Once upon a time director Mark Dippéwas a prominent visual FX artist for Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, and he worked on films like The Abyss, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and Ghost amongst others. From there, he tried his hand at directing and gave us the highly ambitious Spawn, which, despite all efforts to recapture the success of The Crow, was met with disapproval and condemnation.
Despite the failure of Spawn, he demonstrated a clear talent, and for his next film he would tackle the creature feature genre with a direct-to-DVD title called Frankenfish. This was a film that I first saw upon release and I remember being impressed. My memory recalls it being an effective and refreshing take on the genre, boasting a good production design and great special effects. It’s a movie that few people know about, and perhaps that’s due in part to the creature-feature boom of the late 90s being all but dead. It follows in the steps of Lake Placid and Anaconda, and had it been made a few years earlier it might have enjoyed a bigger budget and a better reception.
And so, 14 years later, while Dippe is directing animated children’s films (The Boxcar Children, The Reef 2 and several Garfield movies), I decided to revisit Frankenfish to see how it stood up. As suspected… not as well as I would have hoped. Mostly notably, of course, because of the poorly dated CGI. In most other regards there is still a lot to like about it and despite its misgivings, it stands out as one of the better entries into the genre.
Taking place in Louisiana, the story centres on a small community of houseboat owners who reside privately deep within the bayou. When an unknown creature begins killing local fishermen, a city cop and his biologist assistant travel into the swamp to investigate. Of course, this Jaws-inspired tale quickly descends into the bloodbath audiences expect and it doesn’t hold back on presenting a gnarly, gore-saturated yarn. Said gore is in abundance and doesn’t disappoint, with heads being severed, limps being torn apart and blood splattering on everyone’s faces. It is THIS factor that will appeal to the more forgiving of horror fiends.
Oddly, the film opens up with a quirky piece of harmonica music, suggesting that Jessica Tandy might pop up at any given moment. Far be it from Driving Miss Daisy or Fried Green Tomatoes, because in presumable fashion a guy on a boat is dragged under the water… thrashing ensues and he disappears beneath… only to re-immerse minus a few limbs. Predictable? Of course. But predictability is arguably an element that fans of creature features expect to find, and what Frankenfish does to distinguish itself is to create a unique, albeit stupid, creature. This scaly creation, by the way, is inspired by the true case of the Snakehead Fish incident – a measly story in and of itself.
The production design is fantastic, and even after 14 years I was still in awe of the effectiveness of the location setting. Having the story take place amongst a community of houseboats lends it something a little different, and it gives Dippé plenty of opportunities to play with the horror. Scenes of characters stranded on their respective houses recalls similar scenarios previously exploited in Tremors, and moments of their attempts to outsmart and escape the creature might just have inspired similar concepts in Greg McLean’s Rogue. It’s clear that this is actually not all that bad, but rather a movie of its time.
So, obviously the shortcomings need to be addressed, and what might have been pretty decent digital effects back in 2004 are certainly amusing now. The frankenfish of the movie’s title is a weird, mutated fish that’s reasonably conceived and entirely computer generated. Unfortunately, aside from a few close-up shots of its rubbery head, its time on screen is cringeworthy. It’s funny to think how highly I regarded this stuff back then, huh? On the flip side, the conception is fantastic and a lot of thought was put into the mechanics of the creature. A moderately mathematical process was employed to execute this monster’s movements, and when it leaps in and out of the water and strikes its victims its trajectory and contortions feel proportionate. This is a reasonable compensation for the tacky CGI composition.
Interestingly, Frankenfish did help launch a few careers in the process, giving it, perhaps, more significance than it would have had otherwise. Co-writer Simon Barret would go on to with director Adam Wingard and pen You’re Next, Blair Witch (’16), The Guest, V/H/S and a segment of The ABC’s of Death. He also has several upcoming projects in the works and has become an important voice within horror. Many of the cast members also went on to have successful careers as leads in various television shows, such as Tory Kittles (True Detective, Sons of Anarchy), Donna Biscoe (Greenleaf, Saints & Sinners) and Matthew Rauch (Banshee, Blue Bloods).
To sit here and revisit Frankenfish admittedly seems like a silly thing to do. It’s more or less a forgotten film, and those who remember it don’t do so with fondness. But, as I sat on my couch eating chips, it occurred to me that I was having a great time. And I figured, heck, if movies like Anaconda and Lake Placid are still regarded with esteem (within the context of the genre) then it’s a shame that this one failed to hit its mark. It was made at the wrong time and never found its audience.
So, if you’re reading this and you have a penchant for cheesy B-movie creature features, this is one you might want to track down. It belongs on the shelf just above the Mega Shark movies, and might just tickle your fancy.