Taboo Island/Emanuelle on Taboo Island/A Beach Called Desire/La Spiaggia del Desiderio (1976) **
Considering all the stunningly strange movies Laura Gemser has on her resume, it’s rather puzzling that Taboo Island should now be one of her best known and most readily available films. Nearly everything else she appeared in during her mid-to-late 70’s prime was substantially sexier, Taboo Island features not even a hint of the insane plotting that makes people remember the likes of Black Cobra and The Erotic Nights of the Living Dead with such fond bemusement, and director Enzo D’Ambrosio’s clunky and unimaginative technique makes the tropical island from which the movie takes its title look every bit as unappealing as the setting of any Bruno Mattei zombies-in-the-jungle opus. While it may not be noticeably worse than most other beach-smut pictures, it isn’t any better either, and you might as well just watch The Blue Lagoon instead.
A bunch of smack addicts on Caracas head down to the beach to get doped up and screw, but one of the girls has an overdose and dies right in the middle of making out with her boyfriend. Daniel (Paolo Giusti, from Red Light Girls and Seven Deadly Females), the only one of the lot who ever gets a name, runs to the nearby docks and zips away in his motorboat. Whether he’s going for help or just running away from the consequences of his friend’s OD is left ambiguous, but whatever his motives, he ends up knocking himself out while executing a sharp evasive maneuver so as not to crash headlong into the much larger vessel that turns right across his path at the mouth of the harbor. Daniel’s boat keeps going until it runs out of gas, and by the time its pilot regains consciousness, he’s way the hell out at sea with no sign of land in any direction. There’s a strong current, though, and Daniel figures he’ll just sit tight and see where the drift takes him. The boat has some food and water aboard it, so as long as he reaches land in a day or two, he should be okay.
An indeterminate amount of time later, a small jungle island appears on the horizon. There’s no sign of settlement, though, so it looks like Daniel’s going to be Robinson Crusoe-ing it for a while— fortunately, there are coconut palms lining the beach and a cold spring not far back in the woods, and the supply compartment on the boat contains a hatchet, a toolkit, flippers and a diving mask, a magnifying glass for setting fires, and even a speargun. If he just had some heroin, Daniel would be completely set. And by a further stroke of luck, his island proves to be not so remote as to prevent the occasional flyover by a small aircraft. Though Daniel has no luck flagging down the first such plane he sees, the twelve-foot-high “SOS” signal he makes on the beach out of jungle greenery ought to do the trick nicely.
A day or two later, Daniel discovers that he isn’t alone after all. The first indication comes when he stumbles upon a vine that somebody has tied into a rope for climbing trees. Then somebody destroys his giant “SOS” while he is away exploring the island’s interior. Eventually, Daniel finds a small hut in the forest, wherein live an old man named Antonio (Arthur Kennedy, of The Tempter and Cyclone) and his twenty-ish children, Juan (Nicola Paguone) and… hang on a minute. See, I’m not really sure just what the girl’s name is supposed to be. The accepted spelling appears to be Haydee, but that’s not how anybody in this movie says it. Antonio consistently refers to his daughter as “Heidi,” Juan calls her something like “Heeday” (emphasis on the second syllable), and Daniel gives it a pronunciation that is perilously close to “Heyday.” Since only one of those four options is actually a name, I think I’ll follow Antonio, and go with Heidi. In any event, she’s played by Laura Gemser. Antonio is an escaped convict who wound up on the island through means that nobody really bothers explaining— he sure as shit didn’t swim the 30 miles from San Rafael, the nearest center of human habitation. Nor is any explanation forthcoming for how he managed to bring his now-dead wife out there to join him following his escape, which would seem to be an even tougher trick to pull off. The one thing which requires no explanation is the reason for Antonio’s hostility toward Daniel, and for his determination that his uninvited guest isn’t going anywhere now that he’s arrived. Juan and Heidi see things rather differently, however. They’re glad to have the company of somebody other than their grumpy old dad for once, and Heidi goes so far as to fall in love with Daniel. Now that would be a pretty good cause for tension all by itself, but then Heidi’s newly developed love for the outsider causes her to break off the incestuous relationship she’s had with her brother since they hit puberty, and Daniel makes friends with Paco, the fisherman from San Rafael who sometimes ventures out to the island (which the rest of the San Rafaelites consider cursed for some reason) to harvest a species of coral which grows nowhere else. Between Juan’s jealousy and Antonio’s fears of being found out by the authorities he fled from all those years ago, a peaceful conclusion is most likely out of the question. And let’s face it— Taboo Island just wouldn’t be a Laura Gemser movie if it didn’t trade in the sex for some violence in the final act, now would it?
So basically what we have here is a completely by-the-numbers loss-of-innocence story, enlivened only by the kinky twist that innocence, in this case, includes the notion that it’s perfectly okay to fuck your little brother. But then the filmmakers try to have it both ways by making Daniel go home alone in the end, after realizing that Heidi could never survive in the civilized world. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking it’s a bit too late at this point for her and her brother to go back to being Noble Savages; their father is dead, they’ve discovered the incest taboo, and they now know that there is an outside world, even if they’ve still never seen it for themselves. On the other hand, since Taboo Island is first and foremost a softcore sex film, asking for a story that accomplishes anything more than establishing a framework for the sex itself is pretty much an exercise in self-defeat, if not self-delusion. The movie makes a fairly respectable showing for itself as smut— Laura Gemser is as lovely as ever, and she spends about half her screen-time wearing not much more than a loincloth— but even here, Taboo Island is at best a qualified success, as the sex scenes mostly just kind of sit there. It’s like D’Ambrosio realized the sleazy tone of the typical Gemser flick would be out of place here, but didn’t quite know what he was supposed to do instead. All in all, Taboo Island is, despite its high visibility, a film for the Gemser completists only. Casual fans can safely give it a pass.