Skip to content

Plot: onward Christian psychos!

When Wes Craven directed The Last House on the Left (1972) he couldn’t possibly have foreseen the sheer deluge of imitations it would spawn almost overnight. Interestingly, most of these imitations tended to come from Italy. There was only one Grecian but it was so incredibly repulsive that it attained cinematic immortality almost immediately. That movie was Παιδιά Του Διαβόλου (Paidia tou Diavolou or Children of the Devil, released internationally as simply Island Of Death) and the debut of pop culture innovator and general enfant terrible Nikos Mastorakis. It has since been enshrined in the annals of horror history as a flick to proudly plunge into the deepest depths of depravity as to indulge and wallow in all the degradation, filth, and perversion it could muster. It’s also possibly the only to rival Thriller – A Cruel Picture (1973) in its sacred mission to offend as many demographics and people as humanly possible. Released during the European giallo explosion and the North American and British terror and suspense boom of the early-to-mid seventies Island Of Death hasn’t gone unnoticed and is a, if not thé, prime example of Hellenic horror. Two years later it experienced somewhat of a minor revival when Halloween (1978) established the template for the popular American slasher of the 1980s.

Nikos Mastorakis (Νίκος Μαστοράκης) was, and is, an absolute legend. No other man had such a profound, longlasting impact on Greek popular culture and the domestic entertainment industry that he helped shape, define, and redefine. He was a pioneer, an innovator, as well as a provocateur and a cold and calculated opportunist. At various points he was a journalist, a radio and television producer, a booking agent and music promoter, a political pundit – and, lest we forget, an exploitation filmmaker! Twice during the Regime of the Colonels he fought the law (and both times the law won) and he launched just about every major Greek popstar of the sixties. His list of accomplishments are many, but a few are worth mentioning in more detail. In 1959 as a journalist for Ethnikos Kirikas (Εθνικός Κήρυκας) he managed to land an exclusive interview with 25-year-old exiled Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary (the princess and Empress consort of Iran who had reigned over the country from 1951 to 1958) who made international headlines divorcing from Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and inspiring French writer Françoise Mallet-Joris to write the Marie Paule Belle hit chanson ‘Je veux pleurer comme Soraya’ (‘I Want to Cry Like Soraya’). Prior to 1963 Mastorakis wrote English lyrics for and produced records of local five-piece rock band The Forminx (or The Formynx) who after nine singles and a Christmas EP (all of which were successful in Europe) disbanded at the height of their popularity in 1966. The principal songwriter was keyboardist Evángelos Odysseas Papathanassiou. In 1967 Argiris Koulouris and him found the shortlived progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child in France and it was fronted by one Demis Roussos, famous for his high tenor. Papathanassiou would later shorten his name to Vangelis and embark on an international solo career. He later released two albums of Greek traditional - and religious songs with Irene Papas. Yes, the same Irene Papas that was in the batshit insane The Exorcist (1973) ripoff Ring Of Darkness (1979).

