Sometimes it is right there in the title with genre fare, and sometimes it isn’t; Humanoids from the Deep (1980) is pretty straightforward and delivers on its promise; one could assume Killer Fish (1979) would be about nothing more than piranha gobbling up unsuspecting swimmers. One would be wrong though, because as the old saying goes, “there aren’t nearly enough jewel heists in aquatic monster movies”. Who said that? I did, just now, because I didn’t know this particular brand of cross-pollination existed before, but I’m sure glad it does (even if it’s a lonely field).
Released by Associated Film Distribution in the States, and co-produced by star Lee Majors and his wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors’ production company at the time, Fawcett-Majors Productions (with an assist from behemoth ITC), Killer Fish was unleashed in December Stateside before spawning to the rest of the world throughout 1980. Reviews were tepid at best (Vincent Canby’s take is pretty funny and technically astute), but Piranha (1978) excluded, most fishy flicks post-Jaws were susceptible to harsh treatment from the critics. Killer Fish’s mixture of intrigue, triple-crossing, and red-stained waters offers a pleasant distraction from the same old, at the very least.
We start off with the heist, as one does; a group of folks (including Majors and Karen Black) sneak into a refinery in Brazil and set off a ton of explosives as a distraction so they can steal a ton of jewels. They make their getaway and head off to the river disguised as fishing tourists, and dump the jewels in the reservoir for a later pickup. They meet back up at the home of local industrialist James Franciscus (The Cat o’ Nine Tails), the mastermind behind the plan, and beau of Black.
The plan is to lay low for two months and then go back for the package; a couple other members of the posse aren’t too keen on the idea, so they sneak off to retrieve the jewels but find that the waters are infested with piranha and soon meet their end. Meanwhile, Majors hooks up with a supermodel (Margaux Hemingway – Lipstick) in town for a shoot, and soon doubts are cast upon him by Franciscus and Black as to his loyalty to the crew. It quickly becomes apparent that no one plans on waiting out the eight weeks for the goods, and a race begins – to beat the police, and each other. Oh yeah, and thousands of piranha that may have a say in the matter.
Surprisingly, Killer Fish’s aquatic mishmash flows together pretty well; while director Anthony M. Dawson (aka Antonio Margheriti – Cannibal Apocalypse) could have spread out the carnage over the running time instead of the last act, the dealings of the criminals are interesting enough to get you there. Well, I should say the cast he’s assembled holds your interest in between the mayhem. By this point, Black was firmly entrenched in B-land, much to her chagrin; Franciscus had been a star since the late ’50 and was now doing a lot of horror; and Majors was a uh, major TV star thanks to The Six Million Dollar Man. Hemingway was the one looking for a career away from modeling and into acting; sadly, her life was cut short by an alleged suicide in 1996. While she is the weakest link here, I applaud her efforts nevertheless. Black on the other hand thesps like she’s still shilling for Altman. (So I guess there’s a certain balance to the picture then.)
Okay, so corralling strong performances may not be Dawson’s strong suit (although Franciscus and Majors are pretty good), but he’s good with action; the last act of the film takes place almost entirely on the water as the group (and some further fish fodder) try to stay afloat long enough to make it to shore without being eaten, never mind recapturing their ill-gotten gains. The film isn’t really too gory; some splashin’ and thrashin’, followed by pools of crimson and then on to the next victim. Still effective though, especially for those with an irrational fear of the water (hey me!).
This is precisely the kind of flick I saw as a youth when I lived abroad in the Caribbean; our theater was like a sunny grindhouse that showed everything from Kung Fu to Horror to Action, which I guess this would fall under; it is certainly of a piece for the time, where the pace was more deliberate and the stakes perhaps not so high. Killer Fish is so laid back yet engaging that by the end (after much people munching and triple crosses) I was saddened that the second bruised and hissing print wasn’t loading in the projector room above me. I mean, I was in my living room; I guess nowadays you have to come up with your own double feature. If you can find more ‘70s aquatic horror heist films, bring them over. Lee and I will be waiting.
Killer Fish is available on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: CELLAR DWELLER (1988)