Movie takes snakehead tale to extremes

— Two summers ago, a voracious predator fish native to China with the ability to scoot across dry land was found thriving in a Maryland pond.

People were afraid -- of what the northern snakehead fish could do to fragile ecosystems, not to humans. But that didn't stop the Sci-Fi Channel, which at 8 tonight premieres "Snakehead Terror," a schlock-horror movie that takes more than a few liberties with the story.

In the movie, the toothy predators -- influenced by human growth hormone dumped in the water by unscrupulous fishermen -- grow as big as sharks and develop a taste for human blood.

The idea for "Snakehead Terror" came from Patrick Vitale, the father of Thomas Vitale, Sci-Fi's senior vice president for programming.

"He was home watching CNN, and he saw the story of the snakehead invasion of the lake in Maryland, and he called me immediately," Thomas Vitale says. "He kind of pitched me a whole story."

The movie upgrades the snakeheads' habitat from a grubby pond behind a strip mall to a spectacular lake ringed by snowcapped mountains. It takes place two years after state wildlife officials dumped enough poison in the water to kill anything with gills -- the same thing done to eradicate the snakehead in real life.

Except in "Snakehead Terror," the poison wasn't strong enough -- and the fish have grown to man-eating proportions. Director Paul Ziller has plenty of fun with the idea of fish able to crawl on land, smell blood and bite people's heads off.

Much like Roy Scheider's police chief in "Jaws," Sheriff Patrick James (Bruce Boxleitner) is the lone voice of reason. Just like the mayor of Amity Island, James doesn't want to hear it.

"Close down the lake?" he asks. "Are you out of your mind?"

You get the idea: Emmy voters can afford to miss this one. But that's the point, says Vitale, who says movies like "Snakehead Terror" offer a counterbalance to Sci-Fi's "high-end" programming like the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries "Taken."

"It's a Saturday night movie," he says. "This isn't a movie for Sunday night, when we would run something more serious. People want a movie with a different vibe on Saturday night."

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