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Terminal Island

Terminal Island(1973)

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teaser Terminal Island (1973)

Roger Corman is known for fostering talent through his various companies over the decades, and none of those he mentored could really be compared to one of the exploitation genres few female directors, Stephanie Rothman. The world of sexy, violent drive-in fare is usually thought of as a kind of boy's club, but in fact it was a more receptive testing ground for female talent behind the camera with Rothman standing out as the most mainstream (relatively speaking) of a group that included Roberta Findlay and Doris Wishman, to name two other prolific examples.

The first woman to be awarded the Directors Guild of America fellowship, the New Jersey-born Rothman landed her first solo gig on the frothy beach film It's a Bikini World (1967), after proving her mettle as one of the directors involved in salvaging and transforming what we know as Blood Bath (1966) into some of what would turn out to be four permutations. Already an associate producer on several Corman films, she hit the big time with the smash hit The Student Nurses (1970), which inspired several follow ups, and Rothman directed the wonderfully idiosyncratic and haunting cult film The Velvet Vampire (1971), a sort of feminist modernized take on Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla.

After that, Rothman set off for new pastures with her husband, writer/producer Charles S. Swartz, under the banner of Dimension Pictures, a much-loved and busy drive-in outfit in the first half of the 1970s (and of which they owned a stake). The three Dimension films Rothman made continued to show her ability to adapt to audience demands of a particular genre while articulating her own thoughts about gender and economic relations. Group Marriage (1973) and The Working Girls (1974) are fairly straightforward depictions of '70s women grabbing their destinies by the horns, but the really fascinating outlier here is Terminal Island (1973), the one that continued to stand out from the pack for years largely due to the presence of a young Tom Selleck.

Before he would become a national sensation as the star of TV's Magnum, P.I. starting in 1980, Selleck paid his dues throughout the 1970s in a bizarre run of titles starting with his feature film debut as one of Mae West's potential "studs" in Myra Breckinridge (1970). Selleck also appeared in Russ Meyer's The Seven Minutes (1971) and the unusual Filipino horror film Daughters of Satan (1972), the latter also capitalizing on his eventual TV fame with theatrical and home video releases cashing in on Magnum, P.I. fever. That would certainly be the case with Terminal Island, whose first oversized VHS editions would prominently feature Selleck on the cover with little indication of what was actually in store for viewers.

Setting a blueprint of sorts for such later films as Escape from New York (1981), Battle Royale (2000), and the Hunger Games cycle, our tale speculates a future in which jail overcrowding leads to the decision to force convicted violent offenders into a battle to the death by boating them all off to an island with no hope of escape. Another Russ Meyer veteran is also on hand, Phyllis Davis, who played the stunning Aunt Susan in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and went on to star in the TV series Vega$. Other surprising cast members include former Lost in Space child actor Marta Kristen, Land of the Giant's Don Marshall, future The Hills Have Eyes (1977) patriarch James Whitworth, and another future Magnum, P.I. star, Roger E. Mosley, who would play T.C.

Though shot in the not terribly threatening terrain of Malibu, California, Terminal Island turned out to be a memorable addition to the run of future shock '70s sci-fi films, even with its budget slashed just before production started with the script scaling down some of its initial concepts in the process. Rothman's ability to go with the flow under these circumstances served her well, resulting in a movie that continues to fascinate with a chilling and sadly believable hypothesis about how a society under agonizing strain might try to deal with those it deems undesirable.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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