The Mubi Cinematheque: Terminal Island (1973)
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Many of the movies that have been popping up on Mubi have exploitation themes at their core. Vampire Hookers, as bad as it was, was all about its sex and lewd pseudo-humour. It pushed the envelope, even in the edgier 1970s.
Terminal Island is a bit of a different beast. It’s still not great, but where it succeeds is having an intriguing concept to hang its story on. With the death penalty abolished, convicted murderers are all sent to a remote island to live out the rest of their days. It turns into a Lord of the Flies like scenario as two factions have splintered into violent conflict. One, with the more sadistic leader Bobby, runs a camp where the women are sex slaves and the men toil in the dirt all day. The other seems more benevolent and kindhearted. Aside from a brief introduction at a news station where reporters and producers banter about which convicts to feature on their program, does the audience get any exposition about the specific pasts of these people. Deciding not to focus too much on why they’re there was a smart choice because it ultimately doesn’t matter. They are there for life. The outside world no longer exists.
The conceit is really interesting, so it’s a shame the execution is as clumsy as it is. Carmen (Ena Hartman) serves as audience surrogate as she is sent to the island to serve her sentence. She is brash, tough, and not quick to trust others — and on this island, you can’t blame her. She is the the center of the movie. She represents the fear that would course through the veins of someone facing such a punishment. She is confused and promptly abused, forced into her degrading life in the hellish camp.
The problem is the movie abandons her by the time the third act hits. Either writer-director Stephanie Rothman grew bored of her erstwhile protagonist or she painted herself in a corner with the story arc. As the film runs to its exciting conclusion, Carmen is shuffled to the background. It is an awkward transition that really doesn’t work because she is hardly a wallflower, hardly a push over, and certainly not someone who would sit back while others do the heavy lifting.
What works despite her disappearance is that it’s not a choice seemingly based on gender stereotypes. The film does not make a statement that the men are the ones who need to take charge. Sure, the splinter group rescues the women from their oppressors, but it was a safety-in-numbers thing. But in order to combat the insane Bobby, they have to pool their knowledge. Lee Phillips had a background in chemistry (almost had her PhD) and she helps MacGyver some grenades. Pooled with Dr. Milford (young Tom Selleck) they make a great team. Carmen, on the other hand, is shoveled into a brief love triangle and never spoken of again.
It’s frustrating when a film has a great point of intrigue, strong mood helped by a pretty funky score, and a strong climax surrounded by clunky dialog and story strands that should have ended up on the cutting room floor. Carmen is the egregious example. Rothman didn’t stay committed, which would be fine if she blended into the ensemble more cohesively instead of being rendered unimportant and ineffective.
Another problem is a half-cooked attempt at social commentary. The setting itself brings up questions about the purpose of life sentences and whether jail should be punitive or rehabilitative. But as Dr. Milford explains his reasons for being there at all — assisted suicide of a patient — it seems underwritten. It’s interesting to see a movie discuss euthanasia so candidly in the early 70s, I just wish it was given a little more time and grace.
Terminal Island is an exploitation movie at its core, so it’s going to be more about the violence and nudity and the shock value. It’s grimy, as it should be. But it’s not a fully realized or finished piece of storytelling.