The scream’s a good weapon—fast, concealed. Sometimes the only one we’ve got. When babes imperiled are furthermore mute, like Helen in The Spiral Staircase (1949), Madeline in the Swedish Thriller (1973), and Thana in Ms. 45 (1981), or speechless, like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965), the situation feels irremediable. A girl without tongue is a eunuch.
In Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island (1973), the mute is a little bit dumb, and goes by Bunny. Sentenced to life in prison after murdering both her parents, she is one of three white women among forty-some men on California’s San Bruno Island, which is effectively replacing Death Row since the US has outlawed capital punishment. The other two are Joy (Phyllis Davis), who poisoned her husband, and Lee (Marta Kristen), a brainy revolutionary who blew up a bank—along with a teller, and a guard. As for the men, there’s Dr. Milford (Tom Selleck), a “mercy killer;” Bobby (Sean Kenney), a “punk” who killed his partner in a robbery; Dylan (Clyde Ventura), a biker and rapist; A. J. (Don Marshall), a black man who killed a cop; and Roy (Frank Christi), a white maniac who left eleven dead. Finally, there’s the new girl, Carmen (Ena Hartmen), a black woman whose crime might not be anything more than that.
We’re introduced to these characters in the control room of a television news show. A beautiful newswoman flips through the mug shots, her male coworkers beside her, deciding whom to feature in a segment on Terminal Island. It’s a smart device, letting Rothman too show her cards. The first woman to be awarded the Directors Guild of America fellowship, she was hired out of Berkeley by Roger Corman (Terminal Island is her first of two films for New World Pictures), and although she was much, much smarter than her task—to make sexy, violent, low-budget B movies—she took it seriously. When the newswoman holds up handsome Dr. Milford and says, “here’s something for the bored housewife,” her tone is not at all condescending.
If the exploitation genre let men make movies about horrible things that happen to women in order to show horrible things happening to women, it also let Rothman make movies about feminism in order to show feminism at work. In The Student Nurses (1970), she glovelessly handled abortion—the actual providing of, not the theoretical right to—in a way no art-house film could. In Terminal Island, she goes in for a new world order. Joy, Lee, Bunny, and now Carmen are all vastly outnumbered and wickedly abused in the workforce; when the day’s labor is finished, the night’s unpaid prostitution (i.e., marital rape) begins. Tongueless Bunny is, of course, the prize trophy and sole property of Bobby, who despotically rules the island with the help of a nose-ringed Uncle Tom–like character. In his tent he tells her to undress, then adds injury: “If you don’t want to,” he smirks, “just say no.”
Naturally, it doesn’t take long for Carmen to get some better ideas.
Carmen: Has anybody ever tried to stand up to them?
Lee: They’re either dead or gone. Some guys escaped. They’re hiding out somewhere.
Carmen: Maybe I’ll join them.
Lee: What makes you think they’re any better than those cruds around here?
The rebel men might not be better, but they are fewer, which in men often amounts to the same thing. When our four escaping heroines join their five, we have not a reversed hierarchy, as you might expect from a revenge plot, but an equitable circle around the fire. This isn’t to say the course of reconciliation runs smoothly: Dylan, for example, tries raping Joy, who hands him back a literally stinging punishment. “Now we’re even!” she exults—and then, because it’s always too soon to celebrate victory in a class war, a drift of Bobby’s pigs comes swooping in.
Terminal Island is a left-ish fata morgana by a femme with no time to lose. If James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and several other, male protégés of Roger Corman made B movies as practice for A movies, Rothman made B movies as a way to make movies, period, but also as blueprints for a world in which, someday, Kathryn Bigelow would beat Cameron for the Oscar. Any film made by a woman in the early ’70s was a revenge film (and hell, Bigelow is only the exception, proving it’s not very different now). Rothman’s movies dared to be post-revenge.
When Bunny gets her voice back, the first thing she says is: “I want to go home.” It’s a politically ambiguous line in a script laid thick with double entendres. Where is home? What does it look like? Are we supposed to have any idea? And who among the stereotyped has not stopped, looked around at the world we’ve inherited, and thought, in a child’s whisper, the very same thing.
If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.