Piranha (1978)

AUGUST 7, 2010


I’ve had Joe Dante’s original Piranha on my DVD queue for over three years, only for it to never escape “Very Long Wait”-ville. I almost contemplated watching the 1995 remake (yes, folks, Alex Aja’s upcoming version is actually the 3rd version), since they apparently used the same script and even some of the same footage, but then Shout Factory came to their senses/the rescue and released the film on Blu-Ray, which Blockbuster apparently stocked enough to actually send to longtime customers.

One thing that struck me was how grim the movie was. I always thought it was more of a silly spoof, more Gremlins 2 Dante than Gremlins 1 Dante, but it’s got very little overt humor, which unfortunately makes it feel more like a Jaws ripoff than a spoof, particularly when Dick Miller bemoans the threat of closing down his park on opening day, not unlike Murray Hamilton in Spielberg’s film. Since Miller barely appears in the film prior to this point, and there have been few laughs, it doesn’t seem like they are making fun of the plot point, but merely copying it.

And the ending! Jesus Christ, no wonder Aja was drawn to the material. Lot of folks are dead or injured, but not any of the characters you’d expect to bite it (Miller, Paul Bartel’s overly critical summer camp instructor, etc). Instead, some kids, one of the heroines, and scores of other anonymous characters have bought the farm, and our hero is catatonic. Oh, and the piranhas have made it into the ocean. What a knee slapper!

But I’m not dismissing the film for this – on the contrary, I found it to be a pleasant surprise. There were still some jokes and goofy moments (love how lead Heather Menzies had to tell the operator to check the phone book for a number), but the “less spoofy than I thought” approach allowed me to enjoy a solid killer fish movie, instead of groaning at easy jokes that have long since dated (for example, the opening of Spielberg’s 1941). Sure, the effects suck, but this is a “quantity over quality” deal – there are a lot of attacks. And I like that they rarely kill anyone right off the bat; it actually takes a while for the things to kill someone. Kevin McCarthy, for example, gets attacked for a full 2-3 minutes, and he’s STILL alive when they finally pull him out of the water (he dies later). It’s sort of unique, because you can be attacked and survive, which is rare in these sort of things. Like the shark in Jaws, for example - once she’s got you you’re done for (unless you are Mario Van Peebles).

I also liked that it was a communication proofed movie. The whole thing is basically about some folks trying to get down river to warn others about incoming piranha. But no one believes them over the phone, so they have to get down there and due it in person. Nowadays, you shoot some video with your iPhone and upload it to Youtube for everyone to see for themselves. Done – no movie. I read somewhere that technology was making it impossible for a lot of horror movies to work anymore, but it’s not just slashers and such that are affected. And the river stuff provides time for McCarthy to explain the whys and hows, without it sounding out of place – they’re stuck together with nothing to do but make their way down-stream, so why not make conversation? And it shows that the fish have some brains, as they bite at the lashings keeping the raft together, which would send their intended prey into the water. Sweet.

It’s also a cool moment because all of the attacks are kind of similar, with the same footage being used over and over. The locales are all pretty bland (Miller’s water park is seriously the most boring-looking amusement park in the world), which doesn’t help. Piranha II’s flying fish may have been ridiculous, but at least it allowed for some variety in the kill scenes – water, air, land! These are all people who are about 3 feet from shore. Still, you gotta love the balls on Dante and co – about half of the victims in the movie are kids, and I don’t think I could get tired of seeing terrible child actors (the one playing the hero’s daughter is pretty good, but she’s also aquaphobic so she doesn’t go into the water anyway) screaming and yelling while dozens of little rubber fish eat their legs.

Shout’s Blu-ray is pretty packed, though I’m not sure how much of it is new or recycled from earlier editions. The retrospective making of is definitely all new, as Phil Tippett has a New Moon DVD behind him (he did the visual effects on it and Eclipse), which throws off his otherwise laudable shelf of Oscars and models. Corman (far too briefly), Dante, Miller (who’s not looking good, sadly), and others all offer their recollections, and even speak a bit about the sequel and 1995 remake. Dante and producer Jon Davison also narrate a (soundless) collection of behind the scenes material, which is hilarious (over a shot of the boat blowing up, Davison quips “I got a better angle than you did for the picture!”). The pair also provide a commentary, which covers the usual ground, spiced with Dante’s traditional self-deprecation. A bunch of trailers, photos, TV spots, and a few deleted/extended scenes round things out – pretty standard set, but rare for an older film (especially a low budget quickie). The transfer is also quite nice; it won’t be the one you pull out to show off your home theater, but it’s remarkably clean and vibrant (again, you’d think a production like this wouldn’t have everything preserved so well). I don’t know if it’s worth the extra dough for Blu-ray, but it’s a great package all the same.

I am really looking forward to the remake. The fact that Richard Dreyfuss is in it, playing Matt Hooper, is enough reason to like it, but the rest of the cast is inspired (Christopher Lloyd, Ving Rhames, Adam Scott, Paul Scheer, Elizabeth Shue, and so on), and there promises to be buckets of blood, all in glorious 3D (true it is a post-convert, but only because the cameras weren’t available – the shots were designed with 3D in mind and they even had 3D gurus on set making sure that things were being shot/lit in a way that would provide the best possible 3D effect when converted). If nothing else, it will be Aja’s most “fun” movie, and even if its terrible, its existence is the only reason we finally got a re-release (and special edition) of the original. Win-win!

What say you?

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  1. yeah, an absolutely great and highly entertaining classic!

  2. do you think 'Piranha 3D' will have any 30 foot flying mega-piranha that explode on contact?


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