Nikos Mastorakis was the man to bring international pop/rock to Greek radio and in 1967, at the height of Beatlemania, he was friends with John Lennon. Now that their heavy touring years were behind them The Beatles were beginning their experimental phase and the first result of that was “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band“. Around that time Mastorakis wrote an article about Mikis Theodorakis for weekly magazine Epikera that ran afoul of the junta of right-wing military dictator Georgios Papadopoulos. He fought the law, and the law won. Theodorakis would also become a composer of international renown. As a booking agent and music promoter he booked The Rolling Stones for their first concert in Athens. The troubled April 17, 1967 show at the Panathinaikos Stadion (the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium or Leoforos Stadium of today) on Alexandra Avenue was organized by music magazine Modern Rhythms and closed out the 27-date European leg of the world tour in support of the 1967 album “Between the Buttons”. It would be the last tour to feature guitarist Brian Jones. The concert would become legendary as it took place just four days before the coup d'état led by Brigadier Stylianos Pattakos. In 1968 in his capacity as a reporter for the semi-liberal right-wing daily newspaper Apogevmatini (Απογευματινή) Mastorakis insinuated himself in to the entourage of popular éntekhno and néo kýma crooner Yiannis Poulopoulos by masquerading as a musician. Through that deception he gained access to the Christina, the yacht of Greek-Argentine shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis where the tycoon was hosting Jackie and Ted Kennedy. In 1968 Onassis, freshly divorced from his former wife Athina Livanos, proposed to Jackie Kennedy while still engaged in an affair with Greek opera singer Maria Callas. By the 1970 Mastorakis had moved into the realm of television and worked both sides of the aisle at YENED and ERT. In 1973 he covered the Athens Polytechnic uprising where he interviewed imprisoned students that later were brutally tortured and killed. By the mid-1970s his run-ins with the military junta became too much of a hassle and he switched careers one last time becoming a director/producer and directing television commercials.

As the legend goes it was the international box office success of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) that inspired him to make his own “recipe movie” after seeing the Hooper movie at an open air theatre in Athens. He figured that he could make a pretty buck (or drachma, rather – the Euro was still a quarter century in the future) by devising a cheap horror flick more violent, offensive, and boundary-pushing than what Hooper had produced. He would put a Hellenic spin on an American formula that would allow him to man every position himself and when he couldn’t he hired others. He cynically churned out the script in just one week including every possible taboo, offense, and perversion he could think of or what his estimated $30,000 budget would allow. As such this collaboration between English, French, and Greek film studios is modeled more after The Last House on the Left (1972) and Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller – A Cruel Picture (1973) with a light sprinkling of The Candy Snatchers (1973) than any of the more enduring terror and suspense flicks and transgressive proto-slashers of the day. Co-produced by Nestoras Pavelas, photographed by Nikos Gardelis and scored by Nikos Lavranos (when Mastorakis wasn't doing those things himself) Island Of Death is hellbent on offending as much parties possible in as little time as possible. And the cast? Well, it’s nobody in particular. Headlining are British import Jane Lyle (later Ryall) and the troubled Robert Behling. Unlike the Maltese Collinson twins Mary and Madeleine in Hammer’s Twins Of Evil (1971) history has failed to remember (or chronicle, at any rate) much of who Jane Lyle was and where she came from. Lyle supposedly was a model and her father allegedly was the general manager of the Greek branch of Black+Decker. In the pantheon of ditzy British blondes Lyle was eclipsed even by notable second-stringers as Gilly Grant, Yutte Stensgaard, and Leena Skoog. Jane Lyle was a lot of things but she was no Veronica Carlson, Susan George, Luan Peters, or Virginia Wetherell. She's somewhat comparable to Þóra Sigurþórsdóttir from Murder Story (1977) in the sense that she never did much else and her career ended well before it began. Robert Behling was in the drama Naked in the Snow (1974) and the giallo The Hook (1976) (with Barbara Bouchet). Behling and Lyle were in Land Of the Minotaur (1976) earlier that year. While Lyle would turn up for the sexploitationer Erotic Nightmare (1978) Behling later committed suicide. Every drachma is on the screen and when the waferthin script deigns to collapse in on itself Lyle will take her top off to divert your attention.

Christopher Lambert (Robert Behling, as Bob Belling) and Celia (Jane Lyle, as Jane Ryall) have come to the Cycladic island of Mykonos in the Aegean Sea on what they describe to the locals as their honeymoon. They present themselves as a wholesome English couple enjoying the simple delights The Island of the Winds has to offer. He masquerades as a photographer, she as his soft-spoken, obedient homemaker wife. In truth, the bond that the duo share runs far deeper than that of mere civil union. The two announce their arrival on island by inconspicuously buying a little red diary from fabulously and flamboyantly gay shopkeeper Paul (Ray Richardson, as Ray Zuk) who directs them to a local hotelier that has houses for rent. The two then take a stroll and proceed to have steamy sex in the nearest phone booth while placing a call home. Then they rent a home with Leslie (Jannice McConnell, as Janice McConnel). The obscene phonecall puts British private detective Foster (Gerard Gonalons) on their trail as he connects the fugitive couple to an unsolved spate of killings in the London area and immediately books the next flight to Athens. Christopher and Celia are not well, you see.

