Aquatic beasties that like to chow down on unwary humans venturing into their domain? I bloody love them! It doesn’t matter if it’s the complete silliness of Piranha (read our Retro Review of that here!) or the sheer pissing of excellence that is Jaws, I can’t get enough. It is also a weird genre in which all of the normal rules around quality seemingly go out of the window. At the bottom end of the quality scale, the more awful they are somehow that can also make them better. As is the case with today’s Retro Review: Killer Fish.
I owe a shout-out to one of our Outposters here, Wrenage. He mentioned this movie during his own Retro Review of One Of My Wives Is Missing and it inspired me to write it up.
I love this movie. It’s not great, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is very special to me. I think Killer Fish was the first properly “scary” movie I was ever allowed to watch at the age of about 5 years old when it came on TV and we had just got a VCR, so my older brother recorded it. It stuck in my mind.
Years later I sought it out and found it online. It was every bit as awesome as my memories of being young told me it was. I mean, it’s not good. Objectively it is kind of awful. But that doesn’t stop it from being awesome! See… there is that weird effect from the bottom end of the aquatic beasties movie scale kicking in again!
Killer Fish is an Italian-French-Brazilian horror film directed by Antonio Margheriti. Take a moment to bask in the sheer magnificence of that combination. The Italians for the ridiculous exploitative nature of the movie, the Brazilians for the scenery and the tax breaks, and the French hopefully for the on-set catering and infidelity consultants.
You might know the name Antonio Margheriti? Not only did he invent vanilla pizza (not true) but he is also known under the pseudonyms Anthony M. Dawson and Antony Daisies as a directing gun for hire who spans everything the Italian movie industry ever ripped off – from horror/Giallo to Spaghetti Western to cheap Vietnam War approximations. He is also the man behind Cannibal Apocalypse.
So what is it about, other than Killer Fish? Well, allow me to explain…
It starts with a gang of thieves under the command of mastermind Paul Diller (James Franciscus) breaking into a Brazilian emerald mine and making off with the contents of the vault. They narrowly escape with the priceless haul while Diller himself plays backgammon at the casino of a nearby hotel and resort to provide himself an alibi. Diller used to work at the mine until ill health forced his retirement.
The jewels are locked in a box and dumped in a small reservoir at the other end of the lake to the hotel and an agreement is made between thieves. They will wait 60 days for the heat to be off before the retrieval. They hang out at the hotel to pass the time in luxury as a fashion photographer, a model, and their retinue arrive for a fashion shoot in and around the lake.
Two brothers among the thieves decide they want the loot for themselves. As one brother jumps into the reservoir, the water explodes into life and he is dragged underneath, screaming.
It turns out Diller was expecting a double-cross, and over a year ago stocked the reservoir with breeding pairs of his pet piranha. The reservoir is now teaming with razor-teethed security guards.
As the thieves cross and double-cross each other to try and retrieve the loot, storm clouds are gathering across the lake…
The Power Of The Squint
The first thing to say about this movie is the cast. It is a veritable powerhouse of TV movie-level actors and B-Movie superstars. The lead is none other than the Unknown Stuntman himself, Lee Majors. He plays the leader of the thief’s crew Lasky. He has a superpower.
Alongside being the only man able to rock a pair of skintight bell-bottoms so tight you can tell what religion he is, with a sweater tied around his neck, in this movie and not appear like a massive fruit, he can squint. And how!
He squints his way through his performance putting more emotion into a single squint than Jake Lloyd put into every single line reading in The Phantom Menace. Confused – a quizzical sprint, angry – a focussed squint, surprised – an incredulous squint. The man delivers a squint acting masterclass.
I am not the only one who noticed. Vincent Canby of The New York Times stated that the film:
“…may not be a good movie — it’s really inept—but it’s friendly, like Mr. Majors’s quizzical squint, which is, I’m told by people who watch more television than I do, what Mr. Majors does best. Everyone, in fact, carries on gamely, as people do at a picnic when it rains.”
Easy now Vince. You are criticizing a munchy, wet legend of a movie here!
What does Lasky spend most of his time squinting at? Margaux Hemingway as Gabrielle, the model with the fashion crew. Margaux Hemingway is sadly no longer with us after a drug overdose in her 40s. Given the state of her pupils and her line delivery in this movie, it is entirely possible she was already acquainted with some of South America’s other exports.
However she is game, and she throws herself into the role. She is also stunningly beautiful, somehow overcoming the fact that her face doesn’t actually fit together properly.
Also stunningly beautiful is Karen Black (Airport ’75, Trilogy Of Terror) who plays Kate Neville, mastermind Diller’s lover and a character who, as far as I can tell from the movie, does not own a single bra. And it’s magnificent! She acts as the conscience of the band of thieves which also includes NFL star Dan Pastorini along with Frank Pesce and Charles Gaudino… or at least to begin with, until they start to try and retrieve the gems from the reservoir.
Bitey fish enthusiast and heist mastermind Paul Diller is played by B-Movie tour de force, King of the TV movie, James Franciscus. He must have liked this so much as he went straight on to star in director Enzo G. Castellari’s Jaws-inspired Great White (aka The Last Shark).
Providing an excellent support is the one and only, the great, Roy Brocksmith (Total Recall) as Ollie, the photographer on the fashion shoot who delivers a performance so flamingly camp that if it happened today there would be a Twitter campaign about it. He’s also a great big fat guy. A huge guy, made of delicious meat… in a movie about man-eating fish? Well, I wonder what will happen? Gasp!
He is backed up by Marisa Berenson who appears to have wandered in straight off the set of Barry Lyndon and is somewhat confused as to what the hell is going on.
Picked Clean To The Bone
The movie was made entirely on location in the city of Angra dos Reis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The scenery is superb and it’s clear the cast was basically along for a paid holiday and advantageous tax rates.
Things really kick-off due to an unconvincing tornado special effect causing a degree of excitement among some of the most model-looking miniatures ever to grace the screen. Add to this the health and safety nightmare that is lamps that explode on contact with water, inexplicably kept on a boat, and the stage is set for a conclusion that certainly concludes matters. That is about all I can honestly say about it.
This movie is so awesome, yet awful at the same time, that it featured in Season 12 of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet. See, I told you it was legendary!
Another part of the legend is the cuts demanded by producer Sir Lew Grade. Apparently unaware that he had hired an Italian as director he was apparently shocked by the sheer level of gore on display and ordered the movie seriously toned down and re-cut. The result is a strangely bloodless affair.
You can see glimpses of the original in one character’s death when you get to see a ribcage being picked clean, with piranha gnawing on fingers and wriggling past bones with what looks like intestines floating about.
Some of the kills are fun, too, like when the complete misuse of a harpoon gun results in a two-for-one meal deal for the aquatic security. In that great Italian rip-off way, it was even marketed in some territories as Piranha II, hoping to cash on on Joe Dante’s movie that came out a few months earlier.
Look, I am not going to lie to you. Killer Fish is a two-star movie all day long, but it’s a four-star movie to me dammit! So we split the difference and go for three, yeah?
Because we love you, our Outposters, so much here at Last Movie Outpost we will give you the entire movie and you can judge for yourselves below.
Right, I can’t hang around here all day. I have to go and watch Piranha II: The Spawning.