Nice to see Mr. Johnson again…
I’m starting to see a pattern in my reviews lately, kind of, and that is American actors starring in foreign-to-them films. We all know how this goes. They speak English while everyone around them utters their lines in their native languages, which only get dubbed into English in post-production. Clint Eastwood in the Italian-produced No Name Trilogy is one obvious example of this, and, for that matter, his co-stars Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. There’s also John Huston in the Mexican product, The Bermuda Triangle. Then there’s our guest of honor, who had a pretty important part in the 1989 Italian film, Killer Crocodile.
The movie starts out with a young couple, Steve and Lauren at the river. She’s bored, he’s more interested in strumming his guitar and looking all bohemian, so she goes swimming. Then something mysteriously pulls her under and she disappears, despite her boyfriend’s efforts to rescue her.
Actually, it’s not so mysterious, because the killer crocodile is lurking in the reeds. He also takes out a couple of bored fishermen that same night.
Into the fray comes a group of incredibly good-looking environmentalists on the good riverboat Dios Es Amor, who are there to investigate the pollution in the river. Their leader is Kevin (Richard Anthony Crenna), their photographer is Mark (Pietro Genuardi), their diver is Bob (John Harper) and the rest of them are non-descript types who do whatever jobs need doing, such as keeping a lookout or testing water samples. Or maybe just looking pretty while Mark snaps pictures.
Naturally, they find a huge cache of radioactive waste, which Bob has to confirm even though the cans have giant labels reading “Radioactive” on the side, and since they’re not equipped to dispose of the stuff, they do the totally logical thing and camp out next to it. Then the dog goes missing, as does a member of the crew, Conchita, so the group high-tails it back to the village for help.
Problem is, everyone they talk to gets a blank look at the word, “police,” but they point the group in the direction of the judge’s (Van Johnson) house. Judge. That’s all we know him as. He’s pretty angry and evasive when the group asks him to go after Conchita and even threatens to have them arrested if they don’t get out of his face.
Judge makes a beeline for Foley (Wohrman Williams), a shady businessman who’s been illegally dumping radioactive waste in the river with Judge’s help. Judge is, of course, worried that these wacky environmentalists are on to what he and Foley are doing. Foley’s less than concerned.
The group doesn’t buy Judge’s dodging and goes back out to the river, where they promptly get stuck in the foliage and find Conchita’s body. They bring it back to the morgue, which is really a seafood processing plant because budget. Judge gets incredibly defensive once again and accuses the group of murder, but then a hunter named Joe (Ennio Girolami) strides in and declares definitively that Conchita was killed by a crocodile, only a much bigger croc than anyone has ever seen before. Kevin’s angry at Judge and Foley but decides to buy Joe a beer.
Then the croc takes out a little girl, what appears to be her dad, and a hapless soul who just tried to jump in and help, and here’s where Killer Crocodile gets pretty laughable. Simply put: When someone is hanging off a dock for dear life, is it more prudent to pull them up from above or climb down and push them from behind? The logical answer, of course, is painfully obvious. Guess which way Killer Crocodile goes?
The movie’s trajectory is fairly easy to predict. More people die, including Foley and Judge, although the latter drowns, and Joe decides to become a cross between Captain Ahab and Indiana Jones. Yeah. Spoiler alert: Joe literally ends up riding the croc like Ahab on the white whale. The winning stroke is just as illogical as the dock scene, involving objects that can’t and shouldn’t explode exploding. Eeeek.
Mmmmkay. Killer Crocodile‘s pacing is OK and it’s a camp-fest. The acting isn’t too overdone for an overdub. The croc has a lot of teeth. Those are probably the nicest things I can say about it.
As for the rest of it…
Killer Crocodile is such a blatant Jaws rip-off that it’s a wonder the filmmakers weren’t sued. The opening theme is almost identical to John Williams’ score. Heck, they insert some of the actual music during the dock scene as well as later, maybe because they thought no-one would notice? Groan. They don’t say “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” or sing “Show Me the Way To Go Home,” although they might as well have. Oh, and some of the casting choices are a little too neat.
Believe it or not, though, Killer Crocodile does Jaws slightly better. While the Jaws shark looks fake and jiggly, the Killer Croc croc looks really fake, and continuity is a thing, or the lack of. In some scenes the croc looks somewhat normal in size, and in other scenes it’s like King Kong. Plus, when Kevin pokes a stick into the croc’s mouth, he’s clearly poking painted canvas. Sure, this croc might like snapping and chomping on the nearest humans, but she fools no one, especially when seen in high definition.
Not only that, but in some of the scenes the croc breathes like Darth Vader. I’m not even kidding. All she needed was a cape and a lightsaber.
And what of our guest of honor? Mr. Johnson acts like he’s being held hostage, although he makes a game effort with the clunky dialogue and clumsy story. Killer Crocodile was very likely a paycheck picture. Mr. Johnson also looks like his health wasn’t great at the time, as he’s mostly seated in every scene and looks visibly tired.
It wasn’t a bad shoot for him, though. According to Johnson’s biographer, Ronald L. Davis, Johnson had a great time with his costars, who asked him lots of questions about his career. Johnson did not, however, stick around for the filming of Killer Crocodile‘s sequel, which was produced simultaneously with the original movie, and if user reviews are any indication, much cheesier than its predecessor.
I don’t think anyone has any illusions about Killer Crocodile. Everyone, including the Italians, knows it’s a hack job, and it has a seventeen percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, it’s fun seeing Van Johnson bring the fire in one of his final films, even if the part was mildly villainous.
For more of the great Van Johnson, please pay Michaela a visit at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for hosting this, Michaela–it was a pleasure as always. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you on Tuesday for a new Shamedown…
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Chiti, Roberto, with Roberto Poppi and Enrico Lancia. Dizionario del cinema italiano. Rome: Gremese Publishing, 1991.
Davis, Ronald L. Van Johnson: Hollywood’s Golden Boy. Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press, 2009.