He is a twice-born, religiously impaired nutjob on a holy mission to rid the island of sexual perversion. “God punishes perversion,” he espouses as he considers himself the “angel with the flaming sword” that administers retributive justice. The next morning Christopher is still aroused but a sleeping Celia rebuffs him. He then goes outside and violates the next best thing he can lays his hands on, an innocent goat. Later that morning Celia makes her acquaintance with French painter Jean-Claude (Jeremy Rousseau). The two flirt heavily while Christopher takes pictures from a distance. They then assault the Frenchman, pour paint down his throat, and crucify him to the floor. That night they attend a wedding of the gay shopkeeper they met earlier and his young Greek lover. Christopher is seduced by cougar Patricia Desmond (Jessica Dublin) and is initially into it, but things take a turn for the violent when his puritanical disgust claims rebirth. Not only is Christopher a sexually repressed, amoral sociopath with an explosive temper - he’s a self-loathing hypocrite with a king-sized persecution complex to boot. For he engages in the same perversion that he so thoroughly despises. Celia’s equally deranged but she’s more calculated and not nearly as impulsive. After a few nights of indiscriminately killing gays, lesbians, adulterers, addicts, and whoever else happens to get in their way Celia is raped by a shepherd (Nikos Tsachiridis). Strangely, she develops some kind of attachment to her erstwhile assailant and the two take to punishing Christopher. Will he survive and will there be anything left of him?

Well, one of the characters is named Christopher Lambert. How cool is that? On a more serious note, Island Of Death is a movie of great contrasts. The picturesque whitewashed retangular structures with their characteristic blue windows, doors, and shutters and the sun-kissed beaches alternate beautifully with the rampant sadism and wanton perversion on display. In any other terror and suspense or horror feature of this age Christopher and Celia would be the victims, not the perpetrators. Something which Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagus (1980) demonstrated rather brilliantly. Stronger still Island Of Death adamantly defies convention at every turn. Whereas The Last House on the Left (1972) was ostensibly about the generation gap dividing Mari Collingwood and her parents. Krug Stillo and his gang of deviants only became a focal point when they became the subject of her parents’ vengeance – and even then some of the group had their doubts or showed remorse for their cruelty. Island Of Death is first and foremost about Christopher and Celia and their numerous victims are of lesser concern. The Lambert siblings have the same motivation as the homicidal Christian fundamentalist in The Centerfold Girls (1974) and the killer in Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) (which used an older storytelling chestnut). Ultimately Island Of Death is entirely free of social commentary of any kind. Jane Lyle is as beautiful as blonde starlets of this era tended to be and she’s absolutely not shy about getting naked on a semi-regular basis. The score consists of rather typical (and somewhat anonymous sounding) hippie folk rock of the day on the one side and random synthesizer wails and stings on the other. The special effects are cheap, the staging is a bit incompetent at times, and it’s painfully obvious that Mastorakis had zero artistic intentions or anything beyond immediate financial interest while filming this little shocker. For better or worse, Island Of Death delivers exactly what it promises.

