Release Date(s)1973 (September 28, 2021)
Studio(s)Dimension Pictures (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: A-
Exploitation films have often explored political themes, but few have done so as overtly as Stephanie Rothman’s 1973 film Terminal Island. Along with Renee Daalder’s 1976 classic Massacre at Central High, it remains one of the most intriguing political allegories among Seventies genre films. The screenplay by Rothman, James Barnett, and Charles S. Swartz takes place in an alternate reality where the death penalty has been abolished, so the citizens of California vote for a ballot initiative to exile anyone found guilty of first-degree murder to an inescapable deserted island. The story follows Carmen (Ena Hartman) after her conviction as she is brought to the island and is captured by a group led by Bobby (Sean Kenney) and his lieutenant Monk (Roger E. Mosley), who have enslaved other female prisoners including Joy (Phyllis Davis), Lee (Marta Kristen), and Bunny (Barbara Leigh). But there’s a rival group on the island led by A.J. (Don Marshall), all of whom work together for survival on equal footing, and Carmen will find herself part of a revolutionary struggle for dominance on the island.
Rothman explored feminist themes in all of her films, and Terminal Island is no exception. She always resisted any kind of simplistic wish-fulfillment fantasies, and so she didn’t shy away from having her female characters being subjugated during the first act, both physically and sexually. Yet she made a point of avoiding actually showing any of the women being forced to perform—there’s some studio-mandated nudity in the film, but it’s divorced from any sexual context to prevent eroticizing sexual assault. Once the women become involved with the other camp on the island, minus that patriarchal power structure, sex becomes secondary as the focus is on doing whatever is necessary to survive. The women in Terminal Island don’t start out on and equal footing with the men, but they do gain that equality in the struggle which follows.
Like Lord of the Flies, when left to their own devices on the island, the prisoners automatically form their own societies, with all of the attendant strengths and weaknesses. The clash between the two produces an inevitable synthesis, with the new society being of a far more egalitarian nature. One of the prisoners, Dr. Milford (Tom Selleck), describes the conflict as “The Doomed against the Damned.” Yet even he comes to realize that the hope of a new society on the island is better than what the “free” world has to offer, and admits that he wouldn’t go home if he could—the island is now his home. Interestingly, Carmen was the nominal lead of the story until Ena Hartman was injured shooting an early action scene, so her character got pushed to the wayside, but that actually worked better thematically since the focus of the film ended up on the group rather than on any one individual.
Terminal Island has unavoidably dated in some respects, but its message is still timeless, as is some of its satire (for instance, it nailed the issues with California’s ballot initiative system). Unfortunately, Rothman left the business for good after her next film, The Working Girls. She had hoped that paying her dues in the exploitation arena would provide a stepping stone into mainstream studio filmmaking, but Hollywood in the Seventies had little to no interest in hiring female directors. Plenty of male filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Joe Dante were allowed to make that leap, but not women like Rothman. So a valuable voice was silenced, but not before she made some memorable films in the only way that she could.
Cinematographer Daniel Lacambre shot Terminal Island on 35 mm photochemical film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. For this version, the original camera negative was scanned at 4K resolution, restored, and graded for HDR (HDR10 only is included on the disc). The film was previously released on Blu-ray in 2016 by Code Red using a transfer taken from Rothman’s own archival print, and compared to that problematic version, the improvements here are dramatic. There’s still the expected softness during the opening titles and optical dissolves throughout the film, but the image is otherwise as sharp and detailed as possible given the low-budget lenses and film stocks that were used. (Lacambre also used diffusion filters in some shots to deliberately soften the image.) The grain is moderately heavy, but generally even and well-managed. Most of the damage from the earlier version is gone, save for a fleeting amount of tiny speckling which is occasionally visible—at least when projected on a large screen, anyway. The HDR grade expands the contrast range, gives deep blacks without losing too much detail in the shadows, and provides a few brighter highlights such as the glow from rim lighting in some of the filtered shots. The colors are better saturated, with rich blues and greens for the ocean and the foliage. There are a few moments where the flesh tones veer a bit too orange, but aside from that they generally look natural.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional English subtitles. The dynamics are a little improved over previous versions, with deeper bass in the score and the sound effects. Unfortunately, there’s also some minor distortion at peak levels, which is noticeable during the opening title song, in the score, and also when characters are shouting. The dialogue is still generally clear, except for a few moments where it’s buried in the mix.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Ultra HD release of Terminal Island is a 2-disc set which includes a Blu-ray copy of the film with all of the extras—the UHD is movie-only to maximize the bitrate. The first 5000 copies ordered directly from Vinegar Syndrome come with an embossed slipcover designed by Earl Kess, and the keep case has a reversible insert with the new artwork on one side, and the original theatrical artwork on the other. The Blu-ray extras include the following, all in HD:
