Piranha (1978)
By: Mr Intolerance on August 30, 2010  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Shout Factory | Region 1, NTSC | 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 92 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel
Screenplay: John Sayles
Country: USA
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In 1975, Steven Spielberg's shark-tastic creature feature Jaws became a monster hit, and then every B-grade entrepreneur wanted a slice of the fishy horror pie. Roger Corman's New World Pictures weren't above making a cheapie knock-off version of an A-list film, and so one John Sayles script later director Joe Dante (straight off the set of Rock'N'Roll High School) headed off down to Texas to make Piranha, one of the more entertaining films to follow in the Great White's wake.

"Let's get wet!"

A couple of teens wander into what we soon find out is an old military science installation whose purpose was to breed genetically altered piranha to be used against the North Vietnamese during the war. After the war was over and the plan was no longer deemed necessary, many of the fish were killed by poison, but some mutant strains survived, which is more than can be said for our two teens, who are munched on by the killer fish in an opening that kinda sets the scene for what's to follow – our first pair of boobs and first bloody assault are in the opening five minutes; it's a Roger Corman production after all.

Skip-tracer Maggie (Heather Menzies) is after our two teens (who are already piranha-shit by now, unbeknownst to their parents), and enlists the aid of local surly drunkard Paul (Bradford Dillman) to help her find them. Paul takes Maggie up to the military research base, thinking it may be somewhere our errant kids might be hiding, and it's here that our two heroes commit the most monumental of blunders – they drain the piranha's pond, and in doing so, lots of tiny murderous man-eaters get flushed out into the river along with the water. At the same time they encounter a scientist (B-movie legend Kevin McCarthy) left over from the laboratory's glory days, still eking out an existence and continuing with research into genetic manipulation of marine life (courtesy of special effects wizard Rob Bottin), and serving a double purpose as provider of expository dialogue as well.

The subplot to do with Paul's thalassophobic daughter Susie is introduced about here – she's at one of those noxious summer camps that you see in US films and TV shows – terrible places parents send their children to during long holidays, so as to abnegate their responsibility to raise their own children, instead letting horny teenagers and college students perform that duty for them. Or did Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp lie to me? In any event, the summer camp is on the water, isn't it? And you just know what's going to be paying all those happy campers a visit, don't you?

It's probably worth mentioning Dante's use of humour around this point. Joe Dante usually does introduce a comedic touch into his films, and quite often it's a campy, knowing kind of humour, often with characters assuming a 1950s style of acting in a modern context (Bradford Dillman – I'm looking at you), or a more blackly funny humour (just watch what happens to Kevin McCarthy's character and try to suppress a wry chuckle at the poetic justice on display), or playing off stereotypes (the prissy camp superintendent or Dick Miller's ultra-sleazy resort owner). Dante's films never become "horror-comedies" (oh, that rankly abused term), but if you look at this film, Gremlins, his segment from The Twilight Zone: The Movie, or even The Howling, Dante does inject obvious humour into his films to give them a different flavour – let's face it, darkness only works when light is there to counter it; that's what throws it into relief – kind of like the ghost train at the fair: the scares are tempered by the laughs that almost immediately follow them.

Anyway, nobody's been eaten for a while, so Dante throws us a few bones in rapid succession. McCarthy's scientist fills in the blanks for us, while underlining the menace the feisty fish represent for the summer camp by showing us plenty of shots of the little kiddies splashing around in the water. The attack sequences, by the way, are very well done considering the micro-budget Bottin and crew had to work with – no doubt less than a poofteenth of the special effects budget of Alexandre Aja's 3D remake (and hasn't Aja become the go-to man for remakes – thus endeth a glittering career…), currently on its way to a popcorn arena near you. You will believe a rubber fish on a stick is a flesh-eating threat to life and limb!

Narrowly avoiding a complete catastrophe at the local dam, Paul gets the military called in (isn't it amazing how easily this is done in 50s-style creature-features), including ice-cold scientist and red-hot scream queen Barbara Steele (hearing her purr the word "pirrrran-ya" absolutely gives me the horn – didn't work when Kevin McCarthy said it in a similar way), who's not too credulous about the piscine menace, although moreso than Colonel Waxman, who seems to think that Paul's mad, or a threat to national security, and in time honoured military style in movies since time immemorial, has Maggie and Paul locked up. Their attempts to get past their guard are hilarious:

Paul: Y'know, come on to him.

Maggie: What if he's gay?

Paul: Then I'll distract him!

