With the threat of cable television looming on the horizon, network television in the late 70s had to find new and interesting ways to maintain audience viewership. One way was to move further away from family friendly entertainment, focusing more on “jiggle TV,” the derogatory (yet accurate) term for programs in which young, attractive actresses were prominently (and arbitrarily) featured wearing tight t-shirts, short shorts, skimpy bathing suits, or just a carefully placed bath towel. Due to the limits of network standards, it came off as more juvenile and smutty than sexy, but it worked, and television viewing numbers by the end of the decade was as high as they had ever been.
The genre, if you want to call it that, occasionally carried over into feature length movies too, such as 1979’s Mysterious Island of Beautiful Women, an adventure story woefully lacking in adventure, but with a lot of exposed female skin, if you’re into that sort of thing. After a brief flashback that sort of explains the origin of the titular beautiful women, the film opens on a plane carrying oil company executive Gordon Duvall (Peter Lawford), who’s traveling across the South Seas with a handful of ex-employees, a bodyguard, and an alcoholic pilot who accidentally gets them lost. Neither where they’re going, why they’re going there, or why everyone initially seems adversarial towards each other is ever explained, nor why they’re dragging along Danny (Michael McGreevey), very recently blinded in some sort of accident, who does nothing and disappears for large stretches of the movie.
Running low on fuel, they land on a seemingly deserted island. Stu, the pilot (Sandy McPeak), almost immediately gives up on any hope of either getting the plane back in the air or being rescued, so it’s left to the rest of the group, including nice guy Mike (Steven Keats) and tough guy Wendell (Clint Walker), to figure out how to get off the island. They soon realize that they’re not alone–indeed, the island is inhabited by a group of women in their twenties, multicultural but all thin and model gorgeous (the movie isn’t called Mysterious Island of Nice Enough Looking But Nothing to Write Home About Women, after all). Though they’ve evidently spent their entire lives on an otherwise deserted island somewhere in Polynesia, with no contact with the outside world, they somehow speak English, have clean, salon perfect hair (though only on their heads, obvs.) and full sets of straight, white teeth, and instinctively know that they should be fashioning the rags they’re wearing into bikinis and miniskirts. All of them have cute names, like Flower, Snow, and Bambi.
The sole black woman on the island, played by Jayne Kennedy, is, of course, named “Chocolate.”
Lizbeth (Jamie Lyn Bauer), the oldest of the group at a decrepit 30 or so, is also the leader, taking orders and advice from “the Sister,” a mysterious being no one else talks to or sees. Duvall decides to try to bribe the women into helping them get off the island with items from the plane, declaring “There must be something they can use, like a mirror or a frying pan!” Lizbeth rejects their offers of mirrors, dishes, and a California Angels t-shirt, but the rest of the women literally squeal and giggle with delight over them (one of them even blurts out “No way!” exhibiting a questionable knowledge of current slang). She eventually agrees to help them, but only if they help the women fight the “Headchoppers,” marauders from a nearby island, who, of course, being that they’re island natives (and, you know, not white), know nothing except raping and killing.
Mike and the rest of the group try to flirt with the women by offering such modern luxuries as coffee and ginger ale, while they learn more about how Lizbeth runs the island (which includes, for reasons unknown, leaving out the numbers seven and nine when teaching the others how to count). “No men!” is repeated in shock and awe several times, as if the idea that a matriarchal society could survive some twenty-plus years without males helping to provide them with more burlap miniskirts and ginger ale is beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, almost immediately after Lizbeth’s tense, temporary truce with the men, the rest of the women start arguing with each other over who gets to spend time with them (“She likes the one they call Mike!” Flower teases about Snow), and are shocked with Lizbeth declares that, once the Headchoppers are vanquished, they’ll be killed too.
Within barely an hour or two after they first meet, Mike kisses Snow, which she reacts to not in bafflement or fear, but in sheer joy (in fact, she demands “More kiss!”). Mike and the other men find the women’s guileless, childlike natures charming and enticing, which is probably where the movie comes closest to being the sleazy exploitation flick it desperately wants to be.
Stu, who was pretty much ready to lay down and die the minute they landed anyway, gets to do just that, when he’s killed off screen by a Headchopper. Though you’d think the Headchoppers would be the more pressing issue at hand, much of the last half of the movie is focused on Mike and the others discovering the truth about Lizbeth and “the Sister.” As it turns out, the Sister doesn’t exist, and was made up by Lizbeth to keep the other women under control. Thanks to an endless “someone reads an old diary while the diary writer provides an expository voiceover” sequence, we learn that the women were all refugees from a Catholic orphanage, who, along with a nun who later died of her injuries, crash landed on the island years earlier. All were babies save for Lizbeth, who took care of them and raised them to adulthood, eventually creating “Sister” as an oracle of sorts to ensure that they would continue to do as she says.
With the women’s attention now focused on keeping the men safe rather than keeping each other safe from the Headchoppers, they turn on Lizbeth once the truth is revealed, and she’s eventually killed. A plane that originally looks like it could fit maybe eight people maximum is suddenly big enough to fit Mike, the other guys, and all twelve of the island women, who, despite having their entire world yanked out from underneath them in an instant, happily go along with them (and you’ll note, allowing them to lead the way). Just when they’re nearly off the island, the writers suddenly remembered the Headchoppers, who appear in an absolutely riveting scene during the last three minutes where they slowly, while still at least a mile away, row a boat towards the plane, which eventually takes off unharmed.
This may be shocking to you, given this movie is called Mysterious Island of Beautiful Women and features a black character named Chocolate, but there are some pretty icky gender politics happening here. The audience is evidently supposed to view Lizbeth as the villain for refusing to view Mike and the other men as anything but dangerous intruders. Let us be clear, until these schmucks show up, Lizbeth’s knowledge of men since she was a child has been limited to the murderous, rape-happy savages who live nearby. Also, going by that interminable voiceover, at age five she single-handedly made a camp and cared for over a dozen infants (not to mention a disabled nun) by herself. I wouldn’t be easily swayed by an offer of a free frying pan either, frankly, and the other women on the island almost immediately turning against her for not giving in to these strangers’ assurances that they mean them no harm is puzzling. That the movie presents it as an improvement when Snow begins to meekly go along with everything Mike says over everything Lizbeth says is just gross.
You’ll have a lot of time to think about what sort of message the movie was trying to send, because other than that mindblowing sequence where a boat on a distant horizon casually drifts towards the heroes’ plane (seriously, the excitement level is off the ch-ch-ch-chain), very little else happens. There’s a lot of scenes of scantily clad women running through a jungle while yelling “Sister! Sister, please!” and holding spears while trying to look intimidating, but that’s about it. The only reason this movie exists is to feature terrible actresses in as little clothing as standards and practices would allow, so I suppose, in that regard, it’s a success.
Original airdate: December 1, 1979
Watch it here (in three parts)