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PIRANHA (1978)

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Reviewed by Ken Begg of
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension

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Interminable Background Detail:
Schlockmeister extraordinaire Roger Corman produced his first cheapie sci-fi flick, Monster from The Ocean Floor, in 1954. Typically for Corman, it was made for a robust sum falling somewhere between twelve and twenty thousand dollars. (Disney’s production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – admittedly a big budget extravaganza – that same year cost $5,000,000.) Made in 1978, the Corman produced Piranha cost $660,000, an amount that was comparatively high. Comparatively.

Actually, and this says much about Corman, the budget was originally slated to be $800,000. As director Joe Dante explains on the disc’s commentary track, Corman’s New World Pictures got United Artists to put up $400,000 for the foreign rights. This was equal to New World’s slated contribution to the budget. Once the funds from UA were secured, though, Corman (no doubt without UA’s knowledge) cut his allocation down to $200,000. Unable to make the film for $600,000, producer Jon Davison went crying to an intermediary who convinced Corman to kick in another $60,000. And wisely so, as Piranha would prove to be New World’s most profitable picture.

Roger Corman is the towering figure in the field of B-Movies (in the modern sense), or whatever you want to call them: Schlock, Cult, Cheese, Exploitation, etc. Truly, the man’s a colossus, bestriding thirty or forty years of the B-Movie. He produced and/or directed seemingly hundreds of films, nearly all of which made money. There are two main reasons for this. First, he never spent a buck he didn’t have to. Indeed, his stinginess is the stuff of legend. Second, he never failed to deliver the goods. Maybe his ‘50s horror and sci-fi flicks featured goofy monsters, but they always had a monster. Meanwhile, his ‘70s stuff cheerfully featured gory violence and copious nudity (pace the maxim that ‘Breasts are the cheapest special effect’). He might have skimped on budgets, but never on what his audience wanted to see. Indeed, his special genius was to know exactly what the audience did and didn’t care about. And if the latter happened to be coherent scripts or decent monster suits, well, he never looked down at us. He gave us the stuff we really wanted, and, if it was free, would toss in a cheerful wink to let us know he was in on the joke.

Yet he’s been much more than a producer of cheapo exploitation pictures. After assuming the directorial reigns on many of his early flicks (no doubt to save money), he developed into a quite serviceable director. Nor was he locked in on the sort of skid row budgets notable in his earliest stuff. When he realized that he could make more money on films produced on a (somewhat) higher budget, he wasn’t afraid to make the leap. These two trends converged with his classic series of ersatz Poe movies in the ‘60s, most starring horror icon Vincent Price. Indeed, Price’s work with Corman would prove as important to the actor’s career as the films he made with William Castle.

However, Corman’s real impact came after he stepped down from directing (due either to boredom or because it was more economically efficient for him to focus on producing). He proved to have an amazing eye for talent, as well as for who so desperately wanted to make films that they’d scrape by on his insanely miniscule budgets. (This side of Corman is hilariously explicated on the commentary track.) Such future luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Peter Fonda, Barbara Hershey, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard (as a director), James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, and many, many more toiled in the Corman fields.

Oh, and Joe Dante, director of our current subject. Dante is the quintessential Fan-turned-Director. Nostalgia for the films he grew up on (often made by Corman himself) seems to provide the main inspiration for his own movies. Significantly, unlike others of his generation, Dante has never abandoned genre films. He also loves to cast well-known character actors in his movies, knowing that few things better please the hardcore B-Movie fan than a familiar face. Corman regular Dick Miller, in particular, has been a ubiquitous presence in his films.

Our Feature Presentation:

One way to look at this film is as a fairly decent Jaws rip-off. This, however, is to damn it with faint praise. For of the zillions of such rip-offs (Barracuda, Tentacles, Devilfish, Up From the Depths, Crocodile, Orca, Piranha 2: The Spawning, Killer Fish, Mako, Jaws of Death, The Great Alligator, Tintorera, Grizzly, Prophecy, Claws, etc.) only a bare few hold up on their own accord. John Sayles wrote what are easily the two best ones, Piranha and Alligator.

It’s the nature, indeed, the definition of a genre film to reiterate, reexamine and reassemble established tropes. Therefore, Piranha’s set-up is rather prosaic. There’re the Kids Who Have Sex (or prepare to) and are Horribly Slain, The Mysterious ‘Abandoned’ Laboratory, the Evil Military/Government Plot, The Mad Scientist (Killed by His Own Creation), The Unconscionable Experiment Gone Horribly Awry, etc. Instead, the film’s superior qualities -- modest though they are and fully in keeping with genre movie conventions -- include better than average characterization, acting and knowing humor. It’s not so much that this is a great film, but rather a superior example of a genre film.

