Monday, October 20, 2008

Killer Fish (1978) review


Lee Majors (Lasky), James Franciscus (Paul Diller), Karen Black (Kate), Margaux Hemingway (Gabrielle), Marisa Berenson (Anne), Gary Collins (Tom), Anthony Steffen (Max), Dan Pastorini (Hans), Roy Brocksmith (Ollie)

Directed by Antonio Margheriti

Successfully stealing a cache of emeralds from a mining facility after blowing it up, a group of jewel thieves place the emeralds into a water-proof container and dump it at the bottom of a lake to be retrieved at a later date once the heat from the robbery dies down. Agreeing to meet up in 60 days to recover the gems, certain members of the group decide to snag the bounty for themselves. It is soon discovered that someone has dumped a cluster of piranha into the lake which have purportedly multiplied in the thousands. A hurricane hits the nearby Brazilian tourist resort destroying the dam and releasing the flesh eating fish into the waters surrounding the resort. The remaining jewel thieves as well as a group of photographers on a fashion shoot are stranded aboard a sinking boat surrounded by the piranhas and their increasing hunger for human flesh.

Margheriti directs this very entertaining action/horror hybrid with a great deal of panache in relevance to moving the film from one set piece to the next. The film begins with an explosive 10 minute opening sequence with the thieves entering the mining facility, stealing the emeralds and destroying the place and not necessarily in that order. The film is a co-production between Carlo Ponti and a company jointly owned by star Lee Majors and his then wife, Farrah Fawcett. An incredible cast is also assembled here which lends the production a lot of credibility. It's not a classic, but the sight of such name performers being menaced by piranhas is an intriguing one. The story doesn't sound like much but there's a plethora of ideas and situations wound around the simple heist premise which also weaves a sub plot dealing with a fashion shoot into the mix.

Margheriti would seem to be having a field day what with all the extravagant miniature work on display. These include the opening fiery factory destruction, a plane crash and a spectacular dam bursting. These effects come off much better than some of the piranha scenes. The first couple of attacks from the piranha's have no suspense or build up whatsoever; the people simply enter the water and begin splashing about in agony. However, the sequence of the remaining participants trapped aboard the sinking ship surrounded by the killer fish near the end is deftly handled.

Margheriti was famous for creating some striking special effects shots. Having an affinity for science fiction, he helmed the outer space adventures SPACEMEN (1960) and BATTLE OF THE WORLDS (1961) before moving on to his more well known horror efforts like CASTLE OF BLOOD (1963; originally to be directed by Sergio Corbucci), THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) and THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBURG (1965) among them. He would later return to sci fi with WILD, WILD PLANET (1965) and WAR OF THE PLANETS (1966).

His sci fi outings were fairly accomplished, if rudimentary by foreign standards, but this kind of cinema hadn't been attempted in Italy before. His ability at creating fine model work is evident throughout his career and his craftsmanship in model work shines in Leone's DUCK, YOU SUCKER (1971). Budgetary limitations do not inhibit Margheriti's expertise in his KILLER FISH (1978), either. What could have been a dry, routine potboiler is turned into a rather lively horror adventure yarn with a small smattering of gore for those who are looking for it.

The incredible cast adds a good deal of production value to the already lush and gorgeous Brazilian locations. Oddly, the filmmakers didn't take advantage of the beautiful locales but during the credits there are a few clips of various Brazilian settings. The score from Guido and Maurizio de Angelis is okay and has a creepingly bizarre theme for the pirahna sequences. There's also a disco song entitled "The Winner Takes All" that plays during the opening and closing credits. Possibly the most curious and funniest bit of info, especially to fans of Italian Crime movies, is in the end credits; a man named Maurizio Merli is listed as the Boom Man!

Lee Majors enjoyed great success on television in such popular long running American tv shows as THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE FALL GUY. Karen Black also has a long and illustrious career both on television and movie screens featuring in such big movies as EASY RIDER (1969) and AIRPORT 1975 (1974). One of her most famous roles was her triple threat performance in the Dan Curtis TV horror anthology picture TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975).

