Frankenfish (2004)

Dread Central

frankenfish - Frankenfish (2004)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.

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3 ½ out of 5

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