The long shadow of Jaws was a major influence on the exploitation market in the immediate years that followed the Spielberg film. Grizzly, Piranha and of course Jaws 2, 3 and so on. As a matter of fact, Jaws still continues to be an influence on the man vs. nature plots that populate films to this day. Here it’s once again what lurks under the surface of the waters in and around Rio de Janeiro mixed with a heist, double crosses and The Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors.
Just as interesting as anything that happens throughout the running time of this hybrid heist/horror film are the names associated with it in the opening credits. Sir Lew Grade, Carlo Ponti and his son Alex Ponti are all listed in the producers roles and watch closely and you can spot the title card for A Fawcett-Majors Production as well. Do I need to remind you that Mr. Majors was at one time married to Farrah Fawcett? For fans of the exploitation market, I’m quite sure you’ll know the director by name and perhaps even the real one behind his North American alias. It’s none other than Anthony M. Dawson or if you prefer, Antonio Margheriti whom Brad Pitt did his best to imitate in name only during his meeting with Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds.
The film itself begins with a heist led by Majors and leading lady, Karen Black. Setting off a string of explosions done miniature style at a train yard, a team of four clad in black thieves make off with a fortune in gemstones. Part of the plans is to toss the gems into a coastline lagoon with an underwater marker and return in 60 days once the heat has died down and the police have given up their search for the thieves. We’re to soon learn that Miss Black is married to James Franciscus who planned the heist and is really an inside man with the firm that had the gems. When the third, fourth and fifth lesser known actors in the gang get greedy and dive for the gems ahead of schedule, they are to learn the hard way that deadly Piranha swim just below the surface.
Flying into the area are a group of models for a photo shoot. This allows the script to introduce a leading lady and love interest for our actor/producer Majors. It’s Margaux Hemingway looking for a leading man and hopefully an acting coach. (Sorry Margaux but I couldn’t help myself)
Back to the finer points of the twisting plot. It seems Franciscus is responsible for the Piranha multiplying and being released into the areas waters and he will quickly have a falling out with estranged partner Majors. James and wife Karen will make their play for the stones only to find themselves in the middle of a cyclone and seeking shelter onboard a sailing boat with the troop of models and Majors. When the boat is left stranded off shore in the storm and sinking, tempers are sure to flare and the fish will find themselves in a feeding frenzy.
Thankfully American TV host, Gary Collins is in the area and willing to crash land his plane in an attempt to help the gang of intended fish food find a way safely to shore. This includes actor Roy Brocksmith who has a very Sydney Greenstreet styled physique and you just know going in that he’s sure to find his way into the water before the final reel unspools itself.
I vaguely recall this film playing on Network Television here in Canada sometime around 1980 but not getting a chance to see the entire film though I do recall a couple of sequences near the end. It’s recent appearance in the blu ray market thanks to Scorpion Releasing has allowed me to finally catch up to it and see it for the first time. Due to James Franciscus’ appearance in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, I’ve always been a fan so for that reason alone, I’m glad it’s now available.
Should you pick up a copy, be sure to listen to a very entertaining 50 minute interview where actor Frank Pesce who plays one of the gang members sits down with director William (Maniac Cop) Lustig and recalls plenty of comical stories from his career and his involvement with this production. Stories of his standing in for the likes of Sinatra and Roy Scheider and aping Jack Palance getting angry on the set of One Man Jury. Hanging with pal Joe Spinell on the Rocky shoot and winding up on the cutting room floor after filming his bit role in the now classic film. These are just a few of the funny tales he relates so give it a look.
Karen Black had worked with director Margheriti just the year prior to this one in another heist film titled The Squeeze and Franciscus would go on to star in a film so identical to Jaws that it was actually pulled from theaters after Universal Studios sued over Enzo G. Castellari’s Great White.
I’ve seen many a bad review on this film but you won’t get one from me. It’s a cheesy production with a bad case of miniature work and plenty of well known actors slumming for a few dollars. What’s the harm in that coupled with the threat of hungry Piranha subbing for Robert Shaw’s worst nightmare coming to claim him years after his sliding into the water from the bow of the Indianapolis.
Give Killer Fish a look and let me know if you enjoy wallowing in the exploitation market as much as I do.