James Franciscus also shared a number of TV and cinema credits including the classic THE VALLEY OF GWANJI (1969), BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970), THE CAT O'NINE TAILS (1971), WHEN TIME RAN OUT (1980) and Castellari's THE LAST SHARK (1980). Italian actor, Anthony Steffen (Antonio de Teffe) plays a supporting role as a ship Captain. Steffen earned a degree of fame during the 60's in nearly 30 European Western films. Some of his better oaters are KILLER KID (1967), TRAIN FOR DURANGO (1968), A MAN CALLED APOCALYPSE JOE (1971) and W DJANGO! (1971). Steffen also had starring roles in other genres including the well known European horror film, THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE (1971) and the thriller, THE KILLERS ARE OUR GUESTS (1974).

Margaux Hemingway was a beautiful model who ended up acting in films. An awkward lisp was one factor that kept her from being taken seriously by critics and she was later relegated to doing soft core porn movies till her controversial death/suicide in 1996. Both fashion model/actress Marisa Berenson and Gary Collins are instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with American television in the 1980's.

I first saw this film on television around 1982 under the title THE DEADLY TREASURE OF THE PIRANHA and didn't think much of it back then. Seeing it now, I have a better appreciation for the film in addition to its unusual, but stellar casting and often energetic direction by maestro Margheriti. It's not a great movie by any means, but it's a nice 95 minute diversion populated by a cast that most likely took the job for the trip to Brazil. With generous portions of action spectacle seasoned with abundant, (but not always successful) piranha attack sequences, KILLER FISH (1978) should satiate the palate of any nature-gone-amok film fan.

This review is representative of the Italian DVD which contains both English and Italian audio options.

DVD availability: Pulp Video (R2)

Kage No Gundan 2: Episode 14


Directed by Ikuo Sekimoto

During a lethal martial arts tournament, Shiba Shizuma manages to kill his third opponent. This tournament, held every five years by the Koga to determine the Shogun's personal guards, is anticipated by the young Koga agents in training. Later, an anticipation of another sort is taking place. Koroku and Ryukichi anxiously look after a beautiful young lady (Miyuki) having a meal at Yamabiko. Shinpachi brings her an order of boar meat with a look of eagerness on his face. Otoki and Orin chastize him for ogling the woman. Koroku and Ryukichi follow her to a temple where she enters carrying the boar meat in her hands.

The two Iga spy a group of Koga agents dumping several corpses into a pit. Spotted, the Koga give chase. As usual, Hayate Kid is nearby and enables the Iga to escape. Back at headquarters, the three discuss the situation with Shin and the others. Curious if the beautiful woman is somehow connected to the Koga, Shin instructs them to act as if nothing has happened.

Okei enters the bathhouse disturbed after hearing Shinpachi is possessed by the young woman who is actually a badger spirit residing in Myorenji Temple. Orin asks what to do. She says Gennai has told her to write magic charms on Shin's body. Of course, this sends her into a sexual frame of mind. Orin desperately attempts to rip Shin's clothes off in order to write the incantations on his body. He narrowly manages to escape Orin's clutches. Shin goes to see Gennai who finds it all to be extremely amusing that he has used Shinpachi for the purpose of riling the sexually frustrated Orin. At that time, the pretty girl enters again but this time with her husband, Shiba Shizuma who was last seen partaking in a violent tournament. Before leaving, Shin notices a bruise on Shiba's neck realizing now that the boar meat was not eaten, but used to heal the bruise.

Continuing in the deadly tournament, Shiba must fight once more. However, he wishes to fight Awazu Denshu, the chief. Insulted, Denshu easily incapacitates Shiba crushing his arm. His wife, Miyuki, rushes over as the Koga prepare to kill them. Kumoi, the sister of the chief, intercedes preventing the killing. That night, Kumoi visits the injured Shiba and talks with him. She asks that he allow his wife to join the O'oku mistresses. Shiba refuses and Kumoi says he will not leave alive for this refusal. Shiba and Miyuki try to escape but he is attacked but she manages to get away. The Shadow Warriors show up to rescue Shiba. Shinpachi engages the Koga in a fight while the others escape into the night. Awazu Denshu watches nearby recognizing Shinpachi as the elusive Iga Phantom.