Talk about truth in advertising. Island Of Death pulls absolutely no punches whatsoever. On its face it’s nothing more than a systemic escalation of violence with Mastorakis acting as the cynical distributor of pain, as the curator of cruelty, if you will. Time has not in any way dulled how thoroughly repellent, deviously transgressive, and infinitely repulsive Island Of Death is. This is easily the most sickening catalogue of atrocities this side of Thriller – A Cruel Picture (1973) and I Spit On Your Grave (1978). Rare is the horror feature (banned or otherwise) that lives up to its reputation, but Island Of Death does exactly that. Time hasn’t in any shape or form dulled any of its innate shock value. Not only is Island Of Death is an affront against decorum and good taste, it shows a willfull and deliberate reckless disregard for the finer points of filmmaking and cinema at large. There’s only one Grecian terror and suspense feature like this, and the reputation Island Of Death has cultivated over the decades is completely deserved and well-founded. Nikos Mastorakis might not have had anything more in mind than turning a quick profit on a violent cheapie and not even he would have dared think that Island Of Death would attain cinematic immortality the way that it did. That should count for something. Dare to think big.

Plot: three friends order custom-built robot girlfriends. Hilarity ensues!

For the last quarter century Hong Kong producer, director, screenwriter, and actor Jing Wong has been a force to be reckoned with. His natural affinity in catering to audience tastes and his eye for female beauty made him one of the consistently profitable cinema industry powers. Since starting out in the early-to-mid eighties Wong has capitalized on every fad, movement, and big budget Hollywood movie of note and gave them his own unique Hong Kong spin. He launched the careers of Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Stephen Chow. In the eighties and nineties he introduced Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching, Joey Wong, Sharla Cheung Man, Brigitte Lin, and Valerie Chow to the world. In more recent times he has worked with Maggie Q, Jennifer Tse Ting-Ting, and Candy Yuen Ka-Man. Towards the close of the nineties Wong’s features have been slumming at the domestic box office and he has since focused on the Mainland China market. Ever the crowd-pleaser Jing Wong returns his old stomping ground of the broad comedy, and as such iGirl (夢情人) is both boorish and sentimental in equal measure.

Never shy about capitalizing about an ongoing cinematic trend Wong uses the 2005 six-volume manga 絶対彼氏 or Zettai Kareshi (or Absolute Boyfriend) from Yuu Watase as the basis for iGirl. iGirl, of course, being his broad comedy take on the ongoing, decade-long (and counting) Mainland China cyborg girlfriend craze following the release of Jae-young Kwak’s seminal My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) with Haruka Ayase and Hirokazu Kore’eda’s humanist fairytale Air Doll (2009) with Bae Doo-na. iGirl is built from the I’m Your Birthday Cake (1996) template in that it mixes romance with broad comedy. The slapstick never gets quite as odious as some of Wong’s more irritatingly juvenile comedies, and it’s certainly a lot better of what passes for comedy in Mainland China, but that doesn’t change that iGirl is pretty terrible at times. The star, and much of the focal point, of iGirl is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau has worked her way up from the dregs of Mainland China cinema and iGirl was the first sign her career was finally moving forward. Whether or not she’ll become the new Jing Wong muse is up for debate, but it’s good seeing Chrissie in something that isn’t monitored by the Film Bureau for once. Chrissie is a decent enough actress, she cuts a dashing figure (something of which Wong is acutely aware) – but many of her movies rarely played up to her strenghts. This was sweet Chrissie’s first truly big break.

Lin Xiao-Feng (Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin), Johnny (Dominic Ho Hou-Man), and Zhu Yun (Lam Tze-Chung) are lifelong friends that continue to live in a state of arrested adolescence. One night the three go out clubbing and find themselves dumped by their respective girlfriends. The three drink and dance the night away to forget about their current amorous predicament. Lin Xiao-Feng (Evan in some versions), the most upwardly mobile of the trio, in his drunken stupor orders his dreamgirl from a site called “Get Your Dream iGirl” by typing in a few meager criteria. Believing the enterprise to be a practical joke he’s surprised when his order is shipped and delivered overnight. After following the instructions of the iGirl manual his new companion 001 (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) comes to life. Johnny and Zhu Yun (Irwin in some versions) are astonished by the functionality, adaptability, and compatibility of Evan’s cybernetic companion and immediately see the possibilities. The two order their own iGirl and before long 002 (Connie Man Hoi-Ling) and 003 (Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi) complete the trio’s social circle. With their new cyborg girlfriends at their side the three men have the time of their life, much to the chagrin of their former girlfriends. Janice (Jeana Ho Pui-Yu), Chili (Iris Chung Choi-Hei), and Rebecca (Yam Giu) break into the iGirl laboratory, nearly killing iGirl creator Dr. Intelligent (Anders Nelsson) in the process, kidnapping their ex-boyfriends, and vowing to exact their revenge on the iGirls.

