Monday, March 12, 2018

"The Government Doesn't Go Around Killing People" - Barracuda (1978)

While Senseless Cinema has not exactly steered clear of killer fish movies and nautical horror--see, for example, our treatment of the classics Tentacles (1977), Blood Surf (2000), or Creatures from the Abyss (1994)--there are, to coin a phrase, many killer fish in the sea. Today we look at 1978's Barracuda, a conspiracy thriller that employs killer fish to create effective suspense and horror.

Some of your Universe-X's critics look down on films like this (and specifically this film). For example, on IMDB, reviewer The_Dead_See writes, "it's incredibly bad on many levels: cheesy acting, bizarre plot twists, a hilariously inept police force." Reviewer coventry writes that Barracuda is "a textbook case of misleading – or even downright false advertisement, really." Finally, reviewer BA_Harrison, after cruelly (if cleverly) titling the review "Bore-acuda," writes, "Poorly directed, totally devoid of suspense or terror, and relatively gore free, this film will definitely disappoint those looking for a cheerfully cheap Jaws knock-off."

Nonsense! I believe Barracuda would not disappoint anyone looking for a cheerfully cheap Jaws knock-off, and I will prove this fact by diving into the details of the film to show what a classic it truly is.

Appropriately, the film begins underwater with two scuba divers exploring a shallow reef. Something represented by the camera’s point of view swims toward them, and we soon see that it is a school of barracuda that quickly attacks.

Despite gamely wrestling with the fish, the divers are ripped apart, their body parts floating this way and that, and the reef is filled with blood.

The story proper begins when a group of university environmentalists are diving near the same location, looking for pipes spilling pollution into the ocean. The environmentalists are led by a young Wayne Crawford, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film.

They quickly run afoul of the cleverly named Jack Chemical Company, as they are trespassing on company land. When Mr. Crawford surfaces, he is taken captive on a small motorboat by two bumbling chemical company workers, but in wiseacre Wayne Crawford fashion he manages to hide in his swim fin a water sample he took for testing.

When they bring Mr. Crawford back to Papa Jack, the head of the Jack Chemical Company, the owner says, “What the hell have you got against me, boy?”

“I don’t know,” replies Mr. Crawford with a grin. “Who the hell are you?”

“Oh, he’s a wise-ass, Papa,” says Bubba, one of the bumbling employees.

Mr. Crawford wakes up in the tiny Palm Cove, Florida jail. Despite the fact that he is prominently wearing a large wristwatch, he asks the sheriff, “What time is it?” The sheriff only responds by saying the judge will be back in the afternoon.

Things look up when the sheriff’s daughter, a college girl home for the summer, brings breakfast to Mr. Crawford in jail. The two flirt a little before Mr. Crawford gets released.

Meanwhile, in town, the viewer is privileged to witness not one but two minor traffic incidents that have zero consequences—one involves a car braking too fast, and the other involves a Cadillac barely tapping another, offscreen, car.

After being released, the sheriff’s daughter takes Mr. Crawford to see a doctor due to a tiny cut he suffered when diving. Dr. Snow is played by Jason (Herb) Evers, famous from the classics The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) and Basket Case 2 (1990).

After all the local Palm Cove intrigue, it is time for another barracuda attack. The victim this time is a scuba diver who is stealing lobsters from traps. Several barracuda casually glide around the swimming man, but he pays no attention to them until he turns and sees one swimming right at his throat.

Again, the fish tear the man to pieces.

The attack is followed by another masterful suspense sequence in which a girl and her dog play fetch at the beach. She throws a stick into the surf but the dog has trouble retrieving it. “What’s the matter?” asks the girl. “The water too deep for you?”

(Given they are wading into the ocean, if the dog could speak, its answer would most likely be yes.)

The dog is able to retrieve something else, however: a human head in a scuba mask.

Humans are not the only ones being mutilated by the barracuda, as about two dozen fish are found dismembered on the beach as well.

The fish die-off also allows the film to present an unusual, perhaps unique, scene, as a government agent dressed in a black suit picks up half-eaten fish from the beach and deposited them into a plastic bag.

The townspeople, meanwhile, are getting irritable and aggressive with each other. Could this have something to do with the chemical plant, or the dead fish, or the as-yet-undiscovered barracuda? It is a measure of the film’s success that the audience has put the pieces together, but none of the characters have, as of yet.

The pieces come together slowly at the sheriff’s house after another barracuda attack. The sheriff, his daughter, and Wayne Crawford discuss the problem. “Is it possible,” the daughter, Liza asks, perceptively but somewhat ineloguently, “to change the behavior of fish by what you dump in the water?”

“I guess it’s possible,” says Mr. Crawford, “but it’s sure as hell not probable. Given enough time, anything can happen, okay? But that’s what it takes is time.” He believes the food chain would take too long to change the behavior of fish affected by chemicals.