Back at Yamabiko, Gennai looks at Shiba's crushed arm. With special medicine, Gennai is able to obtain the handprint from Shiba's wound resulting in Shin saying, "No quack could do this!" Studying the print, Shin is compelled to talk with Shiba. The Iga chief and the Koga follower have a discussion. Shiba says that 15 years ago, Awazu Denshu killed his father, Shiba Samon and took over his position. Shiba has trained for years to avenge his father but now realizes he is no match for the might of the evil Denshu.

Meanwhile at Chiyoda Castle, the deranged Shogun, Iemitsu desires Lady Omitsu. Kumoi enters and stalls the Shogun telling him that she will be there soon. Kumoi scolds Lady Matsuo for bringing a common woman into the Shogun's chambers. However, Matsuo is privy to Kumoi's plan. Later, she is having a rendezvous with O'oka himself asking him when he is making her Chief Lady in Waiting. Kumoi then takes O'oka to a basement to show him something-- Miyuki is tied up in the basement and she is the spitting image of the feeble minded Shogun's beloved, Lady Omitsu. Denshu and his men plan to use Miyuki as a trap to lure the Shadow Warriors to them and wipe them out for good.

Iga ninja Otoki has managed to slip into the O'oku chambers and overhears a plot against the child-minded Shogun. Spotted, she escapes and finds shelter within the room of Lady Matsuo, the enemy of Lady Kumoi. Otoki sends a message via pigeon back to Shin and company. Later, Shinpachi meets with Shiba Shizuma who gives him a map to enter the castle through an underground tunnel; from the Myorenji well to under the O'oku chambers within Chiyoda castle. Shinpachi gives instructions on their plan of attack. The Hayate Kid joins them in the fight. He reinforces the danger of this mission to kill Awazu Denshu-- "He is stronger than any foe we have faced."

While the Shadow Warriors stealthily make their way to the castle, Miyuki is drugged for her night with the Shogun. Meanwhile, the Koga along with Lady Kumoi, initiate their plan of "cleaning up" the O'oku and the Shadow Warriors become trapped underground in the snares set by Denshu. When the two warring female factions begin their fight, Hayate Kid emerges to even the odds. At the same time, Denshu and his albino cronies attack the Shadow Warriors trapped underground in a supreme duel to the death. Amidst all this fighting, Shiba and Otoki burst into the Shogun's quarters to rescue his wife.

Elsewhere, the Iga make it to a storeroom and the battle continues. Shiba, Otoki and Miyuki end up in the basement having fallen through a trap door. Denshu has her and through his trickery and skill uses Miyuki as a shield against Shinpachi's blade. Miyuki is seriously injured but this enables for Shinpachi to deliver the killing blow to Awazu Denshu.

Later, Miyuki recovers and Shiba and Shin have a talk together. Shiba says he must go away as he knows Shinpachi's secret. Shin convinces him to put down his sword and become a farmer with his wife, "Once you do, there are no more codes. Freedom is a wonderful thing." Shiba agrees and leaves with a smile on his face. Then, Orin approaches with Okei giving chase. She is upset that Shin had sent Otoki to the O'oku to "further his career", and states, "She isn't very sexy. I will have to go. I'll get pregnant, then you will get ahead." Orin and Okei both continue to argue as to which one of them the Shogun will impregnate as they take off again leaving Shin at the base of the lake.

Another top class episode made all the more surprising in that it was directed by Ikuo Sekimoto who directed the more seedier entries in KAGE NO GUNDAN 2. Sekimoto delivers one of the most action packed episodes of this second series. Easily the best directed of his programs so far, this entry echoes the horror element that permeated episode two, 'The Vampire Killer'. Here, the horror figures are the main villain led by the albino ninja expert, Awazu Denshu and his two likewise pigment deficient aides. The underground sequence is a nice set piece and offers up something very different from the standard house fights of previous episodes.

Also, Denshu is touted as the strongest opponent faced by the Shadow Warriors. He has two "stand-ins" that follow him everywhere he goes and their faces are kept in the shadows most of the time. His appearance at the end is imposing especially the way in which he hoists Miyuki into the air using her as a shield to prevent the Iga from getting close to him. The fights are also plentiful and exciting. Aside from the last two episodes, this one has a generous amount of fighting on hand. Hiroyuki Sanada as the Hayate Kid gets a good amount of screen time as well. He figures prominently in the final battle and also gets a brief skirmish with a handful of Koga ninjas near the beginning.

