Posted by: Trey | 08/20/2010

Terror, Horror, Death. Film at Eleven.

Review: Piranha (1978)

Trey’s rating:  3 1/2 Mutant Carnivorous Fish (out of 5)

In 1975 Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released to theaters, and the contemporary blockbuster was born.  Or something.  In any case, that’s really a discussion for another day – but it’s pretty much all the context needed to understand Roger Corman’s motivation when he assigned first-time screenwriter John Sayles and first-time director Joe Dante to make a low-budget horror movie about a school of man-eating fish.  Actually, Corman waited until 1978 to make his variation on the Jaws formula, and by this time copying Jaws had virtually created its own horror subgenre as low-budget and foreign studios all created their own rip-offs to capitalize on the blockbuster’s success.  By waiting so long, Piranha actually ended up being released in the same year as Jaws 2, and to be honest is the better of the two films.

For all intents and purposes, Piranha shouldn’t work.  The budget is obviously minuscule, and the dialogue and performances run the gamut from effective to hammy to just bad.  But, taken as a whole, it all becomes part of the film’s charm.  What all of this comes down to is tone.  True, it is a Jaws rip-off – but is very upfront and self-conscious of what it is ripping off.  By functioning as a quasi-parody of Jaws and its imitators, Piranha manages to be at times funny, suspenseful, gory, campy, and even engages in some mild social/political commentary – but most importantly it is consistently entertaining.  The script is quite good (for the most part), but the 1995 remake (which used the same screenplay and recycled most of the special effects) is proof that it could only have worked with the right cast and director.  Dante’s tongue-in-cheek style, which would be further developed and refined in later films like The Howling and Gremlins, is evident here and sets just the right balance of horror and comedy to keep the viewer interested.  The cast, made up of genre mainstays, character actors, and Corman regulars, is nearly perfect for this kind of movie.  An exception is Heather Menzies as an insurance investigator sent to find some missing teens – for most of the film I found her to be annoying (although a case could be made that she is supposed to be annoying).  Bradford Dillman is effective as the surly, drunken reluctant hero, but the real reason to watch (other than the attack scenes) is for the supporting cast.  Kevin McCarthy, star of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and regular Joe Dante cast member, gives a wonderfully paranoid performance as the scientist employed by the Vietnam-era government to develop biological weapons.  Another Dante/Corman regular, Dick Miller, is hilarious as a sleazy resort owner with ties to the military.  Other notable performances include Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, and Paul Bartel.

The effects, of course, are very cheap – especially the piranha, which look like rubber fish on rods or wires pulled through the water.  They work, mostly, because they are used sparingly and edited well.  What really sells it is the liberal use of fake blood and admittedly exploitative use of children as victims.  I don’t know if it was John Sayles’ idea or a holdover from earlier drafts to put a children’s summer camp in the path of the piranha, but it makes for quite a memorable set piece.  One element of the special effects remains a mystery to me: early in the film a Harryhausen-esque creature (likely created by Phil Tippett) appears in the laboratory and is never seen again.  Dante has claimed in interviews that the plan was to bring it back later in the film, but that they ran out of money.  As is, it is a very odd diversion in the film, accomplishing little other than setting up for the campy horror-comedy tone that is prevalent throughout the film.

The success and entertainment quality of Piranha is evidenced in its ability to swim out of the shadow of Jaws and build its own franchise (even if that franchise does not have the best cinematic track record).  Piranha 2 had little in common with the original, was partially directed by James Cameron, and is generally considered to be a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad film.  The first remake, as already mentioned, made the mistake of playing the story completely straight and reusing effects footage from the original.  However, Piranha 3D, which just opened this weekend, appears to have come closest to recapturing the horror/comedy/exploitation balance that served this original so well.  I can’t speak to its quality, although I hope to see it soon, but at least one good thing to come out of it is the new bluray release of this original film.  Featuring a commentary with Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison and an extensive list of special features, it puts some recent studio releases to shame.  Also, the new high-definition transfer is probably the best that this film has ever looked.  For genre fans, this is at least worth a rental – but for Dante and Corman fans, it’s an obvious must-buy.

© Ralph Lawson III, 2010, All Rights Reserved

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