Director Kam Ka-Wai assistant directed under Wilson Yip Wai-Shun on Ip Man (2008) and under Marco Mak Chi-Sin on Naked Soldier (2012). It’s never a question of whether Kam Ka-Wai is competent enough to helm a production of this kind. If anything iGirl is hampered by Jing Wong’s retrograde writing. It could have been a lot worse, certainly, but that doesn’t excuse the lazy writing in the slightest. Most of the cast all worked with Jing Wong on prior occassions. Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin worked with Wong as far back as the lamentable Future Cops (1993) with Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching and the original Young and Dangerous (1995). Chrissie Chau is known around these parts for her triple role in the low-key and occassionally atmospheric Lift to Hell (2013). Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin and Chau shared the screen in Break Up 100 (2014) whereas Dominic Ho and Connie Man were paired up earlier in The Gigolo 2 (2016). Chrissie Chau Sau-Na, and Iris Chung Choi-Hei worked together earlier on Mr. and Mrs. Player (2013). Had this been released in the eighties or nineties Wong would probably have played Lam Tze-Chung’s role himself. The sole action scene in the third act was choreographed by Jack Wong Wai-Leung and his two decades of experience are clearly visible on screen. Comedy and action after all have been Wong’s trusted allies since he started out in the mid-1980s. If there’s ever going to be a fourth Naked installment we wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it ends up starring Chrissie Chau Sau-Na. The Naked franchise has been insteady decline since Naked Weapon (2002) and she might just be what is needed to restore the series to its former Naked Killer (1992) glory.

Mainland China comedies are hit-or-miss, and romantic comedies even moreso. The ascent of the Film Bureau and production companies as Q1Q2 have spawned a swamp of comedies that are either irritating in their reliance on slapstick, cheap beyond description, or plain lacking in any sort of talent – or a combination of all three. iGirl is good enough for what it is but it never had any artistic aspirations as, say, Suddenly Seventeen (2016) with Ni Ni. Neither, for that matter, does it lower itself to the slapstick absurdities of Fetching Nurses (2018). Chrissie Chau Sau-Na conforms to the beauty ideal of every Jing girl following that of his one-time mistress and longtime muse Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching and it’s telling that only she has an isolated nude scene (optically fogged out in the domesic cut for all the obvious reasons). At times it feels as if Connie Man Hoi-Ling is but a placeholder for Candy Yuen Ka-Man. The casting of plus-size Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi is good in that it sets the stage for the casting of rounder girls as, Yang Ke (杨可) and Zhu Ke Er (朱可儿) in Wong productions. Yan-Yi’s father is Adam Cheng Siu-Chow (鄭少秋) from Tsui Hark’s Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). iGirl obviously gets the most mileage out of Chau Sau-Na and Hoi-Ling and at no point does Yan-Yi get traded in for a slimmer model. It’s probably a matter of time before we’ll see Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (潘霜霜), Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡梦媛), and the considerably more A-list Ada Liu Yan (柳岩), turn up in a Jing Wong production. Equal but opposite maybe one day we’ll see Pan Chun Chun (潘春春) in a Sino comedy or action feature that actually knows what to do with her.