O'oka Tadamitsu (Narita Mikio) figures conspicuously in this one, too. The character of Misato is absent as is Iga warrior Tsuruzo yet again. The comedy, again relegated to a couple of scenes, is more profound than normal and revolves (as usual) around the Orin character played to perfection by Japanese comedienne, Kiki Kirin. The bit where she thinks Shin is possessed by a wood spirit is hilarious resulting in her nearly raping him. As per most of the shows, Orin closes the episode with another comedic scene.

A thoroughly engaging show from beginning to end, this one is recommended to the fans that require a lot of action and little drama. The Japan Action Club are in fine form here and get lots of screen time to show their skills. The atmosphere of this episode is very dark and foggy. Director Sekimoto seems to enjoy horror or exploitation elements in his programs and the overall look and design of the villains as well as the predominant night time scenes suit his style. The best episode from the director I've seen thus far.

Continued in Episode Fifteen: A LOVE DOOMED!!!

Kage No Gundan 2: Episode 13


Directed by Ota Akikazu

Utanosuke trims a female clients hair while she details her story of being adopted. Uta relates since he has been in hiding after the unjust massacre of the Iga clan. Outside, a crazed man (Daikokuya Sobe), the husband of the young woman (Noe), enters and attempts to kill Uta accusing him of making love to his wife. All the while, a mysterious figure is heard off in the distance playing a haunting tune on a flute. The woman is injured in the struggle. Uta rushes to retrieve doctor Gennai to treat the injured woman. Before he arrives, Gennai is demonstrating "electricity" to Ryukichi. At the same time, Orin, dressed up in hunters garb enters Yamabiko awaiting her hunting trip with Shinpachi. To her chagrin, Gohei tells her he went on ahead. Orin then comes to the realization that, "The two of us alone in the mountains...what if he got funny ideas?"

Meanwhile, a priest named Gensei Hoshi is introduced. Purporting to cure any illness with a simple prayer, his powers are called upon to save a sick wife of a local merchant. During the "cure", the priest utilizes some strange tactics ultimately hypnotizing the husband while a helper plays a lingering melody on a flute. After the bizarre ceremony is finished, the priest exits and a disoriented man approaches the priest exclaiming that he give him some more "medicine". Returning from his hunting trip, Shinpachi sees this.

The old man falls down dead in the street. Shin spies a small needle stuck in the mans throat. Ryukichi quickly follows and is immediately attacked by hooded assailants. He gets away. That evening, Shin is cleaning the feathers off some pheasants when Orin enters upset that he left her that morning. The two repeatedly sneeze as Shin stirs up the feathers in an effort to get Orin to leave him be. Ryukichi enters and manages to get her to leave and he details his ordeal with the traveling priests.

The following morning Uta sees Noe, the young woman who was injured by her husband. He gives her medicine prepared by Gennai. She states that the way her husband acted the day before was the reason they lost their pawnshop. For the past six months, he had violent outbursts. She also says that every time he had a spell, traveling priests were always around and the sound of a Shakuhachi (flute) was playing. She then details the fateful evening that her husband became first entranced by the mysterious priest. Every 5 or 6 days he would leave home taking a lot of money with him each time.

Late that night the priest, Gensei meets with a seedy individual who tells him of two merchants that will be of use to him and his hypnotic powers. suddenly, Shiina Misato interrupts the meeting. She comes with a warning from lord O'oka that he should be more cautious especially of murder in broad daylight. Asked how she knows, Misato responds, "It's our cause the ruin of big merchants." Gensei tells her to relay to O'oka not to worry that of the 50,000 merchants in Edo, "The money I've taken are like bird's tears." Gensei reminds Misato that O'oka is supported by the money he steals away from his victims. As he tries to slip some coins within Misato's clothes, she shoves him away stating, "I won't stand for arrogance...even from one of the 26!"