Thus we begin with a classic teaser sequence. Two kids are hiking in the woods, break into a seemingly abandoned complex of some sort (oh oh!) and take a swim in the complex’s murky pool before meeting some horrible fate. (If you think about the film’s title, you can probably figure out what happens to them.) This is all nicely shot, with Dante showing some preliminary skill as a director. The sequence does showcase the obligatory breastage -- ah, the ‘70s, when women in exploitation films still sported natural boobs -- but fails to portray any real gore. This, however, shouldn’t be taken to indicate any squeamishness on the part of the filmmakers. Instead, it’s a wily way to keep the audience off its guard. The initial coyness works to deepen the impact of the later explicit carnage, by seeming to reassure the viewer that nothing too gross will be shown here.

Anyhoo, spunky female investigator Heather Menzies is put on the trail of the missing kids. Heading out to where they were last seen, she meets modern-day hermit Bradford Dillman. (Who should be quite the expert on wildlife gone amok, having also appeared in Bug and The Swarm.) Dillman lives in a secluded mountain cabin, and only interacts with Keenan Wynn, whose trips into town keep him supplied with booze. (Dillman is such a lush that he travels with a canteen filled with hard liquor.) Menzies drafts him against his will and they are soon exploring the mysterious complex. There they find a lab filled with bizarre genetic experiments, including a cute little stop-animated beastie that runs around in the background. Acting a bit headstrong (to say the least), Menzies drains the complex’s pool, whereupon she is attacked by a hysterical Kevin McCarthy.

She and Dillman eventually learn that draining the pool has released genetically altered killer piranha fish into the local river. These were an Evil Military Experiment, meant to be deployed in Vietnam (!) but decommissioned after the war ended. Scientist McCarthy, however, surreptitiously kept the fish alive as he continued his research. Now they are on the loose, and down river is a children’s summer camp. (Dillman’s daughter is there, go figure.) Also in harm’s way is the celebratory grand opening of developer Dick Miller’s complex of lakefront houses. Needless to say, being an Evil Capitalist, Miller refuses to heed the warnings and forgo the planned festivities, as this would lead to his financial ruin. (This sets up a classic line where a cowed henchman nervously informs him that "The piranhas are eating the guests.")

Even worse, the altered fish can survive in salt water. Therefore, it’s imperative that they be stopped before reaching the ocean. If they do, they will geometrically reproduce and ultimately devour everything that lives in the Earth’s waters…

Liz would be the last to deny one the pleasure of grinding some axes, so here’s a couple of mine. First of all, my sexual politics are rather more conservative than hers. So if I thought the film was ‘punishing’ the brutally slain hikers for their transgressive sex, it wouldn’t rank very high on my Outrage-o-Meter. (Besides, anyone who trespasses onto an abandoned complex in a horror movie needs be killed to keep their genes out of the breeding pool.) However, application of Occam’s Razor indicates that death doesn’t follow sex as a moral lesson in these things, but rather as the most efficient way to stuff sex and death into the storyline.

Second, aside from being a dreadful cliché, the military’s involvement here is rather comical. How in the heck did they plan to control the murderous fish once they were released into the enemy’s rivers? This problem is much exaggerated in the James Cameron-helmed sequel (!), where the killer piranhas have been genetically engineered to fly (!!).

My biggest ax, though, is that Menzies is directly responsible for nearly all the havoc wreaked here. Despite this, the film lays no blame at her door. We have a phrase over at Jabootu, coined by Douglas Milroy in his review of the killer squid epic The Beast, of ‘Designated Hero.’ This connotes someone who the movie keeps treating as the hero despite a lack of heroic actions on this character’s part. A corollary is that they are never blamed when their actions have negative, even catastrophic, results. (See also Man’s Best Friend, which presents a veritable carbon copy of the situation here.) Following this tradition, only Designated Villain McCarthy raises the issue of Menzies’ culpability, which assertion is treated solely as a weaselly attempt to duck his own responsibility. Despite this, a reckless disregard for human life seems to be the least that can be assigned our lead.

One trait of Sayles’ genre scripts -- including The Howling, another Dante picture -- is to openly, if slyly, acknowledge the film’s predecessors. Here, we’re not four minutes into the movie when Female Victim #1 denies being the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Just a tad later we cut to a close-up of a comically primitive Jaws arcade game. (This is a double reference, as Jaws showcased a similar close-up of a Shark Attack game.) This is a mark of films made by Dante’s generation. Rather than ignore the fact that their pictures are rip-offs, they revel in it. As Dante points out during his commentary, these winks at the audience signal that the filmmakers are hip to what they’re doing and not trying to fool anybody.

