Snakehead Terror (2004) -**½
It isn’t every day that Crofton, the mid-sized Maryland suburb where I live, puts in an appearance in the national news. We certainly got our fifteen minutes of fame during the summer of 2002, however. That June, in a pond behind one of the many shopping centers on the southbound side of Crain Highway, a fisherman caught a northern snakehead. The northern snakehead is a fish native to East Asia, where it is considered to be seriously good eating. Up until recently, it was also relatively popular with aquarium enthusiasts in this country— it’s a big, impressive fish (reaching as much as three feet in length, and growing to weights of up to fifteen pounds), and if you have the room for a tank large enough to accommodate one, I can certainly see the appeal. In fact, it turned out to be a fish-fancier that caused all the trouble in the first place by releasing his snakeheads into the pond when they outgrew their accommodations. And make no mistake, snakeheads in the wild were trouble. One of the fish Mr. Dumbass released was a pregnant female, and once her eggs hatched, her offspring became an ecological disaster just waiting to happen. For one thing, the snakehead is predatory, and a fish that big can eat pretty much anything it wants in an environment like the Little Patuxent watershed, where the top native predator is just a bit more than half its size. Even worse, the snakehead has a rare talent among non-lobe-finned fish— it can leave the water and wriggle across dry land for up to four days! Consequently, once the snakeheads had eaten themselves out of house and home in the pond into which they’d been released, it was entirely within their power literally to walk the couple of miles separating them from the Little Patuxent river, from which point they could spread all the way downstream to the Chesapeake Bay, gobbling up all the native fish they came across. In the end, the state government got involved, and representatives of the Department of Natural Resources came out to Crofton to poison the pond, solving the problem in a highly efficient (if also somewhat inelegant) manner. But for a little while there, we Croftonites were at the center of a nationwide panic over the introduction of non-native species into the American ecosystem, and I remember thinking at the time that the whole business sounded like the setup to a monster movie.
Evidently writer A. G. Lawrence and director Paul Ziller thought so, too. Unfortunately, the only people they could convince to fund that movie worked for the Sci-Fi Channel, meaning that the form it would ultimately take was that of a threadbare, by-the-numbers Jaws knockoff, with the snakeheads themselves represented mostly by CGI effects on par with what you’ll see in a low-budget video game. Still, though, Snakehead Terror is one of the more entertaining Sci-Fi Channel originals that I’ve inflicted upon myself, and I can honestly say that I don’t regret the two hours I invested in it.
The movie begins by recapping essentially the story I just told you— the introduction of the northern snakehead into a Maryland lake, the discovery of the foreign fish by a surprised angler, the ensuing environmental panic, the eventual poisoning of the lake with a toxin called Rodonin— and then jumps ahead two years to the present day. The town of Cultus Lake has been in dire straits since the snakehead incident, largely because most of the local economy is based on money spent by fishermen from out of town. The Rodonin that killed the snakeheads took out just about everything else in the lake, too, and it’s been a long time since anybody has seen much point in driving out to the country to go fishing in a lake with hardly any fish in it. Some of the natives still try, though, and we are privy to the last fishing trip one of them ever makes. The old man’s first indication that something is amiss in and around Cultus Lake comes when he finds the bear carcass on the bank of a stream. Then his dog goes chasing after something or other, and tails it all the way into the lake. Whatever it is must have had something to do with the dead bear, because the dog doesn’t last too long after getting out into the water. Neither, for that matter, does the old man, and it is with the gnawed remains of both of them that Sheriff Patrick James (Bruce Boxleitner, from Six-Pack Annie and Tron) begins his next work day. (Incidentally, it may interest Lawrence and Ziller to know that in Maryland, the sheriff is not a part of the regular police force. Rather he is an elected official with police powers, who mainly concerns himself with process service, courthouse security, and running the county jail. True, the sheriff acts more like a regular cop in the rural counties, most of which don’t have their own dedicated police forces, but even there, the first law enforcement officers on the scene of a crime would be from the local municipal police department, and not the sheriff’s office.)