- “Why Be a Man, When You Can Be a Rothman?” (31:23)
- “From Hartman to Carmen” (19:51)
- “Crash Landing on Terminal Island” (27:50)
- “The Rothmanaissance: Rediscovering the Work of Stephanie Rothman” (30:55)
- Stills Gallery (2:09)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:33)
“Why Be a Man, When You Can Be a Rothman?” is an interview with Rothman where she talks about her early days working for Roger Corman before moving to Dimension Pictures to make her final three films, the second of which was Terminal Island. Dimension wanted a conventional women-in-prison picture, but Rothman only agreed to do it as long as she could include both male and female prisoners, which gave her the ability to avoid the misogyny that she felt was inherent to the genre. She still had to balance her own intentions of examining the ways that the prisoners formed their own societies with Dimension’s desire for a marketable exploitation film, so there’s more nudity and violence in the film than she would have preferred. Rothman also gives an overview of the entire production, from writing the script to shooting on location under difficult conditions.
“From Hartman to Carmen” is an interview with Ena Hartman where she discusses her childhood dreams of being a movie star, being a model in New York, getting into film, and her experiences making Terminal Island. She says that she felt a little lost when she started playing the character, but soldiered through it. She also talks about how she felt when she was pushed into the background after her injury on set, and that experience is part of what made her decide to retire from acting and become an entrepreneur instead.
“Crash Landing on Terminal Island” features separate Interviews with actors Marta Kristen and Sean Kenney. Each of them gives their background prior to working on Terminal Island. Kenney covers his move from stage to film, including taking over for Jeffrey Hunter as the disfigured Captain Pike in a wheelchair for Star Trek. Kristen explains how her adoptive parents nurtured her desire to act, although they refused to let her audition for Lolita (despite that, producer Jack B. Harris still set her up with an agent), and she naturally covers working on Lost in Space. Both of them give their own perspectives about making Terminal Island from opposite ends of the character spectrum, one as the villain, and the other as a hero. They also share what has happened with their lives and careers since that time.
“The Rothmanaissance: Rediscovering the Work of Stephanie Rothman” is a featurette with film historian Dr. Alicia Kozma and film author Heidi Honeycutt which explores Rothman’s brief film career—in 11 years, she made seven films with three production companies. They cover her early work with Roger Corman, and point out how he hired women filmmakers while the major studios wouldn’t. Rothman never really wanted to make exploitation films, but that was the only industry which would hire her at the time. They also delve into her relationship with her husband Charles S. Swartz and how that partnership shaped her films right up until the end; when she left the business, so did he. Kozma and Honeycutt examine Terminal Island’s relationship to the women in prison genre, and the ways in which the film’s characters and motivations were different than expected. At its core, it’s a film about remaking society in a Utopian sense, with the “good” criminals in the film supporting social revolution in providing more equity for both gender and racial relationships. They also note how Rothman has always been disappointed with the final product because she didn’t have the resources to do what she wished. They close by noting the ways in which things have changed for women filmmakers since Rothman’s day.
The stills gallery includes production stills, posters, and lobby cards, and it plays continuously with no option to step through them instead. The trailer is interesting because it shows how the film was sold as a traditional exploitation film, emphasizing the violence and nudity that Rothman wasn’t happy to include. The hyperbolic narration from Paul Frees is amusing, especially when he describes it as “The most exciting motion picture of the decade.” There are several extras on the Code Red Blu-ray which aren’t included here: a commentary with Sean Kenney and Don Marshall (which was moderated by Scott Spiegel), on-camera interviews with Kenney and Marshall, and a telephone interview with Phyllis Davis.
There’s little doubt that Terminal Island is one of the last titles that anyone would have reasonably expected to see released in 4K. Yet thanks to the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome, here it is, as large as life and twice as natural.
- Stephen Bjork
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