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Friday, October 4, 2019

Killer Crocodile (1989) review


Anthony Crenna (Kevin), Julian Hampton (Mark), John Harper (Bob), Sherrie Rose (Pamela), Ann Douglas (Jennifer), Thomas Moore (Joe), Van Johnson (Judge), Worman Williams (Foley)

Directed by Larry Ludman (Fabrizio De Angelis)

The Short Version: After the world tired of Italians ripping off JAWS with movies that were never going to get theater play in North America, they swapped out sharks for crocodiles in a trend with an even shorter lifespan. What sets KILLER CROCODILE apart from the rest are its energetic and varied attack sequences; even if everything in between lacks energy and variance. Director De Angelis's surprisingly entertaining, if by-the-numbers Italian attempt at a 1970s creature feature eco-horror finds its title giant, semi-aquatic reptile making meals out of environmentalists before itself being turned into a full line of clothing and luggage.

A group of environmentalists investigate illegal dumping of toxic waste in a tropical swamp and run afoul of a gigantic crocodile that's been feasting on the populace. When the local constabulary offers little assistance, the ecologists team up with a crocodile hunter to kill the beast.

KILLER CROCODILE is a very basic Italian version of a 1970s 'animals amuck' movie; itself the mutant offspring of the atomic 'Big Bug' pictures of the 1950s. Generally referred to as a JAWS clone, it's one of the last of several Italian aquatic horrors that began with TENTACLES (1976); then continued with THE GREAT ALLIGATOR (1979), GREAT WHITE (1981), PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING (1981), DEEP BLOOD (1984), and MONSTER SHARK (1984).

Other than some of Riz Ortolani's musical cues, it never feels like a JAWS do-over, but does feel like a dry run for ANACONDA (1996), a similar movie made in America that was a surprise smash at the box office. For good or ill, ANACONDA jump-started the killer animal movies again--initiating their mass production for television with such alarming frequency, the bulk of them barely attained below average status--while at the same time successfully destroying any theatrical legs the classier productions may have had; the big studio croc cult item LAKE PLACID (1999) being one example.

There have been numerous other movies featuring crocodilians, and De Angelis's take is one of the better ones; and easily the best of the handful of Italian attempts at reptile horror. Asian territories have long been the corner of the world where killer crocs have remained box office attractions due to the cultural, folkloric significance. America has produced its fair share, only they've never been big moneymakers theatrically--seemingly finding their biggest audiences on the small screen; the most recent theatrical casualty being the suspense-filled CRAWL (2019).

And it was foreign audiences that KILLER CROCODILE was made for. Part of a two-picture deal, KC and its sequel have always been overshadowed by the inferior Italian shark pictures. Never released stateside on any format, this new blu-ray 2 disc set is the widest exposure either film has ever enjoyed, particularly on North American shores. Having not seen the first picture in over 20 years, it's much better than remembered.

As a lover of monster pictures, this one certainly delivers. ALLIGATOR (1980) remains the benchmark of 'Gator cinema with KILLER CROCODILE lagging not too far behind it due solely to its enthusiastic creature sequences. The tropical locations give the film that retro Mondo flavor, one of the controversial genres of Italian invention that thrived in the 60s and 70s. As is often the case with Italian pictures, the dubbed dialog gets dumber as the movie progresses; and it could have done with about 5-10 minutes shaved off for pacing, but otherwise, you get what the title promises.

In fact, the filmmakers give you the giant crocodile in virtually every angle possible. There's never any attempt to shy away from it. You get a decent look at it in the first 40 seconds (the first time I saw this film via a Midnight Video bootleg, the opening sequence with the two lovers was not included) and an even closer look at the monster behind the opening title. Giannetto De Rossi built a strikingly good croc model for the low budget afforded the filmmakers.

In the interview with De Rossi about his work on the picture, he seems almost embarrassed to be talking about it. His work is quite good, and a testament to his abilities working with little resources. The live model, and the way it's photographed, is better served than even some of the other, similar movies that came ten years later like Tobe Hooper's horrendous CROCODILE (2000); James Hickox's slightly better BLOOD SURF (2001); and any of the no-need-to-name, nausea-inducing, SyFy mix-n-match monster movies with CGI effects that wouldn't pass muster on any gaming console. 

Anthony Crenna (son of Richard Crenna of THE EVIL, DEATH SHIP, and the first three RAMBO movies) doesn't have a great deal to work with here, but he has a good look for this sort of hero role. He makes the most of it in as spirited a performance as can be expected. Unfortunately, it didn't lead to many more sizable parts. Crenna did return for the sequel, KILLER CROCODILE 2, the following year.

The big coupe for KILLER CROCODILE was the surprising addition of Van Johnson in the role of Judge, the Santo Domingo police chief. Johnson was a big Hollywood star whose career began when Lucille Ball introduced him to an MGM casting director. With such notable works as Victor Fleming's A GUY NAMED JOE (1943) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954), and an Emmy nom for his part in the smash TV mini-series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976), Johnson's latter career mirrored some of his other high-profile colleagues who ended up in Italian movies. Some of Johnson's other Euro outings are the disaster movie THE CONCORDE AFFAIR (1979); and Umberto Lenzi's crime genre swan song, FROM CORLEONE TO BROOKLYN (1979).

The script by De Angelis and Dardano Sacchetti offers nothing new; it's merely a retread of its American forebears. Efficient, if occasionally idle, the narrative gets confused at times as to the origins of the big croc. The movie carries the genre's usual eco-message that the carelessly dumped radioactive waste is responsible for the creature's size. Then, after two men are killed attempting to rescue a little girl from the jaws of the beast, the young ecologists suddenly want to save it; now claiming it's prehistoric, that the river was once filled with the giants. 

So then there's needless back-and-forth akin to the old 50s 'Big Bug' motif where the scientists wished to study the monsters while the military wanted to kill them. Naturally, if the scientists in those movies weren't so blinded by their ambitions, you'd never have the obligatory rampage; and without the military and their hardware, you'd not have an explosive finish.

In this case, the military might is represented in the form of Joe, a battle-scarred, local hunter played by Enzo Castellari's brother, Ennio Girolami. Joe is the film's sole character of mystery. Unfortunately, his Tough Guy persona is undermined by a lot of terrible dialog to the point he's one step away from being a parody of similar genre characters like Quint, the seafaring shark hunter in JAWS (1975); and Muldoon, the big game hunter in JURASSIC PARK (1993). Girolami was a familiar face to fans of Italian action pictures in the 1980s even though his career goes back a few more decades.

KILLER CROCODILE has aged quite well. The croc-fodder characters are mainly uninteresting--hindered by silly, scarcely credible dialog. Even so, De Angelis's reptile horror is certainly superior to any number of the atrocious, CGI swamp rot glutting the schedule of a certain Science Fiction cable network. There's an astonishing amount of ingenuity on display that shows just how superior imagination created by hand can usurp the laziness of flat imagery created on somebody's desktop.

This review is representative of the Severin 2 disc blu-ray. Specs and Extras: limited edition to 4,000 copies; slipcover featuring original artwork for both movies; New 2K scan from the original negative; 1080p HD 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; interviews with Makeup FX artist Giannetto De Rossi, actors Pietro Genuardi and Richard Anthony Crenna, and DP Federico Del Zoppo; trailer; running time: 01:32:17

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