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Frankenfish (2004)

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Starring Tony Kittles, China Chow, Tomas Arana, and Muse Watson

Directed by Mark Dippe


Remember a few short years ago when the news was rife with tales of carnivorous, Asian Snakehead fish turning up in some lakes in Maryland? I think the media feeding frenzy was more voracious than the actual fish in question. As I recall, the media made it out like the beginnings of an ecological cataclysm culminating in these ravenous fish that could also move around on land and breathe out of water for lengthy periods of time overtaking the American waterways and destroying outdoor life as we know it. Perhaps I’m remembering things with a bit more hyperbole than there actually was, but I do seem to recall the past few years featuring brief periods of media saturation proclaiming the apocalypse involving the dreaded return of Africanized killer bees, West Nile Virus, SARS, shark attacks, and, yes, Snakehead fish. Despite being a rather nasty nuisance for some, the Snakehead fish failed in their attempt to destroy the balance of nature in North American leaving the media to move on to the next panic button they could push.

Naturally, b-movie filmmakers soon found use of these semi-amphibious carnivores, even if it did take them a few years to get around to it. Earlier this year, the Sci-Fi Channel debuted an original movie called Snakehead Terror, which featured Bruce Boxleitner, Carol Alt, and some of the stupidest teenagers this side of a slasher movie waging mortal combat with chemically-enlarged Snakeheads in a small town lake. While certainly better made than your typical Sci-Fi Channel original movie, Snakehead Terror was still a lackluster production that just left you feeling unsatisfied. Now here we are about six months later and Sci-Fi Channel is again reeling in a movie about mutated, man-eating Snakeheads only this time the movie is actually entertaining. I know. I’m just as shocked. A Sci-Fi Channel Saturday night premiere movie that is actually more good than bad? It almost boggles the mind. I can only guess that the reason for the quality is that the movie wasn’t actually made specifically for the Sci-Fi Channel, but is a Sony/Tri-Star flick that is premiering on the channel this weekend, a few short weeks before it’s October 26th video/DVD release. I suggest you wait for the uncut version, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The makers of Frankenfish, the title being derived from an outlandish nickname that’s been attributed to the Snakehead breed, made a smart move by not just making another Jaws wannabe. Well, to be honest, for about the first 35 minutes, that’s exactly what Frankenfish is. For the most part though, Frankenfish is Tremors on the bayou with big, smart, genetically engineered man-eating Snakehead fish in place of the Graboids and with people trapped on backwater houseboats instead of creaky homes out in the desert. With a bit more budget and one more rewrite, it could have been just as entertaining as Tremors, too. It doesn’t quite succeed to that degree; but as far as low budget, made-for-video monster movies that are forced to premiere on a channel that seems hell bent on giving its namesake as bad a reputation as humanly possible, this one is surprisingly fun.

Something is in the bayous of an unnamed Deep South state killing people. You got your two stock characters sent out into the backwaters of the swamp to investigate and soon come to learn the horrible truth. Along the way they meet up with some of the local denizens that have formed their own little houseboat community out in the bayou. You got the swamp rat, the crazy veteran, the hippie couple, the voodoo queen, her hottie daughter, and the hottie daughter’s whiny WASP boyfriend. There seems to be a cinematic rule that if the main characters are predominately white then there must be an annoying comedic ethnic character and if the stars are of a minority than the comic relief comes in the form of a stupid, annoying, white character, as is the case here. Fortunately, he serves his purpose here without being overly grating on the nerves. Suffice it to say, they all end up in the same boat fighting to survive as the methodical Snakeheads go after them on land and water, and ultimately try to sink the houseboats out from under them. And, of course, neither their cellular phones nor their radios work making it impossible for them to call for help. As you can see, the premise is rather formulaic.

So what is it that makes Frankenfish entertaining despite relying on a lot of cliches and one-dimensional characters? For me, I just liked the Snakeheads and the way they went after their victims. For one thing, they didn’t just use cheap CGI, as everyone else seems to do these days. Yeah, there are numerous scenes of CGI Snakeheads, but most of those scenes are brief or are seen in quick blurs of fast action. The filmmakers wisely made the decision to mix the CGI with animatronics, making the illusion of these huge Snakeheads more believable by being more tangible than just a computer effect. I don’t know about you but I’ve had it with 100% CGI movie monsters that look like escapees from a Playstation 2 video game. The Snakehead effects may not be as realistic looking as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but at least when they appear on-screen they won’t appear so fake looking that you’re inclined to roll your eyes or begin groaning.

