They Bite (1996): Rubber Soul

Dave takes a look at the behind the scenes battle on a monster movie ripe for rediscovery.

“Fish monsters and tits.”

That was the bluntly delivered remit that came from producer Bill Links to director Brett Piper, based on the assertion that any movie which guaranteed that sort of content could never lose money. Links was a Chicago-based film broker who had history in the adult film world (most notably with Deep Throat (1972)). More recently he had made a few quid off a humdrum horror anthology, Deadtime Stories (1986). By the time the ‘90s rolled in, the producer had just over one-hundred grand burning a hole in his pocket, so he brought in Piper to bring his four-word vision to the screen.

“When Bill read the script, he complained “You’ve turned it into a comedy!” I said, “Wait a second, you ask for a movie about ‘fish monsters and tits’ and you expected me to take it seriously?” [1]

Humour has always played a pivotal role in Piper’s movies ever since he burst onto the scene with Mysterious Planet (1982), an outrageously ambitious spin on Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island that was shot for five-thousand bucks – though it’s the Troma distributed A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (1990) that solidified the filmmaker’s place in the micro budget hall-of-fame.

It seems a little churlish, then, to suggest that THEY BITE (1996) is Piper’s best picture. After all, for the bulk of his career, Piper has remained resolutely independent and free from the presence of an interfering producer, which Links epitomised to a T. The helmer himself still regards They Bite as a gun-for-hire job; but it certainly isn’t the phoned-in work of a journeyman because the Piper-isms run through the core of this whacked-out creature feature, and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

Set in the small-town seaside community of Black’s Island, Florida, a washed-up body on the beach fatefully crosses the wildly different lives of Melody and Mel Duncan. Melody (Donna Frotscher) is an ichthyologist called in by the sheriff’s department to investigate the cause of this mysterious aquatic phenomenon, while Mel (Nick Baldasare) is a porn director holed up in the local motel with two screenwriters (Ron Jeremy and Charlie Barnett [2]) and a demanding financier (George Mazzone, allegedly modelling his entire performance on Links) who are fighting to finish their latest opus, ‘Invasion of the Fishfuckers‘, which we’re treated to via monochromatic movie-in-a-movie snippets.

Think Humanoids from the Deep (1980) but with more laughs and better make-up effects.

That’s They Bite.

Obviously steered by someone besotted with the monster movie genre, we’re presented with winking homages to a handful of water-y classics such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Up from the Depths (1979). Piper’s script is a delight, bursting with nifty one-liners, acid-tongued satire, and authentic dialogue between two excellent lead actors. Indeed, both Frotscher and Baldasare are superb – but if Links had had his way, then it could well have been Traci Lords or even Linda Blair in the role of the female scientist. The meddling big kahuna didn’t back down regarding a part for Ron Jeremy, though, which still rankled Piper as recently as 2019:

“Yeah, the white, hairy elephant with the enormous trunk. Links hired him. I guess they were pals and Links thought the Jeremy name would help sell the movie. He was a ‘fairly’ talented performer and a monumental pain in the ass.” [3]

Nevertheless, considering the ongoing beef that existed between the writer/director and his bothersome producer, the fact They Bite came to be something so good is a staggering achievement – even if Piper is loath to admit it. Speaking to Femmes Fatales as the film geared up for release, the New Hampshire native commented:

“It has its points. I just can’t look at it anymore, because I keep thinking of the movie that it should have been.” [4]

When the picture wrapped in early ’93, it was clear that Piper was thrilled to have escaped the tinkering grasp of Links. Alas, even with They Bite apparently locked, there were still a wealth of opportunities for the producer to fuck things up – not least with finding a distributor, as Piper told me recently:

“Bill had no distribution arrangement prior to the movie’s completion. However, very shortly thereafter, a major video label offered him $250K for the rights, which he turned down, insisting the sale price was $1million. He never got it.”

“Then there was the Blockbuster saga. In their video guide, they gave the film four stars and called it a cult classic – but it was in none of their stores! I happened to be talking to someone who worked there, and I asked him about this. He said the problem was the distributor was asking a ridiculous amount of money, something like $100 per copy. If they asked twenty, he said, it would be in all their locations. Typical of how the release of the movie was mismanaged.”

Eventually surfacing in April 1996 through MTI Video (who misspelled Piper’s name as ‘Bret’), They Bite was hailed as “fast and entertaining” by Fangoria. Sadly, VHS is where the film’s stayed, patiently waiting to be rediscovered.

[1] An Interview with Brett Piper by Mike Haberfelner, Search My Trash, August 2011
[2] Stand-up comedian Barnett was an acknowledged influence on the career of Dave Chappelle. He was also destined for a position in the Saturday Night Live cast until a skipped audition saw the vacancy taken by Eddie Murphy. Barnett died of AIDS-related complications in 1996 at the tragically young age of forty-one.
[3] Brett Piper: Movie Making Maverick by Stuart R. West, Blogspot, 1st March 2019
[4] Women with Bite by Bruce G. Hallenbeck, Femmes Fatales, Vol. 2, No. 1, Summer 1993

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