But that's not necessary, as Maggie's boobs are a more than adequate way for the guard to be distracted. They're a pretty welcome relief for the audience, too.

This is about the point where the film makes a more direct reference to Jaws, with B-grade stalwart and Dante regular Dick Miller as the slimy resort owner of Lost River Lake, Buck Gardner – he's got a festival to run and clients to sleaze cash off, and Buck'll be damned if he'll be paying any attention to any crazy stories about any flesh-eating fish in the waters of his township. And so Piranha makes its way towards its inevitable and bloody conclusion, with lashings of poetic justice for all those who deserve it – and the suffering of the innocent as well. I've stopped the summary of the plot about a half hour or so before the ending, so go and have a look for yourself – can Paul and Maggie stop the piranha before they fulfill their biological imperative, start spawning and hit the ocean, laying waste to the world? Watch and find out, and have fun doing so.

Piranha is a great piece of 50s-style creature feature fun, shot through with 70s black humour and social commentary, a healthy dose of eco-horror, aided by some fine performances from a veritable wall of B-movie talent. John Sayles' script is whip-smart, Joe Dante gets everything he can out of his cast, and Rob Bottin's gore-horror on a shoestring budget really makes the whole thing come alive. Mark Goldblatt's editing deserves a special mention here as well – there's not a second wasted, not a scene that lasts too long – and his editing of the attack sequences transcends the budgetary constraints of the special effects, making them shine, and never calling their verisimilitude into question. We buy the effects, basically, despite their obvious phoniness, because the editing makes the whole thing seem so real. That takes talent, and talent is something that Roger Corman has had on tap since the start of his long and illustrious career – if you look at how many top-notch actors, directors, score-writers, editors, DPs, screenwriters and such began their careers under his aegis, you'll see what I mean.

Oh, and you may be amused or appalled to know that the sequel to this barrel of fun, Piranha II: The Spawning, was the first film directed by one James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic, Aliens) – not generally considered one of his finer moments (me, I like it just fine for its general trashiness), although you gotta love a film where piranha have gained the power of flight.
Really, very good. The picture is pristine, presented here in its OAR, anamorphically enhanced. It's certainly the best I've seen Piranha look.
Again, Shout Factory have done good things with Piranha – those shrieks are sounding good (just as prominent in the sound mix as those weird fluting noises during the piranha attack scenes) - as is Pino Dinaggio's score. A solid dual mono track.
Extra Features
Shout Factory are winning over a lot of genre movie fans due to their attention to detail and inclusivity when constructing a release for distribution – not only do they do good things with both the audio and video elements of the film, but the packaging and the assorted rounded up Extras help to make a disc that you'll buy over a cheaper release of the same film because of the care that's been spent on the disc. That's certainly the case here, where my old R4 barebones disc was superseded in every way by this new release. This is the bang you get for your buck:

A feature length commentary with director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison – Dante's a very engaging speaker and always has stories to tell, so it's definitely worth a listen – the fellas are definitely having fun recounting some tales from back in the day.

A featurette, The Making Of Piranha, which features new interviews with cast and crew members, including Corman and Dante. An entertaining little number, certainly.

There's a reel of behind the scenes footage, some colour, some black and white, all silent, but with commentary by Dante and Davison.

The trailer for Piranha, with commentary by Davison, from Trailers From Hell.

A collection of stills and international posters for the film.

A bloopers and outtakes reel.

A collection of behind the scenes photos from make-up/special effects artist Phil Tippett.

Additional scenes from the television version. These haven't been cleaned up, and are presented in 4:3, to varying degrees of image quality. There are no scenes that are essential, but some of them are certainly interesting, and kudos to Shout Factory for including them.

Radio and TV spots for the film.

Trailers for Piranha, Humanoids From The Deep, Up From The Depths and Death Race 2000, as well as a teaser trailer for Piranha.

Reversible cover with 2 different types of artwork to choose from.

A slipcase with lenticular 3D artwork.

An 8-page booklet with some interesting factoids about the film.

If you can find a more comprehensive package for this film, I would be very surprised.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
If you've not seen Piranha, I'd really recommend that you do, and further, I'd recommend that you see this version first, rather than the 3D remake clogging up your local multiplex. Joe Dante's Piranha is a vicious little film, but a vicious little film with charm, and its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. It's well aware of the debt it owes to a certain other previous aquatic cinematic nightmare, as well as to the monster movies of the 1950s, and deftly moves between homage and making its own mark. Definitely a film to own, and this version is the one to buy.

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