Killer Fish (1979)
Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Similarly in the world of cinema, for every successful movie there’s always a cheap Italian cash in version, usually of inverse quality. However unlike the laws of physics, the rules governing knock off films can sometimes be wrong and occasionally you’ll get an enjoyable title. Consider Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 AKA Zombie or Antonio Margheriti’s The Last Hunter (L’ultimo cacciatore). Both are quite good movies in their own right, despite being shameless copies of Dawn of the Dead and Apocalypse Now. They both are quite lurid and try to pack as much sensationalism into their running time as possible but they also make a decent attempt at a story. The productions also have an exotic European charm to them. The cinematography, soundtracks and general ambience is subtly different from their US counterparts. Killer Fish shares all these qualities and despite lapses in logic is an enjoyable heist and caper movie with some Piranha thrown in for good measure.
Robert Lasky (Lee Majors) and Kate Neville (Karen Black) lead a team of professional thieves who break into a mine and steal a stockpile of gemstones. They cause several explosions at a nearby oil refinery to cover their tracks. They return to Paul Diller (James Franciscus), an ex-employee of the mine who provided them with inside knowledge for the heist, to determine what to do next. The group, despite some initial disagreements, agree to wait for two months before dividing up their haul. However Diller does not trust his confederates and releases Piranha’s into the lake where the stones are stashed, as an “insurance policy”. Meanwhile model Gabrielle (Margaux Hemingway) arrives at a nearby resort, along with her manager Ann (Merisa Berenson) and photographer Ollie (Roy Brocksmith). It’s not long before a tropical storm brings all parties together on a sinking tour boat. With the dam breached and the Piranhas set lose, will anyone survive and make off with the gems?
Make no mistake about it, Killer Fish is as cheesy as the plot synopsis implies. Yet the movie makes the most of its Brazilian locations and exudes late seventies kitsch. Made at the height of Lee Majors fame, Killer Fish has safari suits, macho heroics and clichéd notions regarding fashion models and professional photographers. There’s a wealth of miniature effects work and explosions as dams and power plant are flooded. Then of course there are the Piranha attacks which although initially restrained, turn more gruesome towards the movies climax. These are a mixture of real footage of the fish feeding and animatronics. There are also some brief optical process shots of the fish massing which are a little clunky, but by and large the visuals are still adequate.
As with many international co-productions, the dubbing of some of the international actors can sometime be unintentionally hilarious. However the cast overall perform well considering the material. James Franciscus carries the story as the duplicitous mastermind behind the robbery. He’s quite happy to send everyone to their death including his own girlfriend. The late Karen Black is also very watchable. The underwater photography is also worth a mention, unlike the shrill title song by Disco Diva Ami Stewart. You may wish to turn the volume down or at least secure the ornaments when she starts to belt out “The Winner takes all”.
Killer Fish lacks the wit and satire of Joe Dante’s Piranha with its clever screenplay by John Sayles. After the explosive opening sequence the movie slows down while establishing the plot and central characters. However director Anthony Dawson AKA Antonio Margheriti picks up the pace again in the final act. It also packs a lot into its one hundred minute running time with its curious crossover of genres. It has a very European sense of style with its curious camera angles and gaudy seventies excess. Yet is it very comfortable in its own skin and can be very entertaining film if you’re prepared to accept it’s ludicrous premise, sexual stereotypes, colourful aesthetic and excess of flared trousers.