Stephanie Rothman is a very interesting filmmaker. An apprentice of Roger Corman, Rothman was writer or director (or both) on a number of films that definitely earn the ‘cult’ descriptive. Rothman worked on one of the versions of Blood Bath, and wrote and directed The Student Nurses and The Velvet Vampire before making Terminal Island. Sadly, industry stigma (and likely more insidious prejudice) would curtail Rothman’s promising career later in the ‘70s before she could shake off that exploitation label. What we’re left with is a set of films that fit into the exploitative genre section but actually have something to say.
In an alternative near future, the death penalty has been abolished and instead murderers (of the first-degree sort) are shipped off to the titular island to spend the remainder of their lives fighting for survival. Our surrogate is Carmen, who is new to the island - which has been open for just under a year - and quickly discovers that the prison is worse than she could have ever thought. Rothman ticks off the exploitation expectations from the outset. Corpses float in the water on her arrival. Approaching the nearest camp, its clear tribal patterns have already emerged. The threat of sexual violence is palpable when one inmate says to another “break her in”. We know things aren’t going to be easy. Tom Selleck shows up early as a supposedly ‘innocent’ doctor, who by now finds his humanity slowly deserting him in a haze of DIY drug abuse.
But there’s more to Terminal Island and Rothman works hard to subvert those expectations. There’s nudity sure, but actually almost as much male as female. The women are the heart of the film - they’re the reason the men do what they do and the driving force behind the movie’s duelling narrative, one that contrasts the violence of this fledgling society with a suggestion that they can choose to be more this time, they can choose to be better. There are still plenty of explosions and shoot-outs, but you can’t fault Rothman for trying to make it more interesting at every turn, finding moments of beauty in the midst of all the violence, and working towards a genuinely hopeful ending. Under the guise of making something that could be sold to cinemas to bring in the punters, there’s a smarter film here.
As for the disc itself, we can commend Umbrella Entertainment for releasing it in the first place whilst at the same time lament the fact it has been dumped, without even a menu screen, onto disc. The poor transfer fits the mood of the film but it’s a shame there are no extras, nothing to try and provide context and some overdue respect to Terminal Island.
TERMINAL ISLAND / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: STEPHANIE ROTHMAN / SCREENPLAY: STEPHANIE ROTHMAN, CHARLES S. SWARTZ, JACK BARRETT / STARRING: PHYLLIS DAVIS, MARTA KRISTEN, ENA HARTMAN, DON MARSHALL, TOM SELLECK / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (AUSTRALIA); UK RELEASE TBA