Dead Man's Island is a 1996 TV movie starring Barbara Eden (of I Dream Of Jeanie fame) and William Shatner. Also along for the ride are a host of relatively well-known faces including Roddy McDowell (Cornelius in the Planet of the Apes film series) and Don Most (Ralph Malph in Happy Days). The TV movie is an adaptation by (Columbo writer) Peter S. Fischer of an eponymous book by mystery writer Carolyn Hart.
Henrietta O'Dwyer Collins (Barbara Eden), known simply as "Henrie O.", is a renowned investigative journalist turned biographer. She is summoned to a mysterious island, home to the reclusive millionaire Chase Prescott (William Shatner).
But even before she arrives, a local Native American Indian warns that "Dead Man's Island" is cursed - all who go there are in great danger.
Chase is the head of a huge communications empire. Henrie O. is a former lover of his and tensions remain between the two - but he has set that aside to ask for her help. Someone, he says, is trying to kill him.
Recently, he claims he discovered some of his food was laced with cyanide. One of the small group of people living with him on the island must be the culprit.
Henrie O., pretending to research a new biography of Chase sets about trying to figure out who the guilty party might be. No-one on the island appears to have any nice worlds to say about Chase.
Not long after, and now in Henrie O.'s presence, someone apparently tries to take a shot at the businessman.
After the shots are fired, the investigation takes on a far less covert nature.
A slew of characters, in typical Agatha Christie-like fashion...
...are stuck on the island, from the butler and maid, to a young son and stepson of Chase's, to an actress promised a role by Shatner's character (Valerie St. Vincent, played by Morgan Fairchild), to a young lover, to various employees of the company. All are potential suspects.
Chase's luxury yacht then explodes...
...with accusations flying even more fervently about who the culprit may be.
[Minor SPOILER warning for this paragraph] Not long after, Chase is electrocuted while swimming. The would-be murderer has evidently succeeded.
Henrie O. interviews everyone on the island learning of inheritances, business dealings and all manner of potentially suspicious affairs.
Meanwhile, a storm is gathering and with the yacht destroyed, there's no way for anyone to leave. And that's where we'll leave it.
So what to make of all this? Having previously seen a rather tacky-looking [minor SPOILER warning for link and below image] "death scene" clip of Dead Man's Island up on YouTube, we, quite frankly, expected this movie to be an amateurish disaster, barely acceptable production values and all the rest of it.
But we found the sample to be mis-representative. Dead Man's Island was indeed a properly-budgeted professional production, shot on 35mm film (not video), properly lit, with decent camera-work, sound and all other technical matters up to standard.
Is the director subtly using the toupee in the shot to suggest that beneath the surface, all is not as it seems?
The writing is OK (not great, but not too bad either). It's a standard whodunit with a twist or two - nothing amazing, but passable. The acting, from a varied ensemble, is pretty good with the most credit undoubtedly due to star Barbara Eden. Her disarming, warm and eminently lovely Southern charm radiates through this entire production; it really is impossible not to like this woman - and that is worth an entire review point in our view!
Bill Shatner gives a decent enough performance, and the entire film flows along in reasonably entertaining fashion.
But...something happened in post-production! Something that someone (probably a network "suit") evidently thought was a good idea. It wasn't. It was a disastrously ill-conceived act of poor judgment: the addition of a relentless, annoying, redundant and counter-dramatic voice-over by Henrie. O. at every possible opportunity from the beginning to the end of the movie.
The most inane voice-over ever recorded.
There's no way something like this could have been in the script. The telegraphing of each and every event and motivation that the director is supposed to visualize rendered utterly meaningless by having it said rather than (or usually as well as) shown to the audience via the oldest cheat in the book. After a while, the viewer can't help but feel both patronized and numbed. Almost nothing is revealed in these voice-overs that is of any consequence (one paraphrased example: Chase seemed angry - Deanna Troi would be proud!). Thus, without them, Dead Man's Island might actually be a half-decent film. With them, unfortunately, the same cannot be said.
Add to that a pretty awful, cheap-sounding synthesizer music score, and post-production, which is meant to improve filmed material, has actually ended up almost destroying it. A shame.
Let's move swiftly to the hair...
Bill Shatner is wearing a typical-for-the-time "TJ Curly"; by 1996, this particular style was slowly ebbing towards the end of an era. Yet, Bill Shatner's hair arguably looks very slightly better here than it did in 1994's Star Trek: Generations.
Perhaps this is because Bill Shatner looks in better shape in Dead Man's Island than he looked in Generations. The correlation between weight and toupee believability is something we'll look into in a more detailed post in the future...
Dead Man's Island is indeed replete with moments of toupological note. Interestingly, they are usually bunched up together:
In the above segment, we have a head scratch...
We also have a slightly misshapen toup, unusually rectangular on top, with the hairline also not quite right...
And we also have Bill Shatner's character revealing his suspicions about Henrie O.'s son: "He' got my eyes; my coloring..." Wouldn't the normal thing to say be: "...my eyes, my hair"? The "my eyes" surely makes the "my coloring" part redundant if the character is talking about eye, not hair color. We're not sure what to make of this, but in the clip, after he has said "my coloring", Bill Shatner drops his eyes, as if to suggest the original "my hair" line might have been changed - no-one has Bill Shatner's hair!
My eyes, my coloring...
There are also considerable underwater antics in the movie, with Bill Shatner setting out to top his previous toupological underwater special-effects extravaganza from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (see above link in this paragraph).
In the above scene, Bill Shatner dives, head first towards the camera:
His toupee, Jaws-like, moving closer and closer...
And the actor's toupological confidence doesn't end there. He does some laps too:
We also get to see Bill Shatner's toupee wet outside of the water:
And we even get to see something rather unusual - the actor's hair in a semi-wet, slowly drying state, with harsh hairlines reappearing:
Was the strange swimming costume a distraction from the toupee, or was it deliberately combined with the toupee for an increased "wow" factor?
Dead Man's Island, though replete with poor choices, is still pretty far from a complete disaster. Worth watching? On the whole, we'd say yes.
Unfortunately, Dead Man's Island is not available to buy commercially, though it probably airs from time to time on CBS-affiliated networks in the US. Other than that, it can be found online [note: we did some rather severe hiss reduction on a heavily sound-degraded home video copy we obtained for this review, lest the material would have been almost inaudible. Despite our best efforts, some residual electrical hum remains in the above clips].