The plot: The year is 1920. There’s been a shipwreck “somewhere in the North Atlantic.” About half a dozen people escape the crash and land on a deserted island that they suspect might be Greenland but looks suspiciously like New England. One of the survivors is mortally injured. He gets left on the beach while the rest of the group heads into the forest. A member of the group dies when he sticks his head in a lake which turns out to be filled with acid! (It’s incredibly gory and awesome.) Someone goes to check up on the man they left on the beach only to discover there’s nothing left but a bloody skeleton. That night, the group is attacked by ZUNI FETISH DOLLS!
Knowing a little about the plot of Hell Island before getting around to watching it, the films automatically had some mighty big shoes to fill. The Zuni fetish doll segment from Trilogy of Terror is a personal favorite of mine and a significant source of nightmare fuel growing up. So now we’re talking about, instead of just one, a whole ISLAND full of these things? Surely I was setting myself up for disappointment. Luckily, Hell Island met the bold expectations it set out to fulfill. Even if its faults are as plain to see as the obvious danger of owning a Zuni fetish doll IRL and leaving it on display in your home with its chain only loosely attached, Hell Island is a movie that pays off in the end.
Whether by choice or simply because they were a pain in the ass to film and so he needed to kill time, director Michael Stanley makes you wait a good half an hour or so before beginning the attacks on the shipwreck survivors by a massive army of Zuni fetish dolls. These are, as well they should be, the best scenes in the film. So the first third of the film is rough. There are far too many scenes of the castaways tromping through the woods. They tromp some more. They talk and argue and you get some of their back story. These folks love to talk.
There’s a lot of discussion about the usual questions which come up when you’re stranded on an island: Where are we going to find food, where are we going to find water, what are we going to do about the sick and injured? At times the film reminded me quite a bit of Lord of the Flies or the first season of the television show Lost with this group of strangers thrown into this survival-type situation, the difference being that the characters on Lost were interesting and multidimensional, traits that Hell Island‘s bad actors in bad 1920s-style costumes lack. Furthering the Lost comparison is the strange noises that the Hell Island group continually hear in the woods which, in Lost, turn out to be the “Others” while in Hell Island, they’re killer dolls. Faced with that type of situation, I’d take the Others any day.
So, after a pretty action-less first ½ an hour – with the exception of the acid face melt scene – it’s nighttime, the castaways set up camp and here’s where the killer dolls attack.
If watching people flail around while someone throws dolls at them off-camera isn’t the kind of thing that can bring a smile to your face, well then I’m sorry. We can’t be friends. The initial doll attack is a thing of beauty. Not only do dolls fly through the air, they swing from vines and they scurry along the ground. Fighting them off requires nothing more than to pick them up and throw them at a nearby tree, but at one point a doll catches on fire and runs around screaming which nearly had me on the floor rolling around in laughter.
Things slow down a bit after the first attack, but there’s still plenty more doll mayhem to come. Whatever kind of spirit possessed these dolls is a crafty one, capable of building traps. This gives us a great scene where one of the survivors trips and is impaled on a heavy pointed stick and another where a castaway falls into a large hole and looks up, only to see a couple of dozen killer dolls peering at him over the ledge.
Hell Island is a terribly-made movie and isn’t really better than the sort of productions that my friends and I would shoot on VHS video cameras in college. The acting is unbelievably poor. It’s not lit well at all. In the first scene with the shipwreck, you can’t see anyone’s face. It’s basically black blobs moving about, as one review I read put it. The score isn’t too bad, but I have a sneaking suspicion it may have been lifted from another film. Shots are blurry, off-angle. If you look close enough in some scenes, you can definitely see the wires poking out from the doll puppets.
But I love killer dolls. And anyone else who does is going to have a lot of fun with this movie. Compared with something like Birdemic and any one of the Sci-Fi channel’s monster movies, with their terrible use of CGI, a movie like Hell Island makes you realize just how much better it was before any hack could create bad special effects on his computer. It takes a special kind of hack to make something like Hell Island. Just where did Michael Stanley get all those dolls? Did he have them specially made, or is there a place where you can order a couple dozen Zuni fetish dolls? While Stanley may have paid little attention to things like whether a camera was in focus or whether a scene was lit properly, his devotion to getting some things right – like the proper consistency of gore when a person gets their face melted off with acid – is admirable. Hell Island may get a D for execution, but it gets an A for effort. New filmmakers could learn a lot from someone like Stanley. Just remember that when he starts talking about things like composition and light levels, that you change the subject. That type of discussion could do no good.
The entire movie is on YouTube, by the way. God bless the Internet.
Next week: Delaware
50 Movies for 50 States Contest Scoreboard
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