Laid to Rest: Island of the Dead (2000)

Matty charts the making of an interesting if unsuccessful horror flick. 

Part of the Pelham Islands archipelago at the western end of Long Island Sound in the northeast Bronx, Hart Island has a fascinating history. Over the last one-hundred and sixty years, it’s been used as the site of a Confederate prison; lunatic asylum; quarantine camp; boys’ reformatory; and an anti-aircraft missile base. However, it’s best known as New York City’s potter’s field: a place for the burial of the unknown, the unclaimed, and the indigent.

Accessible only by ferry, the remains of approximately one-million people are interred on Hart Island. Adults are buried in mass graves of one-hundred and fifty, children and infants in anything between one-hundred and one-thousand. All are laid to rest in basic pine coffins labelled with an identification number and, where possible, a name, age and cause of death. Innards and severed body parts are also buried, typically in wooden boxes marked ‘refuse’.

In 2019, after two decades of activism and lobbying, management of the island was handed to New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Previously the area was operated by the Department of Correction, who used inmates from the nearby Rikers Island jail to conduct the burials. To say their ultra-secretive recordkeeping was ‘loose’ would be an insult to the word. Thankfully, today, non-profit organisation The Hart Island Project are doing incredible work documenting the stories of those lost amidst the DOC’s bureaucracy and ineptitude.

Back in the late ‘90s, though, things were very different — and Hart Island’s tragic tangle of death and corruption was deemed compelling footing for a horror movie by journalist/playwright/screenwriter Peter Koper. One of John Waters’ original Dreamlanders [1], Koper conceived ISLAND OF THE DEAD (2000) with director pal James Bruce in 1996. The two had collaborated on true crime series America’s Most Wanted in the early ‘90s (Koper was staff writer and producer, Bruce produced and directed a few episodes) and were fresh from their inaugural feature together, Headless Body in a Topless Bar (1995) — a Tarantino-esque black comedy inspired by a famous New York Post headline. Drawing upon another real-life incident for Island of the Dead — in the ‘20s, a Harlem businessman tried to buy Hart Island and turn it into “a Coney Island for blacks” [sic] — Koper and Bruce established the film’s key plot points — urban renewal, restless spirits, supernatural vengeance — quickly, and their “Poltergeist (1982) meets The Birds (1963)” pitch was lapped up by Bruce Weiss’ Cornerstone Films.    

Entering active development in summer ‘97, Cornerstone announced Island of the Dead alongside Side Streets (1998) — a prestigious venture they were producing with Merchant Ivory. Following several false starts and the striking of a co-financing deal with Unapix Entertainment, Island of the Dead was scheduled to shoot in NYC in autumn ‘98 on a $3million budget. Sadly, when the film finally went in front of cameras ten months later, Cornerstone’s home turf had been replaced by Montreal; the budget slashed in half; and helmer Bruce bumped in favour of emerging Canadian talent Tim Southam in order to satisfy the Great White North’s union requirements. Naturally, the finished version of Island of the Dead bears the scars of its difficult birth.  

While anchored by serious themes and a beguilingly sombre tone befitting of its setting, Island of the Dead is awkwardly poised between thoughtful chills and the kind of tepid fright fluff indicative of directors less concerned with their material than they are with using the horror genre as a career springboard. Prior to taking the film’s reins, Southam had earned plaudits for his documentary, Drowning in Dreams (1997) (about a man’s efforts to raise a boat from the bottom of Lake Superior), and was keen to move into drama, presumably by any means necessary. Despite returning to horror via episodes of The Dead Zone, Bates Motel and NOS4A2, it’s somewhat telling this disappointingly coy shocker doesn’t feature on Southam’s resume now that he’s a hotly desired TV director (other credits include House, Bones and Hap and Leonard). Still, there is good to savour.

Atmospherically superb and boasting an icy and appealingly strange internal rhythm, a number of evocative images call to mind the languid quality of The Shining (1980) which, when coupled with Gaëtan Gravel and Serge LaForest’s elegiac score, conjure an effectively eerie sense of spectral voyeurism. For much of Island of the Dead’s duration, it’s as if Hart Island’s anguished denizens themselves are in charge of the film’s point of view. The cast are solid too. Malcolm McDowell is charismatically hissable as a pompous yet perversely likable tycoon hiding his genuine plans for the island’s redevelopment behind a cloak of altruism; Talisa Soto is convincingly forlorn as a disgraced detective seeking redemption; and Bruce Ramsay, Kent McQuaid, and rapper Yasiin Bey (née Mos Def) submit shaded performances as a trio of felons-cum-gravediggers. Where the wheels come off is in the bait and switch. Whether it’s Koper and Bruce’s fault (because it certainly was an element in their original script), or the result of tampering from Cornerstone, Unapix, and Southam (the latter seasoned the film’s shooting draft with Koper and bagged a co-writing credit for his troubles), Island of the Dead demoting ghosts in favour of a swarm of flies that operate at the behest of Hart Island’s entombed, trapping McDowell and co. there Birds-style, is a maddening misstep. The inherent silliness is obscene — and given how poker faced it’s all played, it often runs the risk of tipping the film into Garth Marenghi levels of parody. Just without the actual wit or intention, obviously.

Island of the Dead premiered in July 2000 at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Canada with McDowell in attendance. It hit U.S. video and DVD four months later, in November ‘00, through Key DVD in conjunction with Showcase Entertainment and City Heat Productions. Curiously, although Island of the Dead never appeared on tape or disc here in the U.K., its poster was repurposed by Third Millennium for their release of another straight-to-video McDowell chiller, Garden of Evil (1998).

[1] In addition to his various posts on Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), the late Koper co-directed Edith’s Shopping Bag (1973) — a documentary about Pink Flamingo’s (1972) icon Edith Massey’s thrift store — and allowed Desperate Living (1977) to be shot on some farm land he bought. Waters himself was also Koper’s best man at his wedding to Warhol acolyte Gina Consoli.

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