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ACTOR/DIRECTOR MARK STEVENS 'ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND'

FROM HELL ISLAND" year: 1963
There's filmmaking, and then there are films that somehow get made but that still don't seem like actual movies: Which is what the misleadingly titled ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND is: Basically an early 1960's retooling of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT since actor/director Mark Stevens's ex-smuggler Captain James, a charter boat captain, is hired by two exiled Cubans to pick up refugees living in Fidel Castro's title island...

Made during JFK's presidency, an unpopular Cuba is the proverbial HELL: A locale we see for only a split second as military gunman fire at Captain James's boat while he's picking up the human cargo, and one in particular is supposed to mean everything. Surprisingly, given the tagline, "Sharing a Love That Was Not Theirs To Take," the second lead isn't the sexy Cuban girl played by sexy, usually blond WESTWORLD and PSYCH-OUT actress Linda Gaye Scott (billed as Linda Scott, and it looks nothing like her: is this another IMDb blunder?). Rather, her abusive, deranged husband is not only the main antagonist, he pretty much steals the entire show. If HELL ISLAND were made ten years later, Bruce Dern would have played the part had by a skinny, chaotic Jack Donner as Kyle Dennison, who even gets the standalone "And" treatment in the opening credits, which usually means the second most important character after the lead...

Linda Gaye Scott and Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens, who, a decade earlier, starred and directed in the sublime yet underrated Alaska-set FIlm Noir, CRY VENGEANCE, has little to no budget here, using what looks like stolen footage of various establishing exterior shots of either the charter boat or sailboat backed by a strange and hypnotically nautical, tropical jazz score...

Looking emaciated and worn, his performance is beyond subdued: He's neither a cocky or cool Humphrey Bogart type or anyone you'd see in a Key West Florida-set Pulpy Noir that this tries/wants desperately to be...

Especially the initial immigrant pickup involving a rummy sidekick who sneaked on board, exactly like Walter Brennan in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (as Eddy from the Ernest Hemingway source novel), and there are moments when the picture almost settles into a primal groove where an actual story begins shaping-up... Especially when Captain James sparks a possible romance with Linda Gaye Scott's sexy Cuban ingenue, Linda. But Jack Donner as the insanely jealous (insane and jealous) Kyle, described by his wife as an "immoral Communist eunuch," takes over at this point. And for some bizarre reason, the captain sets out on his sailboat alone with the lanky, cranky, completely untrustworthy, crooked, backstabbing, delusional husband who, during the entire bizarre third act after throwing the captain overboard, leads a prolonged cat and mouse (or cat and fish) game...

Regular Score: *1/2 Camp Value: **1/2
As the non-stressed captain swims in circles while random shark stock-footage pops up to build suspense. But nothing comes of that threat... not even a dorsal fin cutting above the water... and it's hard to think they're in the middle of nowhere when the ocean floor is visible every time we see the captain circle his boat...

So the rest of the film plays out with Donner going more and more berserk, and at one point imagining the boat and the surrounding ocean catching on fire. In a movie that'd been mostly wide shots of actors spouting rushed dialogue, the lunatics' imagination is better than the real thing. Making ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND the kind of god-awful experience where nothing ever actually happens. Then again, for guilty pleasure's sake, it can be a pretty intriguing nightmare.
Jack Donner's third act tormenting is pure cinematic torture in ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND
Linda Gaye Scott and Mark Stevens in ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND
Linda Gaye Scott and Jack Donner in ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND
Linda Gaye Scott in ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND
Jack Donner stealing scenes in the middle of Escape from Hell Island, who's more a villain than any island
Jack Donner and Craig Stevens ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND
Jack Donner and Craig Stevens ESCAPE FROM HELL ISLAND
Escape from Hell Island Starring/Directed by Mark Stevens and Reviewed by James M. Tate
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