When taking in a 70’s film that was marketed as a Jaws rip-off I was not prepared to find myself watching a taught thriller centred around a group of thieves and millions of dollars in jewels guarded by a school of nasty piranha. Colour me surprised.
The film starts off with a bang and I do mean BANG. Down in South America, a group of thieves clad in black leather sneak into a secure facility to make off with a fortune in emeralds and diamonds, but to get in they must cause a distraction which for this group that means blowing the crap out of the place. An entire freight yard full of train cars as well as several massive tanks bursting with oil explode in a fiery conflagration which should result in the relabeling our thieves as terrorists for they probably caused more property damage than what the jewels were worth. Why go with subtlety when overkill is so much more fun?
The team is led by Lasky (Lee Majors) and Kate (Karen Black) whose boyfriend- Paul (James Franciscus) provided the inside Intel they needed to pull off the heist. The gang orchestrates a daring escape; eluding dogs, security guards and local military by escaping upriver while their getaway vehicle is detonated as a secondary diversion. Their plan is quite brilliant, for Kate then tosses the lockbox with the jewels into the river above the local dam with a yellow marker for easy finding later; they then ditch their thieving attire over the side of the boat and become just a group of tourists out pleasure fishing. When the police, who are out in force looking for the crooks, stop them they of course find no sign of the stones. Unfortunately for them, that is the last thing that goes right.
Sadly the term “Honor among thieves” does not apply to these guys and when Paul tells the group they are to wait sixty days for the heat to blow over before recovering the jewels a couple of the members are not down with that and decide to make an early aquatic withdrawal. This goes badly as Paul took some extra security measures months ago in the form of breeding piranhas in the water above the dam. Before you can say “Fish Food” the gang of six is down to three.
Meanwhile, a group of Americans have arrived for a fashion shoot; Ann (Marisa Berenson) the producer, Ollie (Roy Brocksmith) the photographer, Tom (Gary Collins) the pilot, and Gabrielle (Margaux Hemingway) the model. When Gabrielle and Lasky meet sparks fly and a shower scene is imminent but when he finds out about his eaten friend’s tensions mount. Kate and Paul decide to cut Lasky out of the picture and head to the damn to recover the jewels and because of Paul’s supposed heart condition Kate gets the job of going in with the piranha.
Kate barely makes it out alive but she does retrieve the case with the stones only for the two to discover that their boat has been sunk, they assume by Lasky, and now they will have to make it back to their resort on foot. Lucky for them they come across the tour boat laden with the fashion team, but luck only runs so far as also on board is Lasky. Then Mother Nature throws her hat into the ring as a nasty storm sends a water spout crashing into the damn smashing it to pieces and sending all that water, and piranhas, cascading down to where our hero’s boat is anchored.
Will Lasky and Paul duke it out to see who is the top dog? What exactly is wrong with Paul’s heart? Can our heroes make it off the boat before it sinks below the surface of the piranha-infested waters? Who will get those precious stones? All these questions and more are answered in this really fun and exciting crime thriller. The cast members are all excellent with Lee Majors the stand out as the jaded but cunning Lasky, Karen Black holds her own quite well as a woman torn between loyalties, and then there is James Franciscus who does an excellent turn as the smarmy villain whom you love to hate, and who you can’t wait to see get his comeuppance, and
Director Antonio Margheriti and screenwriter Michael Rogers blend the man against nature/man against man elements beautifully, creating a suspense-filled caper flick that keeps the viewer always guessing as to what is going to happen next. That and some really nice piranha attack sequences makes this movie a delightful surprise and a must-see
Killer Fish (1979)
Movie Rank - 8/10
Not your typical Jaws rip-off as the titular killer fish are just one element in this excellent heist flick. A strong cast combined with great action scenes make this one a real gem.