Frankenfish was directed by Mark Dippe, a computer effects wiz whose previous directorial credit was the catastrophic failure Spawn. While Frankenfish doesn’t make up for the abomination that was Spawn, it’s at least a good will gesture and his technical prowess really seems to have come in handy. Frankenfish just looks like it could have been a theatrical production. It has the look of a big screen movie and not that of your typical made-for-television/video production. Heck, it probably could have gotten a theatrical release and done decent business. It’s a hell of a lot better than Anacondas, that’s for certain. Better F/X too.

This isn’t to say that the film is a complete success. Cliches are still abound, characters are mostly one-dimensional albeit likeable, and it still takes about a half-hour before the movie really kicks into gear. The biggest problem I had with the movie was the explanation behind the enormous Snakeheads and how they got into this Southern bayou. It’s one of the worst explanations I’ve ever heard in a b-movie. It’s so moronic that I almost wonder why they even bothered to offer one. Perhaps with a bit more follow-up it could have been somewhat palpable, but when you hear it you’re probably going to be appalled by the lameness. Even worse, this explanation leads to the introduction of a couple new characters that figure prominently in the third act, which is based around several people trying to capture alive a 25-foot killer Snakehead with a tranquilizer gun and their bare hands. I don’t think so. Also, if you’ve just witnessed a person getting devoured by something in the water, I don’t think you’d go back to tell their loved ones and stick around to have a casual dinner with them before notifying the proper authorities that there’s something big and hungry on the loose.

Still, I was surprisingly entertained by a movie that I went into with very low expectations. It is what it is and it’s better at being it than most of the recent offerings similar to it.

But like I said earlier, I really would avoid tuning in to watch Frankenfish on the Sci-Fi Channel. Aside from the prerequisite of 35 minutes or so of commercial breaks constantly interrupting the film, I suspect they are going to hack this movie to pieces. You got heads being bitten off, people being bitten in half, faces being blown off, and my personal favorite, let’s just say people and airboat fans don’t mix. There’s a lot of red viscous on display here and I have a hard time believing much of it will get past the channel’s censors. I’m not much of a gorehound myself but I do admit that there are movies where blood and guts can help matters and this is one of those movies. So many of the recent slate of killer animal movies have been so tame in that department that seeing some of the gore is actually refreshing, assuming one could describe a body exploding in an airboat fan using the word refreshing.

And any movie where a crazy Vietnam vet kills a huge Snakehead fish, immediately cuts out its heart and grills it, and then proceeds to eat it with his bare hands in front of everyone else as a form of primal vengeance scores points in my book.

3 ½ out of 5

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THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH Review: Friedkin Goes Mondo Catholic

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Starring Father Gabriele Amorth

Directed by William Friedkin


Hitting theaters this weekend in NYC and LA is William Friedkin’s new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. And right away I am asked: “Is it ‘good’?” You don’t watch a documentary like this with that in mind. Faces of Death, Traces of Death, Mondo Cane. They are not here to be “good”—they are beyond words like that. Beyond good and bad.

It is more like the sideshow—Behold! See what has not been seen before! The Horror! The Forbidden! And you hand the man your ticket — you see The Arabian Giantess at the flea market in New Jersey, and maybe it is a sleight of hand and made of papier-mâché, but it was worth that dollar, and now you have a story. You have bought your way into the unknown.

The Devil and Father Amorth is light on science (and length – it runs just 68 minutes) and heavy on faith. If you have been exposed to Friedkin’s — or more specifically, William Peter Blatty’s — work, there is the struggle with belief in the Roman Catholic faith, and also in the search for evidence of the miracle. You could also prove the Force of Divine Good if you could face the opposite side of the coin—the Force of Evil, in the vernacular of Catholicism—the Devil himself. Paradoxical, yes—faith exists without proof; and so what is the drive to tell the world God exists, the Devil exists?

In the documentary we learn Rome is filled with the possessed. Hundreds of people are contacting the Church about their own possession or the possession of their loved ones. The Most Holy Father Amorth is the person the Vatican has tapped to perform exorcisms—thousands of them. And sometimes he has repeat business. Christina is one such woman, exorcised nine times and still susceptible to the Force of Evil. Those of us who are non-believers look at this woman as someone who is troubled—but “through the eyes of faith,” obviously it is a demon.

Surrounded by her family, the rite begins, and you see… an actual exorcism. There is no enhancement, no Dick Smith make-up; it is not as dramatic as we want it to be. Should we get her help that is not in the form of a witch doctor? What about doctors? And so we meet them.

Friedkin brings the footage to top hospitals in NYC. Psychologists give their point of view. Then neurosurgeons. They don’t know what’s going on—the exorcism seems to help, but they do see that it might be a cultural remnant. There is a medical diagnosis for it, as it can affect anyone of any faith. But the doc never digs too deep. I am disappointed: I needed to know more. I don’t believe it.

