Color, 1985, 80 mins. 30 secs. / 81 mins. 39 secs.
Directed by Michael Stanley
Starring Robert Nolfi, Julia Rust, Robert Lengyel, Lisa Pak, Frank Murgalo
AGFA (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Sporting one of the goofiest concepts in '80s regional horror, Attack of the Beast Creatures (originally shot as Hell Island) was shot for pocket change in 16mm in the untamed wilds of Connecticut and has been a longtime secret discovery of sorts among die-hard VHS horror archaeologists. Its adorably ridiculous army of creatures, intense synthesizer score (reminiscent of Shock Waves at times), and splashy helpings of gore made it the kind of experience that lodges in your head for years, best enjoyed late at night with a few friends around for plenty of vocal reactions. Shot in 1983 but not viewed by the general public until its marginal 1985 release by exploitation vet Joseph Brenner, it's a charming diamond in the rough finally given its first presentable home video release with a 2023 Blu-ray special edition from AGFA.
"Somewhere in the North Atlantic, May 1920," a cruise ship is lost at sea in the middle of the night. Nine survivors manage to survive and make it by lifeboat to the nearest island, a seemingly unpopulated region where they plan to rough it until a rescue ship comes along. Unfortunately they have to contend with more threats than expected including a river made of face-melting acid and pint-sized, fright wig-wearing, flesh-eating dolls who keeping springing out and gnashing the trespassers to death.
That's pretty much it for the plot, which doesn't go through a ton of effort to distinguish its characters including nominal heroes John (Nolfi) and Cathy (Rust). Luckily you won't care since the film doles out plenty of cheap, bloody thrills with an attack scene coming along every few minutes, and the sight of the dolls tearing through the brush at high velocity is so surreal you have to wonder how this didn't gain any traction as a midnight movie. The influence of the Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror is obvious, but having an entire army of these suckers and a much higher body count create a final product that teeters somewhere between hilarity and disturbing (even in the same shot at times). It's certainly not dull, and the enthusiasm on hand from everyone involved is really contagious as the film speeds to its maniacal climax that surprisingly doesn't go in the more common nihilistic direction of the era.
Attack of the Beast Creatures first hit VHS in 1986 from Western World Video, the same folks who brought you Sledgehammer, Flesh Feast, and Octaman. Since then it's been bootlegged many times, while the filmmakers briefly made it available on a self-distributed DVD from their own website. The AGFA Blu-ray is sourced from the 16mm camera negative and looks exponentially better than anything we've had before; bearing the title Hell Island, it has excellent color and detail throughout and feels like a miracle given the film's history. It looks like the camera caused some intermittent damage since some specific shots have the same line on the right scene; it's a minor issue and inherent to the original source. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) also sounds excellent and will make you wish there was a soundtrack release. A partial 24-minute commentary by director Michael Stanley is chock full of info about the film from some of his proposed titles (The Malignants not being a favorite) to the ins and outs of shooting on the beach in Connecticut on very limited means. He also chats a lot about the visual manipulation of the creatures, the creation of fake blood, the personnel from Dawn of the Dead involved here, and more. Stanley and writer Robert Hutton turn up for an 8m47s video interview, shot on the same distinctive beach and featuring a cameo by a surviving beast creature. They have more to offer about the genesis of the film (starting with the acid water idea) and go through a more general overview of the evolution of the story and its cannibal critters. One astounding extra is a raw 19m30s reel of test footage showing various ideas being tried out with the creatures plus lots of spooky red-tinted shots of the various locations. For the nostalgic VHS hounds out there, you also get the videotape version from the 1" tape master featuring the Attack of the Beast Creatures and Joseph Brenner title cards as well as an extra minute of outro music tacked on at the end.
Reviewed on January 12, 2023.