Greetings, readers. I think everyone here, or at least viewers of American Cable television, will be familiar with the Sci-Fi Channel, or as it has recently been redubbed, the SyFy Channel. This change has caused a lot of enmity, which I shan’t be commenting on here. No, readers, what I would like to talk about tonight are Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies (henceforth abbreviated SFCOMs). There’s no great love out there for these either, from what I gather. They’re cheaply made, poorly-written, worse-acted “creature on the loose” flicks, usually featuring utterly shoddy CGI monsters. I’ve been known to bitch about this, particularly the CGI. I’m a practical special effects geek, so…but I digress. Suffice to say, SFCOMs are often viewed with naught but derision.
This is unfortunate, as in the midst of the dreck one can sometimes find a gem. Tonight’s film, FRANKENFISH, is one such diamond in the rough.
Meet Sam Rivers (Tory Kittles), Medical Examiner. He’s been called in to the deep swamps of Louisiana to examine a body — the official cause of death is Alligator, but the wounds on the body don’t match the sort an alligator’s bite would create. The body shows signs of being bitten into by something with longer, sharper teeth than an alligator would sport. Pairing up with biologist Mary Callahan (China Chow), they take a journey deep into the primeval bayous, speculating a Bull Shark may have traveled upriver.
As Sam puts it, the swamp needs no help in killing people — much like Australia, the entire environment seems inimical to human life, only the bayou is wetter and smells more strongly of toxic mold. And yet, human life finds a way — Elmer, a local noodler (someone who catches catfish by sticking their hand down the fish’s throat) guides them to a small community of houseboats. Here, they encounter the stoic Ricardo (Raoul Trujillo), who found the body; Eliza (K.D. Aubert), the daughter of the dead man and her mother Gloria (Donna Biscoe), something of a voodoo priestess; and a nudist Rastafarian white guy and his similarly-nude wife. Their names are unimportant. Eliza and her fiancee Dan (Matthew Rausch) are in the process of helping her mother move out of the area; in passing, Gloria references a cargo ship swamped upriver following a hurricane some years back.
While investigating the ship, the realization is made that the ship had had a Chinese crew — a bamboo steamer and chopsticks were strewn around the cabin. Vomiting from the overwhelmingly rotten stench of the ship’s hold, Mary makes another discovery — a giant fish scale. Almost immediately thereafter, Sam and Mary witness Elmer’s demise, grabbed and punctured by something under the water.
Before long, it’s revealed that Sam grew up in the area, and went to the same high school as Eliza…in fact, she had a crush on Sam when he played on the football team and she poured Gatorade at the games. Just as this starts to contribute to friction between Eliza and Dan, the entire situation takes a turn for the worse. The something that killed Elmer followed Sam and Mary back to the houseboat community. It decapitates the nudist Rastafarian and starts attacking anything that moves near the water, in doing so revealing itself to be a giant (8-10″ long) fish with razor teeth and armored scales. And worse…it’s not alone…
In 2002, a lake in Crofton, Maryland was overrun by carnivorous Chinese Snakeheads; a breed of fish with a voracious appetite, no natural predators in Maryland, and a disconcerting ability to survive out of water and crawl across land on their fins. The only way to deal with the problem was to so thoroughly poison the lake that nothing could survive. In essence, the site was nuked from orbit. This incident inspired the film FRANKENFISH (and was referenced in dialogue within the film) and SNAKEHEAD TERROR, another SFCOM.
Amusingly, the fish in FRANKENFISH don’t resemble an actual Snakehead at all. Rather, they resemble a hybrid of a Coelacanth, a type of prehistoric fish thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs (until one was reeled in off Madagascar in 1938); and an Atlantic Wolf Fish (AKA Seawolf or Wolf Eel), a fish known for it’s size and ferocious appearance. The Frankenfish look damn good too; realized by a combination of CGI and puppetry, and as much as I’m an arrogant snob in dismissing CGI, it is particularly well done here. These are some beautifully realized fish, from what we see of them. The fish are often shrouded in darkness, obscured by murky swamp water or their own speed, leaving the viewer as much with just the impression of the Frankenfish as the actual sight of them. Certainly that contributes to how good the fish look, but still, everything about them was nicely done. I should note that, as much as I rhapsodize about the appearance of the fish, they are damned ugly creatures.
Likewise, we get some truly impressive blood and gore effects, including long, lingering shots of dismembered bodies. The initial body is the most noteworthy of these, but we also get a chuckle-inducing decapitation (and this one is no exception to the rule that cinematic decapitations never bleed as much as I imagine a decapitation would), a face taken off by an errant shotgun blast and a truly gooey close-up of a leg being gnawed off. Even the ‘throwaway’ gore, such as a severed ‘gator head floating in the swamp, is lovingly rendered and presented. The special effects team for FRANKENFISH really put forth 110%, and it’s plain to see that they take pride in their work, which is something I always genuinely appreciate. It’s not just about the paycheck at the end of the day; it’s about the blood and gore.
In the final analysis, this is one of the best Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies to date, and, being readily available on DVD, I’d say rent it if the opportunity arises. The film showers the viewer in explosive gore, magnificent creature sequences, and just a touch of nudity. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, some of the plot twists and character archetypes are hackneyed, and really, did the camera have to focus on China Chow having a technicolor yawn off the side of the boat? Cutting away and letting the audience simply hear her vomit would have been enough, wouldn’t it?