Are they hurting Christina? Is she just another female the Church is suppressing, as they did with witches—the control, the stigma, of the female body and identity? None of this is explored because it’s just a 1-dollar ticket under the striped tent, just left of the dancing girls and the strong man—Actual! Exorcist! Footage! Hurry up and see!

As Friedkin mentioned himself, when someone asks you to film an exorcism, you say yes. So see it for the freak show. Expect nothing else. And either you believe or you don’t, based on how you were raised — mythology, religion, or superstition.

  • The Devil and Father Amorth
2.0

Summary

See it for the freak show. Expect nothing else.

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Tribeca 2018: The Dark Review – Atmospheric Zombie Horror Done Different

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Starring Nadia Alexander, Toby Nichols

Written by Justin P. Lange

Directed by Justin P. Lange


The zombie subgenre often goes through waves where it focuses on one aspect that changes the status quo before overdoing it completely. Romero’s slow shuffling zombies were the norm until we got fast moving zombies with Return of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. There was even a period where we had smarter zombies, like in Fido and Warm Bodies. Now it seems like we’re about to enter an era where the undead are meant to elicit emotion, making us feel for those who have no feelings themselves. Such is the case with Justin P. Lange’s The Dark.

The film follows Mina (Alexander), a young woman who was murdered and stalks the forest that saw her demise. Anytime some unfortunate soul enters her area, they are quickly dispatched and become her feast. But when she stumbles across a young boy named Alex (Nichols) in the back of a car who shows signs of clear and horrifying abuse, she can’t bring herself to do away with him. Rather, she becomes his protector while trying to protect her own little world. As police and locals search for Alex to help bring him home, their own growing relationship seems to be changing Mina in ways she never thought possible.

Stylishly shot by cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl (The Eremites, Macondo), The Dark lives and breathes along with the forest in which it spends the majority of its time. The film feels very natural, as though no artificial lighting was used and we are brought into the world in which these characters live. Steel blue washes over the screen as dusk turns into night while light and dark contrast during the day. The only visuals that didn’t play well were Mina’s undead look and Alex’s scarred eyes, which were both distracting but possible to be overlooked.

Both Alexander and Nichols performed well enough, although the film spent too much time on the first two acts of their story, their combative phase and then the period where they build trust, leaving them scrambling at the end to show that they not only trust but are reliant upon each other. Alex finds trust in Mina after his horrific ordeal while Mina’s choice to protect and guide him sees her humanity slowly coming back.

Where the film goes awry is that it doesn’t know how to convey its message. We learn that Mina’s death was the result of a sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend, who can barely look Mina in the eyes, turns violent. Alex’s captor is also a man of violence but that’s mixed with weakness and timidity. This is a theme throughout the movie, where the adults are wicked and/or self-serving and it’s only these teenagers, who certainly have endured a fair share of suffering, can be seen as worthy of empathy and understanding.

Also present and enough to stay in the back of my mind while watching The Dark were the strange and inconsistent ways it handled time. We learn that Mina’s death was several years, possibly more than a decade, prior to where we see her now. But when presented with an iPhone, she first doesn’t know that it has a history of previously made calls and then, without anyone explaining it, she knows exactly how to use it. Meanwhile, Alex’s scars on his eyes, which the movie hints were done by his kidnapper, suggest that he’s been held captive for months if not longer but the the opening of the movie suggests that it’s been a few weeks, at most. While not overly distracting, these are certainly issues that pop out.

These faults aside, The Dark is still effective and emotionally charged. With enough kills to satisfy the bloodthirsty, it will certainly have an audience who love films about the undead but are craving something with a different taste.

  • The Dark
3.0

Summary

Poignant and original, The Dark is not without its flaws. But it sure does know that horror doesn’t have to be solely of the flesh. It can just as easily be horror of the heart.

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Sinfonia Erotica Blu-ray Review – Jess Franco Meets The Marquis De Sade In This Romanticized Roughie

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Starring Lina Romay, Armando Borges, Aida Gouveia, Mel Rodrigo

Directed by Jesus Franco

Distributed by Severin Films


After going my whole life without ever seeing a Jess Franco film, Severin Films is slowly forcing me to appreciate the man’s work. Previously, I had only ever seen Franco’s gargantuan output as an exercise in quantity over quality, which it arguably still is, but viewing the two recent “lost” pictures Severin just released has brought about a new appraisal. Franco’s films may have been done on the cheap, but the man clearly had vision, ambition, and brought as much production value to his films as budgetarily possible. He also brought controversy and damnation, since many of his works seem heavily focused on nudity and all manner of depravity. Even by today’s standard, when you can see virtually anything sexual on the internet, Franco’s level of lasciviousness is mildly shocking, if only because certain acts are typically verboten on the silver screen.

