, dammit!” – and you've got a film that a certain type of bad-movie aficionado will find difficult to resist.

Film purists may understandably find it dubious, if not artistically reprehensible, that Corman so freely chopped up a director's work and cobbled it back together with someone else's footage, but a strong case can be made that Screamers is in some ways an improvement over Island of the Fishmen. The plot and character development (such as there is) seems fully intact, so all the scenes that were cut from Fishmen were likely less than necessary. Given that camp appeal is pretty much what the movie has going for it, speeding up the pace certainly doesn't hurt things, and just makes for a more fun experience as the crazy moments come fast and furious. Given that the film feels an awful lot like a Fulci flick in terms of style and tone, it also isn't a bad thing that Corman's crew added more gore; it feels right at home, as the one missing ingredient in Fishmen's eurotrash recipe. There still isn't too much – certainly not a Fulci-level amount, so don't go in expecting it – but it spices things up a little, and feels totally appropriate for the drive-ins, grindhouses, and 1980s mom and pop video stores for which the film was destined. It also helps a lot that Miller Drake and Joe Dante's added effects are really cool, whereas Fishmen's creatures are not much more than 1960s Ultraman quality. Sure, the creatures veering from well-done to Halloween-costume may be jarring, but that's just part of the charm; this is a Roger Corman production we're talking about, so clearly he didn't intend for it to be taken too seriously.

"This hat is certainly villainous."
The re-editing isn't the only thing that's unscrupulous about Screamers, though: this title does have a bit of notoriety attached to it, but it isn't the film itself that's notorious, so much as its shameless marketing, courtesy of New World Pictures' marketing director – and future trash movie guru – Jim Wynorski. If you browsed video store horror shelves in the heyday of VHS, you'll undoubtedly remember Screamers' eye-grabbing cover, boasting the tag-line “They're men turned inside out! And worse... they're still alive!” accompanied by a gruesome drawing of a creature meeting that exact description. Many a horror fan got pulled in by that artwork and tag-line, expecting an inside-out-person splatterfest... and many a horror fan was disappointed and angered by the shameless bait-and-switch. As the above plot teaser should have told you, this movie has absolutely nothing to do with men being turned inside-out; it's safe to say, nothing even remotely close to that ever happens in Screamers. Apparently Corman and Wynorski didn't think “they're men turned into fish!” would have quite the same draw... although it certainly would have made this Old Gregg's favorite movie. Even the title is a bait-and-switch, cashing in on distributor Embassy Pictures' recent success with Scanners; the scaly man-fishes of this flick don't actually scream at all (not even for a creamy-beige glass of Bailey's). Not surprisingly, this marketing scheme backfired at first, as Screamers began its life with a very bad reputation for totally failing to deliver on the promise of its ads. It was only later, as viewers were able to see it with better expectations of what the film really was, that it gained somewhat of a cult following on VHS.

With such an odd, dubious history that could never happen today, Screamers is very much a relic of the age of drive-ins, grindhouses, and mom and pop video stores, and most people probably suspected that it would fade into the past with that era. It had been out of print since the demise of Embassy Home Entertainment, and in a way that seemed like an appropriate fate. So I was totally shocked when a couple weeks ago I stumbled upon Scorpion Releasing's brand-new blu-ray of the film at Barnes and Noble, with that same old cover promising “men turned inside out! And worse... they're still alive!” The disc had actually come out a few months ago, but I'm sure I can't be the only one for whom this will still be news. Against all odds, here we have the Corman-ized Screamers in HD, with a shockingly high-quality remaster, in its original aspect ratio for the first time. The remastering makes the Corman-produced creature inserts even more obviously different from the Island of the Fishmen footage, but again, that's all part of the movie's weird, campy charm. Personally, this is the sort of film that I find more fun – and much more authentic to its roots – when viewed on that scratchy, faded Embassy Entertainment VHS, but I'm nonetheless glad that it's now available on modern formats, and I really appreciate how much love Scorpion has shown for this formerly-forgotten film.

Perhaps even cooler are the disc's special features: a series of interviews with the people from New World Pictures who turned Island of the Fishmen into Screamers, including Joe Dante, Jim Wynorski, Miller Drake, and even good old Roger Corman himself. Scorpion has done a very impressive job lately of bringing long-out-of-print, obscure 1970s and 80s horror films to DVD, and they seem like a company to watch closely if you're a fan of that era in that genre. Who knows- maybe they could grow into the same league as companies like Blue Underground and Scream Factory. Their disc of Screamers is certainly worth picking up if you're a fan of Fulci-style Italian cult flicks, Roger Corman productions, or delightfully cheesy old-school monster movies. It's an odd time-capsule, and I'm glad that chopping up films, inserting new footage, and turning them into totally different movies is no longer an acceptable practice, but if you bring your sense of humor there's still a lot of fun to be had with Screamers.

-Christopher S. Jordan