Meanwhile, Daikokuya Sobei ponders his predicament having had to send all his workers away unable to pay his wholesalers. His wife enters his darkened room begging him to "awaken from that evil flute". Shin and company are enjoying rounds of sake while a troubled Uta is disinterested. He later tells Shin and Gohei about the troubles of Daikokuya Sobe who is losing all his money mysteriously. They wonder if the once great store merchant, Iseya, who died in the street a couple days earlier, was involved in this situation as well. Believing merchant Iwakiya to be the next victim, Gohei watches over his house that night. Sure enough, the melody is heard, and a sleeping Iwakiya awakens in a hypnotic state with a handful of gold coins. Gohei intervenes and knocks Iwakiya unconscious. He then assumes the identity of Iwakiya and is then taken to the meeting place of Gensei. Sent into a room with an unknown naked woman, Gensei exits and Gohei renders the woman unconscious and investigates the house. He discovers some unusual plants being grown. Suddenly, he is attacked by the priests wielding spears. Then, Gensei returns this time with his arm set aflame! He attempts to kill Gohei but he is saved by the Shadow Warriors.

The following day, Gennai surmises the plant is Taima hemp. Stimulating the nervous system, it causes hallucinations in those that are intoxicated with it in addition to causing the user to become instantly addicted. At the same time, wholesalers return to Daikokuya's home to demand their money back. When they leave, the flute plays and Daikokuya hurriedly grabs some gold coins and rushes off to be met by the waiting priests. That night at Gensei's place, the villains decide Sobe hasn't enough money this time. Feeling the withdrawal effects of the drug and desiring more, the villains tell him he doesn't have to give money...he can sign over his wife..."In case of nonpayment, I surrender my wife, Noe".

The next morning, Noe awakens to find her husband has hanged himself. After sitting with his body all afternoon, she learns the horrible truth that her husband has signed her over to the villains. She is taken away in a palanquin and Uta unknowingly passes by. He visits the Daikokuya home and finds a letter left by Noe detailing that she will strike at those that brought her husband to suicide as well as take her own life in the process.

Going on his own, Uta stealthily sneaks into Gensei's home to halt the rape of Noe. Meanwhile, the other Iga are angered that Uta has broken the code. Unable to abandon him, Shinpachi and the others are not far behind. Trapped and outnumbered, Uta fights the wicked priests and dies saving Noe. The Shadow Warriors arrive too late to save Uta but manage to massacre the evil priests rather quickly. With only Gensei Hoshi remaining, Shinpachi faces him alone.

The Iga surround their fallen warrior who died saving Noe, a woman with whom he had fallen in love with. Mourning the death of Uta, the Shadow Warriors burn the bloody paper, "This handprint bears the hatred of wasted souls." Some time later, Orin enters the restaurant looking for Uta whom she hasn't seen in a while, "He is a girl chaser, but a great hairdresser." With a look of melancholy, Gohei says, "I hope he's chasing girls in heaven." Noe kneels at Uta's grave with Shinpachi at her side. The two head back into town consumed by a great sadness over the loss of the Iga warrior.

Director supreme Ota Akikazu returns to deliver yet another top class episode of KAGE NO GUNDAN 2. An extraordinary talent at crafting a dramatic showcase, this episode is most notable for featuring a death of one of the major characters. The other startling aspect of this program is the drug plotline used by the evil priests led by Gensei Hoshi. An interesting and imposing figure, the only real drawback here is that you learn little about him or his style. He is obviously a highly skilled ninja as are his cohorts. In what is one of the shortest final fights of the series, it is also one of the most brutal. The Shadow Warriors, no doubt enraged by the sight of their dying friend, come in and lay waste to the priests quickly and viciously.

Tsuruzo is absent from this episode and Etsuko Shihomi looks gorgeous as always putting in a brief, but memorable appearance. The two comedic moments involving Orin near the beginning are some of the best especially the one in which Shin is removing the feathers from the birds. He keeps tossing them into the air to make Orin sneeze even more and yet she still tries to badger him with her come-on's. Her scene at the end carries an unexpected solemnity trading her usual comical moment for the sorrow of Uta's death felt by the Shadow Warriors. Another well done, dramatic episode from Akikazu Ota.

Continued in Episode Fourteen: BEAUTY IN THE NIGHT!!!
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