As regular readers may have picked up on, I’m a fan of the ladies. So it may seem like my feminist leanings go against my love of exploitation cinema, a genre that can be seen as not a fan of the ladies. True, there are a lot of them out there that heap abuse on female characters, and even more that handle them as shallowly as possible. The great thing about exploitation movies, though, is the amount of freedom the director has. As long as a few key elements are included that the producers need for marketing (mostly involving blood and boobs), they can go into crazy and unexpected places. They can even sneak in legitimate social commentary, if no one is looking too hard. For example, 1973’s TERMINAL ISLAND, which sticks four beautiful women on an entire island full of violent male convicts, would seem like a misogynistic nightmare, but actually turns out to be pretty enlightened. Plus, there is blood and boobs.
After the nation outlaws capital punishment, California seeks to humanely deal with their incorrigible inmates by chucking them all onto an uninhabited island and letting them fend for themselves. The newest arrival, Carmen (Ena Hartman), discovers this grand social experiment has its drawbacks when she finds she is one of only four women on an island full of men. Her companions, Joy (Phyllis Davis), Lee (Marta Kristen), and the mute Bunny (Barbara Leigh), are subject to the whims of the camp’s Jim Jones style leader, Bobby (Sean Kenney), and are kept in line by his muscle, Monk (Roger E. Mosley). Their hellish lives change when they are liberated by another group of inmates who rebelled against Bobby’s sadistic rule. This group, led by A.J. (Don Marshall) is far more hospitable, but the ladies have had enough of Bobby’s shit and convince the others to stop running and start fighting. Between Carmen’s ferocity, Lee’s smarts, Joy’s cunning, and Bunny’s… well, Bunny is kind of useless, but the other three are going to give Bobby a war he never expected.
You might think that California is filled with bleeding heart liberals, but the person-on-the-street opinion polls at the start of this movie will change your mind. When asked about the morality of dumping a bunch of convicts on an island to create their own Lord of the Flies society (except with murderers instead of kids), most of these concerned citizens just bitch about not having the death penalty anymore. The general consensus is that if we can’t just kill them, at least we can toss them out of sight like garbage (they don’t have a very ecologically responsible view on garbage removal, either).
It’s the same basic premise as ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but more realistic and considerably more economically sensible. Seriously, I know those were tumultuous times in 1988, but couldn’t the government find a cheaper island than Manhattan to turn into a prison? Dystopia or not, that is prime real estate. It’s like converting the Taj Mahal into a Denny’s. They should have followed California’s example. The only things on Terminal Island are trees and a few goats.
Notice the title isn’t ESCAPE FROM TERMINAL ISLAND. This is because the focus of the movie is far more on survival and the social—and sexual—politics of this ad hoc society. No one has time to think about escape. The authorities get just close enough to shore to boot out the new inmates (after declaring them legally dead). There are occasional supply drops of tools and essentials, but otherwise, everyone on the island is left to their own devices to survive. They don’t even get a “So It’s Your First Night On Terminal Island” pamphlet.
Aside from the bodies Carmen sees floating around like seaweed when they drop her off, things don’t seem that bad. She makes a fire, spends the night under the stars, and meets the disgraced doctor turned homeopathic junkie, Norman Milford (Tom Selleck, who along with Mosley and Davis form a Magnum P.I. triumvirate). He tells her about the camp where the island’s remaining inhabitants live (the one time population of 200 is now down to 40). The next day she walks into camp with her best foot forward, full of pluck, determined to make the best of her situation. And her world immediately turns to shit.
She’s greeted by Monk, who promptly smacks her down and puts the boot to her. Literally, he steps on her head. It’s an extremely disturbing image, made worse by the uncomfortably real grindhouse aesthetic. I actually winced when he awkwardly hops over her while keeping his boot in place. This was no stunt boot, he could have seriously squashed that lady’s head. Ah, the magic of ‘70s filmmaking. He gives her the basic breakdown: she has no rights. She will do what she is told, when she is told. He doesn’t bother with an “or else” option, that is simply how it will be. She will take her place with the three other women in the camp, and she will make her contributions.