Consistent with Dante’s other films is the collection of familiar character actors employed here. For instance, Menzies’ boss is briefly played by Richard Deacon, best known as the balding Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show. However, his appearance in a number of classic ‘50s sci-fi flicks more likely explains his inclusion here. Deacon played bit parts in such genre pictures as Invaders From Mars, Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, This Island Earth and The Birds. He also had a major supporting role in Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy. In any case, Dante and Davison wanted him so badly that they paid him out of their own pockets when the budget wouldn’t cover his fee.

Other oft-seen faces here include Keenan Wynn (also eaten by a malignant water creature in Orca), Kevin "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" McCarthy, horror queen Barbara Steele (who thickly slices the ham as an unrepentant Mad Scientist – she is even given one of those ‘What are a few deaths, matched against the Glorious March of Science?’ speeches), the recently deceased Paul Bartel and, of course, the inevitable Dick Miller.

How The Disc Looks:

Fine. As usual, the disc is far superior to any video version heretofore available. The colors look quite good, too, with the reds of Dillman’s flannel shirt particularly sharp. However, we’re not talking a Citizen Kane level of film quality here. The major beef is that the film isn’t presented letterboxed, except during the credits. (Presumably because the credits themselves would be obscured if the sides were clipped off.) This lapse seems odd, given the obvious care that went into assembling a fan-pleasing package here. Still, the letterboxed sequence does indicate that the disc’s full frame presentation has removed only a slight amount of the picture to either side.

How The Disc Sounds:

More than serviceable. If there are any problems with it, they are beyond my humble abilities to detect.

EXTRA, EXTRA:

Boy, this disc is loaded for bear.

First is a very amusing animated menu. The film’s theme plays whilst piranha swim around in the background. When you make a selection, one of the cool CGI fish swims over and attacks whatever option you chose. Meanwhile, the ‘scene selection’ menu presents the chaptered sequences inside the gaping mouths of the killer fish. It’s pretty neat. A.

On the Special Features menu, we start off with a "Making Of" documentary. This is basically ten minutes of home movies of the shoot, narrated by Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison. See the rubber fish that will represent our menace! (These were made by a seventeen year-old Rob Bottin, who later created the eye-popping effects for such fare as The Howling and John Carpenter’s The Thing.) See the folks who toiled to make our film playing with said fish! (Who wouldn’t?) See the crew buying huge amounts of beer as the shooting day begins! See Ralph the Pig! This is great stuff for fans, I give it an A.

Next is a "Bloopers" reel, which consists mostly of actors blowing their lines. It gives you an idea of how hard it can be to hit marks -- watch where Menzies is supposed to handle a couple of mantel place items on certain beats in her lines, and keeps blowing it -- but other than that is fairly dull. Still, better to throw in the kitchen sink on these discs than to skip stuff, that’s my philosophy. C.

The obligatory trailer, of course, is included. B.

Next is a selection of trailers for other New World films that, coincidentally, are slated to be released to DVD. (One wonders if they’ll be able to get Ron Howard to do commentaries for the two flicks he directed and starred in. Probably not.) Included are such cult mainstays as Deathrace 2000, Humanoids From the Deep, Knocking on Death’s Door (a more recent haunted house thriller with David Carradine), Eat My Dust!, Grand Theft Auto and Big Bad Mama. Quite the trip down Memory Lane. B+.

There’s a better than average set of text ‘biographies’ for the cast and crew. Roger Corman gets the longest and most informative, while Dante, Davison, Sayles, Menzies, Dillman, Bartel and Steele also are included. B.

The big gun here, though, is the extremely good audio commentary by Joe Dante and Jon Davison. Both gentlemen are amusing and interesting raconteurs, and we learn much about subjects ranging from Roger Corman (who insisted on a violent climax in each reel, but begged off from watching all the gory footage himself) to the travails of low-low-budget filmmaking. One especially nice moment details how they illicitly gained cooperation from the local National Guard by submitting to them a fake script (!) where the Military was the hero of the piece. (!!) Conservatives like myself will also jump upon the filmmakers laughing about the obligatory left-wing political content inserted into all of New World’s picture. See! See! I told you! I intended to go into more detail here, but I wouldn’t know where to stop once I began quoting bits. Instead, get a hold of the disc and listen to it yourself. Definitely one of the better commentaries I’ve heard. A+.

In Toto:

Well worth a fin or two.