Sinfonia Erotica (1980) plays like it was trying to keep up with Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979), only swap out Roman decadence for the posh trappings of a chateau in the French countryside. Franco remakes his own 1973 film Pleasure for Three here, though without having seen that picture I can’t say what he’s done differently. The storyline comes from the writings of the Marquis de Sade, whose writings were infamously erotic and dripping with all manner of sin. Franco brings as much of the page to screen as possible, leaving little to suggestion. Homosexuality, a “Devil’s threeway”, oral sex between all parties, rape, manual stimulation… all graphically presented in a way that is between Skinemax and actual pornography. But is there anything more to this threadbare feature than a storyline skeleton on which everyone can hang their clothes before getting down?

Kinda. The general plot here is the return of Miss Martine (Lina Romay) to the palatial estate she shared with her husband, Marques Armando de Bressac (Armando Borges), a notorious hedonist. Upon arrival, Martine is not greeted by her husband because he’s off gallivanting with Flor (Mel Rodrigo), his younger male lover. During one of their trysts in the fields they come across Wanda (Aida Gouveia), an unconscious nun who is about to be rudely introduced to some bad habits. After Marques and Flor molest the barely coherent woman, she develops a craving for their brand of unorthodox lust. Martine, meanwhile, is struggling not only with the fact her husband is essentially ignoring her after returning from a lengthy absence but that he now plans to enlist Flor and Wanda to help kill her. Of course, none of these machinations or revelations will stop any of these pleasure seekers from continuing to drown in the Devil’s work and writhe in passion.

While I can’t say this is a good movie, I do give Franco credit in a few areas. For one, I find it commendable that he’s chosen to redo an earlier film of his in the hope of making something grander. It shows maturity as an artist as well as a refusal to allow a perceived past failure to remain stagnant. Secondly, his location scouting ability is really something because one constant I have noticed across the three Franco films I’ve seen thus far is the man loves to shoot at places that seem like they’d be out of his budget range. The mansion and its impressive grounds are the ideal setting for this posh perversion picture, allowing Sinfonia Erotica to feel less like the Eurosleaze it is. Likewise, costuming and production design are a notch above what viewers might expect from such a ribald title.

In terms of horror, aside from watching two men rape an incoherent nun the only murder comes during the climax. The deaths are quick and simple, with no lingering shots or impressive effects work. Violence is wholly secondary to sex here.

The real coup here is that Severin Films is able to present this film in HD at all, sourcing their release from a newly unearthed 35mm exhibition print found in a crawlspace in Spain. Although scanned in a 4K the disc opens with a disclaimer discussing the provenance of available materials and suggesting viewers cut a little slack when watching something that might not have otherwise seen the light of day. That said the 1.66:1 1080p image isn’t awful by any means. Soft shots are frequent, film grain is often heavy and sometimes clumpy, and colors are lacking punch. Still, given what Severin was working with the picture does look reasonably cleaned up, though white flecks and damage are still visible, and the overall image is acceptably presented. Plus, like I’ve said many times before some films just look better when they stay rough around the edges and this is definitely one such example.

No dub is available, leaving the only audio option as a Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. This is a simple track with minimal sound design. Dialogue is understandable enough, though for most viewers this won’t matter since the subs are doing all the work. There is some hissing but it remains a minor issue. The score, composed by Franco, has a classical romantic feel, heavy on the piano and adding an air of regality to the proceedings. Subtitles are available in English.

“Jess Franco on First Wife Nicole Guettard” is an interview with the director in his later years (the year isn’t stated) discussing his working and personal relationship with the woman he divorced in the late ‘70s.

“Stephen Thrower on Sinfonia Erotica” is a typically informative featurette wherein Thrower discusses the period in Franco’s career during which he made this film, as well as covering various edits and title changes.

Special Features:

  • Jess Franco On First Wife Nicole Guettard – Interview With Director Jess Franco
  • Stephen Thrower On Sinfonia Erotica – Interview With The Author Of ‘Murderous Passions – The Delirious Cinema Of Jesus Franco’
  • Sinfonia Erotica
  • Special Features
1.8

Summary

This is probably the sort of film that appeals to only the most fervent of Francophiles out there but the work Severin Films has done to bring it home is commendable and the results, while far from earthshaking, are impressive given the difficulty level. As for the film, it’s an interesting exercise in debauchery and not much more.

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