All this is decreed by Bobby, who is like a sleazy hippy version of Immortan Joe, but worse (better complexion, though). Instead of ruling with the promise of water, Bobby uses the women as the precious resource. If the men stay in line and maintain the camp, they are given periodic access to the women. It is all very regimented and structured; each woman has a roster of which men she is assigned to and when. As if that wasn’t bad enough (and it is), the women have to work just as hard as the men, doing harsh manual labor and demeaning shit like washing the clothes.
Thank god—and director Stephanie Rothman—that we don’t have to see what they have to go through on the night shift. TERMINAL ISLAND is a 100% exploitation movie, and it isn’t shy about nudity, but it doesn’t wallow. Aside from one mild but uncomfortable encounter between Bunny and Bobby, who is covered only by a chess board, Rothman avoids scenes of sexual violence or coercion. Instead, she uses very harsh scenes of oppression, like the boot on Carmen’s head, or Carmen and Lee pulling a plow, to punch home how intolerable the conditions are for these women. The scene where Joy pauses her farm work long enough to politely ask for a sip of water only to have it spit into her face is more emotionally impactful than the standard grindhouse rape scene this type of movie would typically roll out.
Now, not every man in camp is a horrendous asshole john. Dr. Milford is clearly unhappy with the arrangement, and one guy offers Joy his canteen after she gets spit on (and immediately finds himself in a knife fight for it). The decent ones are just too weak or outnumbered to be of any real help.
Rothman packs on the misery early, because only a half hour in, the tables are turned. The women get liberated by A.J.’s much smaller group of nomads, inmates who got sick of Bobby’s rule and took off. A.J.’s plan was to remove Bobby’s source of power in hopes that the camp would collapse into chaos. The real motivation, though, seems like they just didn’t want the women to have to live ike that anymore. Things are immediately better with this group. They are respectful and accepting, making the women feel welcome and safe.
Well, except for Dylan, who is a convicted rapist. Even before he goes after Joy (and is quickly thrown off by the others while they are tussling), Dylan is set up as the one big conflict within the group. It’s a given that he is going to be the one to betray the others, try to kill one of them, or fuck things up in some way. The strange thing is [spoiler], this never happens. After Joy gets her revenge by publicly (and painfully) humiliating him, Dylan falls in line with the group. He even cooperates with Joy during the hectic climax and lets her take the lead. Sure, he probably would have reverted to his scumbag ways after all the conflict died down, but luckily he gets killed at the end so we never have to find out. It’s a win/win, he gets to go out like a hero, and he's dead.
A.J.’s group may have gotten the women out of their dire situation, but it’s the women who lead the call to action. A.J. is a clever guy and a good strategist, but overly cautious. He is perfectly content to keep running from Bobby’s patrols and to wait and see what happens. Carmen and Lee are having none of that bullshit, though. Carmen rallies everyone to take Bobby on directly (she also knows how to make poison blowgun darts). Lee, the scientist, starts cooking up homemade grenades to even out the camp’s numerical advantage. Joy pitches in on the war plan and keeps up the morale. And Bunny… is still pretty much useless, but at least she’s on board.
Incidentally, all the women and the new group call her Rabbit, presumably because it’s less sexist.
I’m not sure if it was by design or just how the script played out, but the movie has a strong egalitarian message. From the beginning, it seems like Carmen is going to be the lead. She’s the feisty, take-no-shit, Pam Grier type, and the most dynamic character. Once she gets incorporated into the new group, things take a more ensemble focus. She is still vital to the story, but so are Lee, and A.J., and Cornell (Ford Clay) and his fly fur-lined jacket. Milford joins the group to provide medical assistance and deliver some dreamy Tom Selleck monologues. Even Rabbit (née Bunny) gets to contribute. It isn’t about one person’s struggle, it’s for everyone’s benefit. Everyone who isn’t a misogynist shitbird, at least.
After the dust settles, the survivors hobble together a harmonious society where everyone works together rather than exploits each other. Even Monk, now blind, has been rehabilitated into a productive member of the camp. So screw you, callous Californians, your little social experiment was successful after all. All it took was the death of 90% of the island’s total population.