NOTE: My apologies for posting this two days late: Christmas and all it’s related fiascos has been taking up more of my time than I expected.
Forget Jaws. Forget ‘Deep Blue Sea’, ‘47 Meters down’ or ‘The Shallows’. If you’re looking for man vs killer aquatic animal action, look no further than the 1979 Italian caper, ‘Killer Fish’, a gripping, heart-pounding tale of criminals vs some of the most ferocious fish ever known to mankind!
Okay, it’s not that exciting. Or quick-paced. Or even on league with the aforementioned films. ‘Killer Fish’ won’t win any awards or be remembered out of bad film circles, but with its beautiful scenery, silly effects, and groovy 70’s soundtrack, it’s good for a laugh or two. Let’s dig in and see what writers can learn from this tale of diamond thieves vs fish.
When doing a killer monster movie, give a tease of your monster at the beginning
It may be a cliché, but giving your audience a tease of the monster at the beginning of the story (without fully revealing it, of course) gives them a delicious tease of the carnage to come after the inevitable first-act setup. In ‘Killer Fish’, however, the piranha are nowhere to be seen for the first half hour, as the film instead focuses on people blowing up a refinery, stealing diamonds, and then sneaking through a jungle and starting to argue with each other at a resort, leaving the audience wondering if they came to the wrong movie by accident; they came to see piranha wreaking havoc, not a criminal heist movie.
As a writer, keep the characters, plot, and action tied to the killer monster, even in the first scene: Imagine ‘Jaws’ without the opening attack; the film would have a much slower, less interesting start, and a bored audience will quickly become an audience that walks away.
Consider having the antagonist’s plan to use the monster backfire
Unlike most monster stories, where the beasts are either discovered or accidentally released to wreak havoc, ‘Killer Fish’ is unique in that the leader of the thieves release the piranha into the lake to guard ‘his’ diamonds, a refreshing change from the usual ‘monsters are accidentally released or are discovered’ storyline we frequently get. What’s great about this subversion (beyond giving the main antagonist an admittingly clever idea for guarding the treasure) is that it also sets up the inevitable moment where the antagonist is done in by their own plan, which is always a crowd pleaser.
Unless you’re going for a jumpscare, foreshadow big events in your story
When the piranha finally claim their first victim, the moment we’ve been waiting a half hour to see, it happens so quickly that – aside from seeing some terrifying bubbles – there’s no foreshadowing of the piranha’s attack. We, the audience, expect that the diver will go down, there’ll be a minute or two before something happens, and… oh, wait. He’s already being attacked. Nevermind.
There’s something to be said about giving audiences what they want in a monster film, but it’s important to remember that building up to the carnage makes the payoff even sweeter. Knowing that they’re finally on the verge of seeing the juicy bits lets creators ratchet up the tension and suspense before a monster attacks. This also applies to non-monster attacks; “Killer Fish’ features a tornado that destroys a dam, unleashing a tidal wave. The problem is, there’s no foreshadowing, or even hints about the tornado’s appearance, making it feel like something the script threw in to keep the plot moving, instead of a well-thought out event that feels logical and not a Diabolus ex Machina.
Consider having your character’s place of refuge slowly fall apart around them
Much like ‘Deep Blue Sea’ 19 years later, ‘Killer Fish’ smartly has the characters trapped in a location that’s slowly sinking, meaning that if they don’t find a way to escape to shore, they’re doomed to a terrible, fishy death. By preventing them from just sitting around and waiting for rescue, the story ensures that they have to stay active and work hard to ensure their survival, which keeps things moving forward. Even better, almost all those on board are thieves who want the diamonds and are willing to betray each other to get them, making their interactions more interesting than ordinary people just trying to stay alive.
Consider having your jerk have one completely selfless moment of compassion for others
Ollie the photographer is a pretty standard camera snob who’s only interested in getting his shots throughout the film (but with Brazil’s gorgeous scenery, can you blame him?). But in a smart move, Ollie does get one good moment on the sinking boat where he tries and help an injured crewmember without any ulterior motives. While he’s not the standard, ‘heartless, smug professional who’s not interested in helping others’ type, it is a nice, effective redemption moment for him.
Having a selfless moment for your own jerk characters allows you to make them more interesting: Imagine a snob who is mean to everyone they meet throughout your story. They insult, put down, and offend everyone they can, just because they can. Then, imagine that they’re seen handing out food and supplies to the homeless in subzero weather without any regard to their own comfort. Though it won’t automatically make them a well-rounded, compelling character, such opposites will help in developing them, and maintain the interest of the audience.
Consider having two characters who hate each others guts declare a truce during a bigger disaster
It’s always interesting to see character who hate each other’s guts being forced to work together, which is what happens with Robert and Paul, who have to put aside their desire to kill each other to survive piranha who want to kill them both… at least, until they can both survive long enough to try and kill each other again.
While mutual survival is the most common reason for enemies to work together, writers have a great opportunity to try many different things with such a relationship:
*The two can learn to like each other and become friends.
*The two work to irritate each other as much as possible.
*The two gain a begrudging respect for one another that lasts after the crisis has passed.
*The two still try to kill each other at every available moment.
*The two immediately fall in love and marry each other (not likely)
The possible outcomes for such a relationship are almost endless; few storytelling techniques leave your audience completely in the dark on what can happen, making for compelling drama, comedy, or whatever genre you want to explore.
If you’re doing a monster story, have the monsters be the focus of said story
Perhaps the biggest error ‘Killer Fish’ makes is that it’s not a movie about killer fish: it’s a film about thieves betraying each other and trying to get some diamonds while having to deal with the inconvenience of piranha stopping them from getting away with said diamonds. Most of the film revolves around them betraying each other, with the aquatic menace being regulated to a subplot, instead of the other way around.
No matter your genre, remember to keep the focus on what your audience came to see, whether it’s monsters, a natural disaster, aliens, etc. To use ‘Jaws’ as an example again, imagine if the film revolved around Brody and Co. fighting to save Amity’s only seafood restaurant, with them having to fight the shark to retrieve the sunken deed to the building. Yes, they’d still blow it up, but at the end of the day it would be about saving a restaurant, not saving Amity from a killer shark. Audiences would be disappointed that they didn’t get a shark-focused story, and would be angry at having been tricked into seeing a story about saving a restaurant.
When doing a monster movie, keep everything focused on the monster, including opening with a tease of its fearsome abilities, foreshadowing its appearance later on (along with any other disasters that might occur). When everything falls apart, consider having your character’s place of safety slowly fall apart, forcing two characters who hate each other to work together for survival, giving a jerk a chance to do one truly selfless, charitable act.