Rambling through Exploitation Films: TERMINAL ISLAND (1973)
I’ve seen an array of exploitation films throughout the years and I have to confess this one was the most beautifully disastrous of train wrecks accumulated by the habitual components of blood, sex, violence, and nudity. TERMINAL ISLAND (1973) “Where we dump our human garbage” directed by female director Stephanie Rothman is a whale of a time accompanied by a soft inkling like undertone of feminism and a plethora of other social problems. I mean imagine going back to the cave dweller days except now there are knives, bombs, and guns and the survival of the fittest maintain their power over the weak. But wait there’s more to this; cue 70’s music at every interval which to some may be seen as absolutely corny but to this eye of the beholder it was downright amusing. I seriously love movies made from the 70s because it seemed like such a magical time to be on the frontier of cultivating creativity.
The opening sequence sets the premise for this jolly low budget film where a news room is sensationalizing the story of the most dangerous criminals condemned to Terminal Island with a series of their mug shots while almost subliminally trying to glamorize it. Terminal Island was created for all the first degree murderers who are legally presumed dead and are dumped on an island with other convicts forging a way to survive.
It’s literally a prison within a prison! There’s meaning behind the sex, violence, and nudity from a feminist and societal construct; the overriding theme is power. How do we conjure up power when we’re stripped down to the bare essentials? With very little dignity in tact we unleash the beast within and survival instincts kick in to high gear. It’s no different when sociopaths, cold blooded killers are grouped together. There’s a hierarchy and you guessed it women are at the bottom of the totem pole yet again used strictly as sex slaves, the cleaners, the food preparers and ultimately the creature that must serve man. How offensive am I right? Come now women are more than that.
TERMINAL ISLAND is kind of a smorgasbord of LORD OF THE FLIES (1954/1990) and borderlines on the precipice of BATTLE ROAYLE (2000) except we include women and are very conscious of the fact that these are the scum buckets of humanity. There’s no hiding that shock factor and it makes it confusing to identify with any of these characters except for our leading lady and most of all the women characters. They’re the true warriors here, escaping the animalistic nature of men and defying being degraded as a piece of property used as sex slaves. Of course it doesn’t help their clothes are deliberately exposing they’re sexiness.
I mean what if this was an enormous abstraction for a dysfunctional world stripped down to its animalistic tendencies? If you remove society, government, laws, and capitalism what are you ultimately left with? People. People who have to maintain some kind of power to illicit purpose and function in life. Just like with evolution there has to be a pecking order. Do we naturally succumb to this or are we just wired this way? You be the follower and I be the leader.
Our leading lady and protagonist enters the scene and is the driving force that shakes down the patriarchy. Thank goodness! Our newest addition Carmen, (played by Ena Hartman) to the coldblooded posse is going to stand her ground and kick some ass. She’s a sassy not-going-take-shit from any man however, when she arrives at the base camp of the island she’s immediately knocked to the ground by a man named Monk telling her to kiss his ass and to be on her knees before he’s finished talking. Ouch! Typical, here we go patriarchal society ruling the roost even among convicts. Anyways, there’s a shot where Monk literally has his boot smashing Carmen’s fact into the dirt. Ouch! It’s pretty disheartening and uncomfortable to watch but I’m still rooting for Carmen despite all the obstacles she’s up against. She eventually teams up with a second group on the island who aren’t has savage and demeaning but are also willing to undermine the primary group. So there we go we have division among criminals but again this is a different world.
Despite, all the offensive patriarchal mush and the weird color of blood, there are other attributes that highlight some artistry here, for instance the cinematography and since it’s on actual film it wins all the points. There are some decent shots of the sunset along the coast line as well as a man’s floating body intertwined in some seaweed who apparently died in the process of escaping the island. There’s also the dark contrast specifically on Tom Selleck’s face in the beginning where’s he’s on the beach welcoming Carmen. You can’t see his eyes because the direction of the sun and the shadows cast along his face. It’s still a pretty cool shot with the use of natural light and Tom Selleck before he becomes Magnum.
At last what I find most intriguing about this film is Stephanie Rothman’s ability to handle this zany and challenging material. The Hollywood system fails women and in a way failed Stephanie Rothman who wasn’t necessarily gung-ho about making exploitation films but beneath that she cleverly sought a way to adhere social issues resonating throughout the 60s-70s; war, feminism, social justice, civil rights all of which still resonate today. Rothman commented on her work later in life stating, “A Stephanie Rothman film deals with questions of self-determination. My characters try to forge a humane and rational way of coming to terms with the vicissitudes of existence. My films are not always about succeeding but they are always concerned with fighting the good fight.”
I think what I personally identify with is Rothman’s approach of making exploitation films was her use of comedy as she’s been quoted in saying, “Visual style and comic invention were my personal salvation or... the “special opportunity” to escape what troubled me about the exploitation genre.” I mean it makes sense you have to use some form of levity especially when all the seriousness in class, race, sexism, and politics are screaming down our necks. Perhaps, some days levity is our only hope. Every once in awhile you have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture because at the end of the day we’re all different human beings nothing more nothing less. But ridiculing each other for those differences is just absolute garbage. Somewhere along the way someone forgot to draw the line between reality and fantasy but instead fused the two together which is how we achieve the problem of distortion.
I hope someday Stephanie Rothman gets the opportunity to truly make the film she wants to make without some sleazy studio dictating the terms, and not just for Stephanie but for all filmmakers regardless of sex, orientation, race, and class. I don’t necessarily believe creativity should be considered worthy based on capital gain but on the artistic expressive freedom for all to share and discuss openly eliminating the confines of consumerism and competition.