There’s something inherently funny about Chrissie Chau Sau-Na, an actress frequently lambasted for her robotic acting, playing a robot. Chrissie’s far better than people are willing to give her credit for. The truth is if you were to accuse anyone of stilted and minimalist non-acting Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂) is the actress to look for. Not that Chrissie’s one of the great new Chinese actresses. Betty Sun Li and Ni Ni, to name but two, are way more versatile and talented than Chrissie will ever be. The problem that Chrissie, and many Chinese actresses like her, has is that she’s only fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. On her social media Chrissie can be seen posting in English from time to time but her usage of it is rare enough to make it an outlier. Unlike Fan Bingbing, Yu Nan, or Ni Ni, few commandeer the language well enough to appeal to Western audiences and most only are fluent in their national languages. Elder stateswoman Gong Li famously rejected a Hollywood career because she didn’t command the language well enough, as did Chiaki Kuriyama (who’s Japanese, but the point stands). Unfortunately the same rings true for South Korean television actresses as Shin Min-a (신민아), Ko Sung-hee (고성희), and Chae Soo-bin (채수빈) who should have pierced the Western cultural landscape by now, but somehow haven’t. In times of globalism China and the Koreas remain staunchly isolationist. In any case iGirl has elevated Chrissie Chau Sau-Na to the mainstream and Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018) from director Yuen Wo-Ping is probably her most prestigious project yet. Not too bad of an career advancement for a girl that spent a decade or so in the dregs of Chinese cinema.

The other retroactively famous star was the late Yam Giu (Xiong Hua-Hua, Zhiyi Ren, or Ren Jiao, depending on your preference) who passed away on October 16, 2017 after falling (under dubious circumstances) from the 13th floor balcony of the Howard Johnson All Suites hotel in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. At the time Yam Giu (who sort of looked like, but is not, Angelababy) was staying at a different hotel and merely visiting her actor-friend Yang Xuwen who was in the city for filming. Yam Giu had been romantically linked with Yang Xuwen and was visiting the city with her mother. On the morning of October 16 her nude body was discovered on the hotel lawn and immediately led to widespread speculation about the circumstances surrounding her passing. Everything from alcoholism to suicidal depression was mentioned in the tabloid press, yet as of 2017 no clear cause of death was determined. One of the last productions that Yam Giu was involved with was the Fang Mo horror-action trilogy Hello, Mr. Vampire (2016), Hello, Ms. Vampire (2016) and Beauty in the Doomsday (2017). Perhaps Yam Giu could have been a Chinese superstar, perhaps not. Just like Iberian cult queen Soledad Miranda in 1970 Yam Giu was cut down in her prime.

After the controversial The Gigolo (2015) and its 2016 sequel iGirl seems incredibly restrained in comparison. Connie Man Hoi-Ling and Iris Chung Choi-Hei both are allowed to keep their clothes on. For the majority of the feature Hoi-Ling wears a deeply cut red dress while Chrissie Chau Sau-Na has the most diverse wardrobe and Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi the exact opposite. The Jing girls are as gorgeous as they’ve ever been and the grandmaster hasn’t lost his eye for spotting promising female talent. iGirl is one of Wong’s better romantic comedies in the post-Chingmy Yau age and it’s good seeing reliable second-tiers as Chrissie Chau Sau-Na in a leading role. Granted, iGirl doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with, but that’s hardly a fault of her own. To go from Lift to Hell (2013) and The Extreme Fox (2013) to this must be called progress. That she won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress for her film 29+1 (2017) a year later was indicative that her career was at long last going places. Chau Sau-Na should probably do another Kick Ass Girls (2013) or full-blown Girls with Guns action movie, whether it’s in Hong Kong or Mainland China. Obviously iGirl isn’t the new Jing Wong comedy classic. The writing’s immensely retrograde and the comedy seldom hits the mark. All things considered iGirl is more than decent enough for what it is. In the wildly divergent and fluctuating robot girfriend subgenre; you could do far, far worse than this…