Number 1 on Judge David Johnson's not-to-do list: Go to a hard-labor Mexican prison island. Number 2: Tell his wife to "get in the kitchen and fix me my dinner" again.
Our reviews of Island of Lost Souls (Blu-ray) (Region B) (published May 25th, 2012) and Island of Lost Souls (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published November 4th, 2011) are also available.
A place where violating a dead friend is part of the most vile existence.
I'll be the first to admit: that might be the greatest DVD tagline ever. Too bad this wonky import prison epic doesn't live up to it.
Facts of the Case
From Mexican director Rene Cardona comes a tale of men in prison and the hard-ass life they have to face. For young, stupid Juanito (Erik Del Castillo), it all begins with a big shot presidential appointee rides into town and declares himself supreme potentate. As the village bigwig, he quickly starts reaping the rewards—and that, unfortunately for Juanito and his bodacious fiancée, means raping.
Juanito is powerless to stop the abuse of his wife. It's only when his father pleads on his behalf that he and his wife are allowed to reunite and move out of the village. Still, this isn't enough to satiate the big cheese's lust, and he goes after the wife again, prompting Juanito to flip out, grab a machete, and hack the crap out of the bastard.
This of course gets him in trouble with the president, and he is immediately shipped off to the titular island, a hard-labor camp where men spend their days hammering away at rocks in their underpants and night crammed together like sweaty, bearded sardines. Escape attempts are dealt with harshly by the commandant, and whippings are a part of daily life.
But the inmates catch a break when a colonel replaces the commandant and assumes control of the island. Lucky for them, the guy is crazy, and his first order of business is to release the prisoners and turn the island into a republic, with him as the president. With the island under the auspices of a lunatic, the inmates run free, to the chagrin of the guards and, ultimately, the real president. A violent face-off looms between the government and the newly formed republic and caught in the middle is Juanito and his emaciated friends.
For prison movie fans, there may be some marginal enjoyment to be had here. Same with followers of far-out import cinema. Largely, though, Island of Lost Souls, for me, proved to be a mediocre affair; a film whose tagline promised depravity, but ended up a straight-forward "men-in-captivity" story.
It's only with the introduction of the zany colonel do the proceedings grow mildly interesting. Up to that point, about two-thirds the way through, the film concerned itself with the lengthy set-up—Juanito's tussle with the corrupt village leader—and the results of his crime of passion. After Juanito dispatches the a-hole who raped his wife—quite satisfactorily I might add—the film shifts dramatically, and we're on the prison island for the duration. Until the new boss takes over and brings his bizarre behavior with him, the proceedings are ho-hum: these guys huddle together at night, lamenting their sucky lives, while chipping away at boulders during the day. Occasionally, the action picks up, specifically when the inmates try to escape or sow general chaos and the commandant is forced to deal with them in violent methods. Case in point: one genius gets the idea to make a hat out of a dead seagull and head out to sea with it strapped to its head. The commandant figures out this sly trickery, lights a stick of dynamite and tosses it in the ocean, blowing the poor schmuck to smithereens. Another inmate is tossed off the cliffs and falls to his death on the rocks below. That's about it for excitement until the colonel gets ashore, and the movie takes another massive tonal shift. The colonel's loopiness comes out of nowhere, and it is a refreshing gust of insanity. When he gives his big emancipation speech declaring the island sovereign you can see him march off the deep end, much to the delight of the prisoners. This plot twist was fun and enjoys a solid denouement when the real president sends a destroyer to the island to exert his will.
As four our main character, Juanito, I didn't find him nearly as interesting as the colonel, and the movie suffers for it. By the time the credits roll at the 95-minute mark, Juanito had his best moments 70 minutes ago.
All in all, there are some nice moments in this flick, and the colonel is an awesome character, but there's nothing else here deserving a full-on recommendation.
VCI has suitably adapted this relic. The picture is far from perfect, plagued by color distortion and dirt, but it could have been worse. Too bad the 1.85:1 picture is non-anamorphic. The Dolby Digital mono mix is shallow and tinny. Some text-only biographies and the original trailer are it for extras.
Nuking some idiot with a seagull hat is cool and all, but inspired moments like that are few, making Island of Lost Souls an unremarkable prison film.
The accused can go bang a few more rocks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
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