Mr. Crawford explains his analysis: “What I really think you’ve got here is two terrible tragedies that may or may not be related and a chemical plant that’s doing what a lot of others are, polluting the water. But to link the two together at this time, I don’t think it’s scientifically plausible.”

As a scientist, Mr. Crawford decides to test whether there really is a link, so the three ride into the ocean on a boat at the crack of dawn and Mr. Crawford scuba dives for more water samples. Suspense is generated by the fish finder aboard the boat, which shows a school of big fish in the vicinity. Liza and her father watch the fish finder with great concern as Mr. Crawford finally discovers the true threat in the water.

“Get me out of here!” he screams as he surfaces. The sheriff pulls him into the boat. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he tells them, though he fails to name the fishy threat until later.

The next day, Mr. Crawford has obtained some barracuda heads, and he makes use of Dr. Jason Evers’s lab to analyze them.

Mr. Evers is skeptical, suspiciously so, that the chemical plant is to blame. He says he learned in medical school that “When you hear hoof beats, you start looking for horses. Not zebras.”

It seems barracuda are not the only deadly species in Palm Cove, as we watch a nosy newspaper editor, his photographer, and even the photographer’s girlfriend stalked and murdered in cold blood.

Thus far, the film has shown four deaths due to barracuda attacks and three due to corporate espionage.

Meanwhile, Mr. Crawford continues his investigation and fines that the doctor, Jason Evers, may be involved. Fortunately for Mr. Crawford, the doctor keeps a series of books, journals, and files in his office, including a research journal describing something called—perhaps incriminatingly—the Lucifer Project.

Mr. Crawford confronts Mr. Evers with information that he is involved in the chemical pollution. Mr. Evers says, “No one was supposed to die.”

Mr. Crawford responds, “I don’t give a damn what they were supposed to do. All I know is they’re dead!”

He reasons that the town is being used for an experiment, and chemicals in the water are causing hypoglycemia in humans, and throughout the food chain, including the barracuda. When he confronts Mr. Evers again, the doctor reveals two things. First, the government is involved in his research. Second, he is certifiably crazy. “We can’t have war protestors. No peace movements. People will welcome war. It will be a release.”

“My God, you’re mad,” Mr. Crawford realizes. He tries to get Mr. Evers to reveal who is behind the project. “Who are they?”

Mr. Evers whispers, “The government. They’ll control us all someday.”

Mr. Crawford is understandably shocked that the government is involved.

Playing against type for a film titled Barracuda, the climax occurs on land at the chemical plant with a shootout between the sheriff and Mr. Crawford on one side and some government assassins on the other.

The sheriff and Mr. Crawford hide behind some corrugated tin, which of course proves highly effective at stopping bullets.

When Mr. Crawford reveals the secret of the conspiracy, the sheriff says, “The government doesn’t go around killing people.”

“We’re the loose ends, Ben,” Mr. Crawford explains. “They finished here. They’ll probably try it somewhere else.”

I will not spoil the shocking finale of the film, but suffice it to say the conspiracy is not completely eliminated in Palm Cove.

Like Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981), Barracuda is a film about a social issue made more palatable to a mass audience through the tropes of an established horror subgenre. In the case of Romano Scavolini's film, the story is about using mentally ill people for government drug experiments, but it is made more commercial through the use of slasher movie tropes. In the case of Barracuda, the story is about using normal people for government behavior control experiments, but it is made more commercial through the use of killer fish movie tropes. Both movies are improved by their sophisticated, subtle social issue themes.

Perhaps Barracuda's most impressive feat lies in doubling down on the corporate and government intrigue of other killer fish movies such as Jaws (1975), while minimizing the rather distracting scenes of fish attacking and killing people that tend to overshadow such films. By the end of Barracuda, the audience barely remembers that barracudas were attacking people a few days earlier. Nothing could be more clever or fascinating than a killer fish movie that abandons its killer fish midway through the narrative in order to focus on what the viewer really wants to see: small-town corporate and government conspiracies.

It is at this point that we must celebrate the cinematic contributions of Mr. Wayne Crawford, who stars in this film as well as co-writing and co-producing. Mr. Crawford's film career began in the early 1970s, and he developed into a fascinating actor/writer/producer, frequently working with exploitation director Harry Kerwin, who directed Barracuda. Perhaps Mr. Crawford's greatest achievements, in addition to Barracuda, are the films Valley Girl (1983) and Jake Speed (1986). Mr. Crawford passed away in April 2016, depriving the world of his singular cinematic vision. He will be missed by all true fans of the cinema, and particularly by true fans of one of his greatest creations, Barracuda: The Lucifer Project.

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