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s daughter, Amber (Chelan Simmons), is having her own brush with the killer in Cultus Lake. She and her boyfriend stop by for some sort of lakeside party, and the boy takes up the gauntlet when his friend, Luke (Ryan McDonell), challenges him to a swimming race. Luke is falling rapidly behind when his opponent is set upon by something beneath the surface, and eaten alive. To his great credit, Sheriff James immediately moves to close the lake, but he is prevented by the mayor, who like all Jaws-ripoff politicians is more concerned about the potential economic fallout of such drastic action than he is about the threat to human life posed by lake’s new man-eating denizen. Arguing that James has no hard evidence that the deaths thus far are not attributable to some sort of gruesome freak accident, the mayor tells the sheriff to back off “until all [his] ducks are in a row.”
Actually, James does have one piece of hard evidence— the strange tooth that Doc Jenkins (William P. Davis, of It and “The X-Files”) dug out of one of the bodies. Jenkins thinks maybe the tooth came from an alligator, but just to be sure, James calls in biologist Lori Dale (ex-supermodel Carol Alt, in what isn’t quite as egregious a piece of miscasting as it sounds) from the state Department of Natural Resources. The moment Dale sees the tooth, she knows it isn’t a gator that’s causing all the trouble at Cultus Lake; “This tooth came from a fish,” she says. In fact, the tooth came from a northern snakehead, but it’s far and away the largest such tooth Dr. Dale has ever seen. At a guess, she’d say the fish that owned it must have been about five feet long.
When word gets out that Cultus Lake is once again infested with snakeheads, and that the new ones are nearly twice the size of the old, every trophy angler in four states converges on the place looking to make a catch. The mayor loves it. But when the snakeheads start claiming almost as many fishermen as vice-versa, that changes the picture substantially. Sheriff James finally manages to get the lake closed to non-official traffic, and begins searching for ways to wipe out the deadly fish without resorting to poisoning the lake once again. At the same time, Dr. Dale turns her attention to the question of what’s making the snakeheads of Cultus Lake so much bigger and more aggressive than others of their species, and ultimately discovers that Doc Jenkins and his bait-salesman brother have been contaminating the lake’s water with huge concentrations of human growth hormone in a misguided effort to replenish the decimated fish population. And while that’s going on, Amber, Luke, and a couple of their friends foolishly decide to take matters into their own hands and invent a brand new sport— vendetta fishing. But what nobody yet realizes is that, in the hormone-suffused waters of Cultus Lake, a five-foot snakehead is small fry indeed…
I rather suspect that Snakehead Terror seems a good deal funnier to me than it would to somebody who doesn’t live in the place where the real-world snakehead incident actually happened. Without knowing what I know, this would probably look like just another pedestrian Sci-Fi channel Jaws copy, enlivened mainly by the ludicrous computer-animated snakeheads (which, unsurprisingly, don’t look a damn thing like the actual article) and the presence of a washed-up 80’s cover girl in the cast. (Well, those two things and the 35-foot “Godzilla snakehead” that shows up in the final act. That’s just intrinsically hilarious, no matter what the context.) If you’re a local, though… Well, let’s just say that Cultus Lake is nothing like Crofton— or like anyplace else in Maryland, either, for that matter. For one thing, while we do have mountains in this state, they’re very old ones, and consequently they’re not nearly as impressive as the ones in Snakehead Terror. And more importantly, in the entire state of Maryland, there isn’t a single naturally occurring permanent body of standing fresh water. All of our lakes and ponds are man-made, meant either as reservoirs or as drainage basins maximizing the usefulness of the land on the naturally swampy coastal plain that accounts for most of the state’s acreage. What that means for our present purposes is that there is not, nor could there be, any Maryland town like Cultus Lake, dependent for its welfare on a tourist trade of traveling lake fishermen— if there’s a lake big enough to fish in around here, it was created after the settlements around it, and thus would contribute only marginally to their economies. It may sound like I’m picking nits here, but look at it this way— would you accept a surfing movie set in Rhode Island? A range-war Western set in Minnesota? A movie about a haunted cotton plantation set in Idaho? Then perhaps you see my point. Besides, imagine how riotously funny Snakehead Terror would have been had they put it in a setting that more closely resembled the reality of the situation: mutated, man-eating fish flopping their way across perfectly manicured lawns, gobbling down affluent suburbanites as they flee in desperation for the safety of their SUVs; snakeheads wriggling across the highway to lay siege to the Kentucky Fried Chicken; the water hazards of the golf course on Riedel Road thick with deadly fish, lying in wait for paunchy, middle-aged software consultants relaxing after a 60-hour work-week in the cube farms of Bethesda… Now that would have been a movie!