Release Date(s)1985 (February 28, 2023)
Studio(s)Obelisk Motion Pictures (AGFA/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
Attack of the Beast Creatures (aka Hell Island) is a neglected low-budget regional horror film that ended up falling into the hole between the successful regional exploitation era of the Sixties and Seventies, and the direct-to-video boom of the Eighties and Nineties that hadn’t quite gotten into full swing yet. It was filmed in 1983 under the title Hell Island, but it languished on the shelf until independent distributor Joseph Brenner picked it up in 1985. He demanded a more exploitable title, and for some reason, everyone agreed to Attack of the Beast Creatures. He still didn’t put any real effort into marketing it, and it only played at one theatre before he struck a deal with World Video Pictures, Inc. for a VHS release. Until recently, that’s been the only way for anyone to experience it. This tale of a group of castaways stranded on a deserted island that’s inhabited by a tribe of deadly mutant pygmies has never gotten enough exposure to develop the cult following that it deserves.
Attack of the Beast Creatures was directed by regional theatre veteran Mike Stanley and written by his friend Robert Hutton, but everyone wore multiple hats on the low-budget production. Stanley is officially credited as director and editor, while Hutton is credited as writer, cinematographer, and editor. Even that doesn’t quite give the full picture, since the whole cast and crew gave a hand wherever it was necessary. Everyone was involved in fabricating the beast creatures, with Hutton doing the sculpting, Stanley and Bob Firgelewski designing the internal mechanisms (such as they were), and all of their family members helping with the paint, hair, and clothing. The results ended up looking like sunburnt Zuni warrior fetish dolls with reflective eyes, and while they may lack the maniacal energy of that iconic monster, they work well enough for this kind of exploitation film. They’re certainly in keeping with the shameless “let’s put on a show!” nature of the production.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair, since Stanley and Hutton did have a little bit of ambition despite their lack of resources. They just had to find creative ways around their limitations. Surprisingly enough, Attack of the Beast Creatures is a period piece, but the island setting meant that they didn’t have to worry about creating sets, vehicles, or other potentially expensive period details. All that they needed was vintage-looking costumes for the main characters, and the nature of the story meant that they didn’t have to worry about changes of wardrobe, either. Thanks to a rushed two-week shooting schedule, they also didn’t need multiple sets of each costume (and presumably they shot in sequence to cover any wear and tear that resulted). There’s even an honest-to-God glass painting matte shot in the film’s opening, and with a moving element in it to boot. That’s not bad for a group of friends with no filmmaking experience whatsoever.
Fortunately, Stanley is only too aware of that fact. As he told Greg Ropp for the 2005 Eerie Horror Film & Yahtzee Game Festival (yes, that’s a thing):
“There are a lot of people in Hollywood embarrassed by their early films and try to distance themselves from them. We’ll, I’m proud of Beast Creatures. I never went to film school or even been involved in the making of a film other than some off the cuff silent 8 mms. So, I read a couple of books on the subject and with some friends completed a feature film. If you know about independent film making, completing one is a feat in itself. That coupled with the fact that we had never even held professional equipment in our hands before, gives me a feeling of accomplishment... A while ago I sat down and watched it with our biggest critic... It was the first time in many years that either of us had seen it. After it was over he turned to me and said, it’s better than what I remember. That about sums it up for me as well. I still see the flaws in it but it’s better than what I remember.”
“It’s better than what I remember” isn’t a bad epitaph for anything that was made under trying circumstances with limited resources. Stanley, Hutton, and all of their friends managed to complete a feature film that got real theatrical distribution, however limited that it may have been. That’s more than most of us can say, and they have every reason to be proud of themselves. Attack of the Beast Creatures will end up outliving the people who made it, and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.
