May 16, 2018
The Best Island-Set Movies You’ve Never Seen
(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we take a vacation and explore the best movies you’ve never seen that are set on islands.)
It’s the summer movie season, which means it’s the season of big, CG-filled adventures, and one of the biggest (and most CG-filled) of this summer’s offerings is next month’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I bring it up for a wholly different reason, though, as its franchise features some of the most well-known movies set on islands. It might seem like a pointless designation, but island-set features are almost a sub-genre to themselves as they create an immediately understood atmosphere for the story at hand.
Their geography dictates isolation from the rest of the world, and that in turn works to build suspense, desperation, and tension (if that’s the goal). Protagonists are far removed from civilization, , and the setting works to enhance their loneliness whether it be a dramatic adventure (Cast Away), comedy (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), survival tale (Lord of the Flies), coming of age story (The Blue Lagoon), folk horror (The Wicker Man), or underappreciated Michael Bay flick. Of course, you’ve already seen those movies.
Keep reading for a look at some of the best island-set movies you’ve never seen.
Island In the Sun (1957)
The Caribbean islands are home to people, and where there are people there are conflicts focused on our differences. A plantation owner’s son finds drama wherever he goes, but while he creates his own troubles, two couples find their own: a white woman from the ruling class falls for a young, black politician and a black store clerk is romanced by a white government employee.
This romantic drama was something of a big deal in the late ’50s as it confronts race relations through a heart-shaped lens. Is that cheesy? I don’t care – love is love dammit, and both the source novel and the film became big hits based on the premise that love is colorblind despite the hate-filled intent of the minority. The film’s various relationships are infused with issues of class and colonization too, and it uses the island setting as a microcosm of sorts. People aren’t trapped here necessarily, but it’s the entirety of the world they know. Even here, though, the differences that consume some people are ignored by others in favor of what makes us alike. It may be an island, but it’s a universal tale.
All of that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that my number one reason for pimping this film is the presence of the eternally terrific Joan Fontaine. The woman was pure class, and while the 1940s was her prime decade on screen she starred in a handful of later titles like this one that show her screen presence and skills acting skills in top form. If she doesn’t do it for you for whatever reason, the cast is filled out with additional actors bursting with charisma and talent. James Mason, Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and Joan Collins all bring the goods and craft characters powered by love, lust, greed, and self-interest.
The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961)
A small Polynesian island is home to a varied population including the young residents of a children’s hospital suffering from leprosy. It’s every man for himself when the island’s volcano begins to shake the earth, but four remain behind to rescue the kids including a disgraced priest and three convicts fresh off a chain gang.
Big disaster pictures are pretty common these days, but while today’s examples are heavy on CG and Dwayne Johnson, the genre’s older titles often relied on A-list stars. Look at the cast lists for films like The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974), and you’ll see an incredible collection of Academy Award winners, box-office leaders, and familiar faces. This far earlier entry gets the trend started with its two leading roles occupied by Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra. Both actors take the effects-driven drama seriously, and that, in turn, adds weight to the character drama, interactions, and outcomes.
The film’s split pretty evenly between the character setups and ensuing action, but both halves work well in engaging viewers whether it be through performances, story, or action set-pieces. The action’s pretty spiffy too, with a fairly epic volcano spewing lava and rock across the island, and it results in some solidly suspenseful sequences as the men try to save the children left behind. From parachuting out of a plane to reach the hospital to forging a river of lava, it’s a thrilling watch leading to a scene of sacrifice and salvation that lands with real emotion.
Island of Death (1976)
A young couple arrives on the Greek island of Mykonos for fun in the sun, but what they see as a good time means something far more unfortunate for the locals. The pair are sociopaths through and through, and they fill their days and nights with debauchery, abuse, murder, and other highly inappropriate behaviors. All vacations come to an end eventually, though, and soon the locals decide it’s time for these outsiders to end theirs.
This is not a good movie in the traditional sense, but if you have an appetite for the bad, the absurd, and the comically mean-spirited, I highly recommend you seek it out immediately. There’s additional plot here as someone’s pursuing the couple for their past actions, but the main focus is their bad behavior that builds in its foulness before coming back to bite them on the ass. (And in the ass, but this is a family-oriented site so I’ll skip the particulars.) The film was actually banned for several years in many places, and it’s not difficult to see why as the sex and violence can be rough, albeit still relatively tame by today’s standards. What makes the movie a tough sell is its pure and gleeful disregard for decency and restraint.
Trust me, it’s funny stuff. The violence is so over the top as to be ridiculous, and their actions go well beyond lunacy, but the biggest source of laughs here comes courtesy of the dialogue. “Guess what I’m doing mother,” the male killer says into the phone while shtupping his lady friend. “I’m in a telephone booth on a small Greek island and I’m making love.” It’s delivered with sincerity too. Other gems include unexplained non-sequiturs – “You know little red books bring me bad luck” – and perhaps my favorite line of narration ever captured on film – “The fireplace was her favorite seducing center.” It’s a jaw-dropper of a watch (and listen).