30 years later, Barracuda bites back on DVD

by Mark Burger

Prior to joining the School of Filmmaking faculty at UNC School of the Arts, Wayne Crawford was an independent filmmaker of some repute. Two of his films, Valley Girl (1982) and Night of the Comet (1984), are bona fide cult classics, and the 1986 adventure spoof Jake Speed, in which he played the title role (as well as producing and writing), has a little cult of its own.

He also spent several years living and working in South Africa. Back in the days of apartheid, and even afterward, some film companies (no names, please) were notorious for not paying their bills and treating the South African crews like dirt. Not Crawford. His reputation for being fair and ethical made him one of the most popular filmmakers working there.

One of Crawford’s first films, the 1978 B-movie Barracuda, is now on DVD via Dark Sky Films. Crawford starred in the film, and co-wrote and co-produced it with Harry Kerwin, who specialized in drive-in fare during the ’60s and ’70s.

Not surprisingly, the film was marketed as a Jaws knock-off, but Crawford claims that the success of Spielberg’s shark epic wasn’t necessarily an inspiration in making Barracuda. “If it was, it wasn’t conscious,” he says. “I know it probably seems that way, and that was the way it was sold, certainly — and that’s how it should have been sold. The guys who sold it were smarter than we were.”

But, he notes, “The barracuda are just the ‘MacGuffin.’” (Alfred Hitchcock’s term for a metaphor.)

Crawford was actually inspired by a newspaper column that detailed the potential destruction of the underwater ecology, and how some companies were getting away with polluting the oceans. The devastation could be immeasurable, and could potentially affect human beings — and have long-lasting consequences. (Remember, this was 30 years ago, long before global warming became a common part of our lexicon… and our culture.)

“And I thought ‘What would happen if…?’”

This being the mid-1970s, the shadow of Watergate hung heavily over the nation.

Crawford smiles wryly. “We were living in a very paranoid time — not unlike this one — and who believed those sons of bitches in power? Nobody.”

When the opportunity arose to make the film, “I called up Harry and we just noodled that idea for a few days — this was back in the old typewriter days — and came up with a story, and we made the deal right there! It was the easiest deal in the world.”

In the film, Crawford plays a marine biologist Mike Canfield, who quickly becomes embroiled in a series of strange occurrences in the otherwise bucolic beach town of Palm Cove, Fla. Swimmers have been disappearing, only to wash ashore much later — in pieces. The local chemical plant, lorded over by the ruthless Papa Jack (Bert Freed), is clearly covering something up, and even the residents of Palm Cove appear to be in the grip of some sort of emotional hysteria.

As Canfield soon discovers, to his horror, the least of their worries are the hungry barracuda in the waters around Palm Cove. The real villains are the guys in dark suits, the corporate hatchet men who will stop at nothing to keep the nefarious conspiracy alive — including murder. The film’s unexpectedly downbeat conclusion still resonates with viewers today, although Crawford notes, “Harry always hated that ending.”

The film’s budget was approximately $220,000. “I asked for $250,000 and I got $220,000,” recalls Crawford. “I wished I’d asked for $300,000… I might have gotten $250,000!” This was by far the biggest budget Crawford and Kerwin had worked with up to that time, and it allowed them to work with an established lineup of costars.

They may not be household names, but Freed (Billy Jack), Jason Evers (The Green Berets), William Kerwin (Harry’s brother), Cliff Emmich (Halloween II) and future soap starlet Roberta Leighton (making her screen debut) all brought professionalism to the project. Working with actors more established than he, Crawford says, improved his own performance.

“Bert was a trip,” he laughs. “He’d run for the presidency of SAG [Screen Actor’s Guild], so he knew all the rules. Jason was such a professional and such a nice man. We only had him for a few days, because he was doing a lot of series guest shots, but he took it very seriously and did a great job. Bill Kerwin was Harry’s brother, of course, and he was a friend. Roberta was an interesting actress, lovely, and a lot of fun.”

Crawford added to his resume by acting as the film’s underwater cinematographer, in essence co-directing the film as well. He’d worked previously with producer Ivan Tors (TV’s “Flipper”), so he had some experience as a diver… accent on the “some.”

“For guys trained to work underwater, it was a piece of cake. We weren’t.”

Crawford recalls filming underwater sequences in the Bahamas. “Just because the water is warm doesn’t mean that your body temperature doesn’t go down. You can’t just swim around all day, lugging camera equipment.”

One day, Crawford recalls with a shudder, his stunt double was stricken with convulsions, “and I didn’t feel so hot myself,” he says. “I was feeling light-headed and sick. We’d spent too much time in the water… we just didn’t know. We were crazy, we really were. But we made it through and nobody got hurt.”

“It went from the old Mickey Rooney ‘Hey, kids, let’s put on a show,’ to something else,” Crawford says with a smile. “We had good people. The film was successful. It got a theatrical release — even beyond drive-ins. It had a life in foreign and domestic, and was very profitable. CBS bought it as a late-night first-run movie. I think they actually aired it twice, and it did huge ratings. For a long time, it was one of the most syndicated movies on TV.”

Not only did it boost Crawford’s career, but he also reaped some financial rewards from its success… although not as much as he should have been entitled to, considering he was one of the producers.

“It’s like most Hollywood stories,” Crawford says wryly. “There are certain people in the business, even if they own ninety-nine percent of a film, who simply couldn’t sleep at night knowing that you’re getting the other one percent.”

That didn’t dissuade him. If anything, it persuaded him to hold even tighter to his convictions, and his subsequent success in the independent arena is testament to that.

Following the success of Barracuda, Crawford departed for the bright lights of Hollywood, and then a decade later to South Africa. This was his last collaboration with Harry Kerwin, whom he remembers with great fondness as both mentor and friend. Barracuda marked Kerwin’s final feature film (he died in 1979), and it was one of his most successful.

“Every time I hear ‘Hail to the Chief,’ I get tears in my eyes,” Crawford says. “Not because of whatever sap who’s sitting in the White House — that has nothing to do with it — but because of Harry. It was the basis of our relationship. He was always ‘Chief’ to me. Whenever he asked me to do something, I’d say ‘Okay, Chief.’”

Crawford laughs: “He once told me that I was Elvis Presley and he was Col. Tom Parker. I miss him.”

Crawford, who recently earned his MFA and became a grandfather for the first time, says he enjoys teaching and imparting to his students the “can-do” spirit that has defined his own career.

Barracuda “was really such an interesting film to make on so many levels,” he says. “Because I didn’t go to film school, every film I made was several years of film school — but with more pressure! But it was a great experience. I haven’t seen it in a few years, so I’m looking forward to watching it again.”

Barracuda is now available on DVD from Dark Sky Films as part of their “Drive-In Double Feature” series. See review on Page 49.