You necessarily go into a movie like Killer Fish with a certain set of clear, easy-to-define expectations. First, there needs to be some killer fish. Second, there needs to be lots of killer fish. Third, said killer fish need to appear early and often, and their vicious, bloody attacks need to be suitably graphic and horrifying. Fourth, the victims of the killer fish need to, on some level, have it coming to them, but not to such a degree that they’re just campy Hollywood villains winking at the camera even as they’re being disemboweled. Fifth and finally, vintage actors from the ‘70s and ‘80s, well past their prime and in obvious need of a paycheck, are much appreciated.
Sadly, 1979’s newly re-released Killer Fish succeeds in meeting only one of these five simple criteria, and it’s the least important one. A product of its time, the movie boasts not just one but three noteworthy actors from the era: James Franciscus, known fondly to my pre-teen self as the guy from Beneath the Planet of the Apes; Karen Black, who apparently hit some hard times after scoring huge roles in Five Easy Pieces and Robert Altman’s Nashville; and in the starring role, Lee Majors, aka The Six Million Dollar Man, hero to me and many another adolescent lad back in the era of Jimmy Carter and the late Cold War.
Sadly, all this high-octane acting power does nothing to enhance a movie that is, after all, supposed to center on cold-blooded murderous sea creatures, but actually does little more than showcase the range of Lee Major’s facial expressions. Majors, who wowed preteen boys the world over by being the first bionic man and the guy who married Farrah Fawcett (hey – maybe the first led to the second, somehow) was apparently a graduate of the Joey Tribbiani School of Acting. His default expression is a furrowed-brow look of intensity/confusion/mild dyspepsia that he calls upon altogether too often, regardless of the situation. Franciscus strolls around in a bathrobe, looking suitably evil (that neatly trimmed beard doesn’t help) while Black is altogether wasted as vague love interest/femme fatale/faintly interested bystander.
Okay, so the plot. Majors et al are jewel thieves who pull off a major heist in the opening scenes of the movie, complete with big explosions and suitably acrobatic feats of derring-do. The thieves, who are in Brazil for no apparent reason (besides, y’know, killer fish), hide their misbegotten gains in the local river, with plans to retrieve them later, once the heat has cooled. So far, so typical, except that we’re a good 40 minutes into the movie and there’s no sign of anything remotely resembling killer fish.
That starts to change when the inevitable double-crosses kick in, and their gang begins to implode in a welter of back-stabbing, accusations and paranoia. Sadly, none of this includes fish, killer or otherwise. Valuable screen time that could be spent on vicious underwater attacks is instead wasted on going-nowhere-fast romance and lame “comic” relief, of the sort that involves oversized, effeminate men who work as fashion photographers. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
When the promised attacks finally do arrive, they’re laughable in their amateurishness, with the camera staying above the water for the most part while the actors wave their arms and scream with abandon. You can practically see them taking big gulps of air and steeling themselves for their underwater plunge – it’s the same “Help me! I’m being eaten alive!” game that we all used to play as kids in the pool, or the lake, or wherever. It’s kind of a fun game… when you’re ten. Later on there is a bit more fish-on-mammal action, but by then it’s unlikely that anyone will be awake enough to care.
The inexplicable Blu-ray re-issue of this bit of nothing includes an interview with co-star Frank Pesce (whose name, ironically, comes from the Latin for “fish”). Pesce waxes enthusiastic about the movie, which is nice for him. Meanwhile, anxious readers of this review will be happy to learn that everything works out in the end. This means you can go back in the water. Better still, it means you don’t have to spend 100 precious minutes of your life watching Killer Fish.