Hutton shot Attack of the Beast Creatures on 16 mm film (in Super-16 format) using an Éclair NPR camera with a spherical Angénieux zoom lens. It was framed at 1.85:1 for its extremely limited theatrical release, though most viewers ended up experiencing it on VHS panned-and-scanned at 1.33:1. This version presents the original theatrical version via a scan from the original camera negative, but there aren’t any other details available about the work that was done. Interestingly enough, despite the Super-16 origination, it’s possible that the film was shot hard-matted. That’s because the VHS version definitely wasn’t shown open-matte—instead, the sides are cut off of the image. Any damage to the negative has been left alone here, so there’s a lot of speckling, plus some scratches are visible, and a few of them are quite heavy. Most of those are on the VHS version as well, so it appears that the scratches may have occurred in-camera. (There’s a series of scratches on the right-hand side of the screen during the opening credit sequence, and while they’re not visible on the VHS version, that’s because they’ve been cut off by the 1.33:1 ratio.) Otherwise, the image is reasonably detailed for a micro-budgeted 16 mm film, with a moderately heavy layer of grain. The opening credit sequence appears to have been shot day-for-night, but the results are dark and muddy, with little to no shadow detail. Once the boat reaches land at daybreak, the contrast range improves significantly. There are some nighttime sequences later in the film that were shot at night, and while they still don’t have a great depth of detail to them, the contrast is nevertheless much stronger, with deep black levels. The color reproduction looks natural, though the flesh tones do veer a bit red in a few shots—again, that’s likely how they appear on the negative, and they were left alone here rather than being significantly retimed. (Note that this version bears the film’s original title, Hell Island.)
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Like the video, the audio is limited by the source material, and while it’s a little inconsistent, most of it is relatively clear. There are a few points with muffled or distorted dialogue, most notably in the stretch between 14:48 and 15:12. Otherwise, the simple but surprisingly effective synthesizer score that was put together by John P. Mozzi (with a little help from Sean H. Lezotte) is reproduced well.
The American Genre Film Archive Blu-ray release of Attack of the Beast Creatures comes with a reversible insert that features alternate artwork on each side, one for Attack of the Beast Creatures, and the other for Hell Island. There was a slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, but it’s already sold out. The following extras are included:
- Partial Commentary with Mike Stanley
- Interview with Mike Stanley and Robert Hutton (HD – 8:48)
- Test Footage (HD – 19:31)
- VHS Version (Upscaled SD – 81:39)
Mike Stanley offers a straightforward but nicely informative commentary for Attack of the Beast Creatures. He explains how the production came about, and why they decided to make a film despite having no experience whatsoever. He also offers some background for the actors, which is useful considering that none of them have any other significant screen credits. He confirms that they did indeed only have one set of wardrobe for the entire production. He also provides technical details for the equipment that they used, some of it jury-rigged, and talks about having to construct the beast creatures themselves. He closes by quoting some of the reviews of the film, after having talked for less than 25 minutes. Yet that’s actually pretty refreshing, because he stopped as soon as he ran out of things to say, instead of trying to pad things out for the whole film. It’s 25 minutes of solid information, with no hesitation or gaps, and not a dull moment to be had. Even if you don’t normally like commentary tracks, this one is worth a listen.
The Interview with Mike Stanley and Robert Hutton is a brief conversation with the two filmmakers, each of whom was recorded separately. They show some of the surviving beast creature puppets, and give a brief overview of the entire production. While they do duplicate some of the information from Stanley’s commentary, there’s still a few new tidbits to be had here. The Test Footage is surprisingly enjoyable. Needless to say, there isn’t any behind-the-scenes footage available from the production, so this is the closest thing to it. It’s a compilation reel of tests with the creatures as well as some of the other effects, including the title cards. Apparently, they toyed with the idea of shooting everything on the island through a red filter, turning it into a genuine Hell island, and much of that test footage is included here. The only thing that isn’t included is the stop-motion test by Hutton that Stanley talks about during their interview, so either it’s lost or else was unavailable, which is a shame. Finally, the VHS Version is presented here transferred directly from the original 1” master tape, framed at 1.33:1. It has the Attack of the Beast Creatures title card, and it also has some extended outro music—the whole thing runs 81:39, as opposed to the 80:30 of the theatrical version. It proves that the film was definitely composed with a widescreen theatrical release in mind, as a few of the shots are so cramped at 1.33:1 that some of the actor’s faces are cut off completely at the sides of the frame.
Now, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Attack of the Beast Creatures has to be viewed in the spirit with which it was made. Expectations need to be tempered by the reality of what it is. Yet that’s true of any film, so if you can watch it with an open mind, and not worry about it being anything other than what it is, there’s plenty of fun to be had here. After years of languishing on worn out VHS tapes, AGFA’s Blu-ray breathes new life into the film, and some nice extras certainly don’t hurt. It’s recommended for any genre fan who’s willing to look for the good in everything. Frankly, that’s a perspective that more genre fans should have these days.
- Stephen Bjork