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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.