BALTIMORE -- 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 on Saturday at 9 p.m. EST 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?"
Meanwhile, the sheriff's lovely teenage daughter, Amber (Chelan Simmons), vows revenge after her boyfriend becomes snakehead food, transforming into a ruthless, shotgun-slinging fish killer.
Along for the ride is a dishy biologist (Carol Alt) whose job it is to spout scientific mumbo-jumbo while wearing flattering tank tops. The cast also features William B. Davis (Cigarette-Smoking Man on "The X-Files") as a crusty coroner with an agenda.
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. Most viewers aren't looking for heady, heavy things on Saturday. They're looking for escapist action."
Vitale adds that the network is very happy with the ratings for its Saturday night "popcorn movies." It runs two original productions per month.
Sci-Fi wants features that are heavy on action and special effects and low on campy theatrics, and Ziller and producer Elizabeth Sanchez did their best to deliver.
"We tried to make it scary," Sanchez says. "But I have to say, when we watched the dailies with the crew, I was in stitches laughing.
"But through a lot of visual effects and other tricks, I don't think it's quite as funny as it could have been. The outtakes were hysterical."
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