Piranha Blu-ray Review
Shout! Factory do Corman-fans proud yet again, with another very consistent and faithful-looking AVC transfer for Piranha. Dante's 1.78:1 image still has a few nicks and pops here and there, but the print is stable, crisp and largely blemish-free. There are a few wavering contrast flickers that occur in some occasional darker portions - something that is very common to see in hi-def transfers of films from the seventies and early eighties - but this is inherent to the source and the photography. Grain is light and properly film-like in texture. A couple of shots dotted about feature an upswing in the grain-field - and, once again, it is some of the darker scenes that tend to reflect this - but this perfectly normal and does not represent anything of a distraction. Untoward noise reduction does not appear to have been perpetrated - in fact, Shout! Factory have readily stated that they are averse to any such detail-stripping tricks.
Piranha has a stronger presentation of colours right across the spectrum. I've some really ropy transfers of the film where this has been concerned in the past, with muted and dulled primaries, but Shout! Factory has come up trumps with a smooth but vibrant palette that exhibits no smearing or shifting and appears nice and bright but not overly boosted. Dillman's red plaid lumberjack shirt and the copious blood in the water are much more vivid than before, the greens of the foliage and the diffused saturation of the image underwater, the yellow summer-camp gear of the kids and of Bartel, in particular, and the awful pink tie that Miller wears all seem more acutely rendered in this version. The old Metrocolor has been spruced-up a treat and the image of our heroes rafting down the river in the sunlight is actually quite beautiful to look at.
Detail is often revelatory. Exterior daytime shots - which form the majority of the film - are terrific. Facial close-ups reveal lots of whiskerage, crags and texture. Clothing is fine with some material texture clearly visible at times. The wounds inflicted by the piranha certainly have more visual clarity than ever before - Wynn's shredded legs, the chunks torn out of faces and torsos - and the scene in which the fish bite through the lashings on the log-raft shows a lot more detail on the bark as well as on the nibbling blighters, themselves. Plus there is more clarity afforded the “things” in jars in the laboratory, and the stop-motion creature scuttling about. Depth of field is fairly acute, but Piranha does still have a tendency to look flat. Having said this, there can be times when the image is flattered by a good sense of three-dimensionality, such as when the army convoy comes into shot, or the scenes of watery crowd-chaos.
Fans will certainly not be disappointed by this transfer. Piranha looks fabulous for its style and its vintage.
Shout! Factory seem to enjoy sampling different mixes on their releases. Death Race 2000 had lossy DD 2.0, both Galaxy Of Terror and Forbidden World had DTS-HD MA 2.0 and now Piranha has an LPCM uncompressed 2.0 mix. You have to applaud the fact that they do not fall into the trap of engineering bogus surround tracks just for the sheer hell of it like certain other labels.
The audio transfer is, like the video, very faithful and authentic. The film sounds rich and dynamic, even a little punchy at times, but this isn't going to wow anyone expecting dramatic .LFE oomph and whip-around steerage.
But the three crucial elements that create Piranha's dark and twisted atmosphere are all dealt with in crisp, clear and detailed style. Dialogue is excellently reproduced, always very clean and bright and carrying the full variety character tones - the grumbling, sardonic brogue of Dillman, the furry, grandfatherly voice of Wynne, the perky-purr of Balaski, the Brooklyn jabber of Dick Miller etc, etc - and there is some degree of detail and depth to the presentation of speech around the mix. The score from Pino Donaggio has a degree of warmth and separation, but it is his jabbing “stingers” that have the most presence. And, fabulously, that incredibly quirky sound effect for the razor-fish going about their voracious business of ceaseless, pitiless nibbling, which fills the limited aural environment with nervous, agitated, furiously pulsating scissoring that gradually unhinges the wits with its sheer relentlessness. Likened to a corral of dentist drills by Dante, this becomes the signature tune for the film.
The audio track certainly sounds clean and undamaged to me. The width across the front is pleasing, though hardly grand. The bass levels are pedestrian and safe, but consistently employed. The effects are well integrated and never muffled or swamped, and never over-egged. I have no doubt that this is the best that Piranha has ever sounded on home video.
You can enjoy a fine commentary track from Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison that supplies a wealth of production detail and trivia and is bolstered by a nice relaxed and candid approach. We hear lots about the budget, the casting and on working with Roger Corman. But there are some wonderful little anecdotes revolving around the various characters that Dante admits they were very lucky to procure for the picture, especially Wynn, McCarthy and Steele. We also hear about the original ideas for the little stop motion creature in the lab, which sound fabulous. Get this, they'd intended to have the thing escape and then be seen growing throughout the movie until eventually it would attack the Santa Monica Pier. Obviously comical in tone, I think this would have been really cool, however they couldn't afford it. Apparently they even allowed Rob Bottin to shoot a couple of bits - they ended up cutting them out, of course, but that's Bottin's own head (well, latex replica of his own head) cropping up at one stage. Remember me talking about those wacky headlines on the newspaper? Well Dante actually explains that they are all genuine. He just caught sight of the way-out journo style that they have down in Texas and thought that it would suit his film. Both are frank about the film's limitations but there is clearly a lot of fondness there, too. Dante explains a little bit about film preservation and restoration, even mentioning that he recently restored The Howling. The pair even stick around to the end of the credits and offer titbits about many of the names scrolling past. “Ah, Ryder Sound ... no longer there. MGM ... no longer there!” A great commentary track, folks, and well worth your time.
9 minutes of Jon Davison's home movies can be inspected in the Behind The Scenes montage. Wonderful material here, folks. Davison and Dante provide a running commentary and this is witty, nostalgic and cool. We see the ridiculously young Rob Bottin playing with the fishes and applying some gore - most notably to Keenan Wynne's flesh-stripped legs. We see lots of location work and people larking about. Some of this is in black-and-white, but the majority of it is in colour. Very enjoyable.
The Making Of Piranha lasts for 19 minutes - which I don't think is long enough, personally - and features contributions from Corman, who gives his usual proud father's spiel, Dante, Balaski, Miller, Davison and others, and spends a lot of time discussing the primitive special effects. To that end we hear from Chris Walas, Phil Tippet and Peter Kuran, as well as from Balaski who, God bless her, is now looking her age, about her traumatic experiences with gaffer-taped fake piranhas during her big send-off. Considering the acclaim and the longevity that the film has attained over the years, I'm actually surprised that this doesn't go a lot more in-depth on the production than it does. Previous documentaries have gone into the characters, the performers who played them, the stories and the writers and attacked the films from a variety of view-points from the threadbare, improvised constructions to the cultural impact they attained. This piece, whilst still essential for fans, just seems to scratch the surface with only a limited scope of reminiscence.
A great touch that I wish more releases could offer is a selection of Bloopers and Outtakes. I love these things and whilst the modest gathering here aren't the most uproarious gaffs, they do present an amusing side to film production. Barbara Steele fluffs her lines, Heather Menzies can't open a cell door, pick up a picture or unbutton her blouse, Wynne can't hear a thing, Dick Miller gets tongue-tied and Dillman has to walk all the down a ravine before realising that he doesn't know what to say once he gets to the bottom.
There was extra footage that was allowed to be kept in for a Network TV version, and these additional scenes have been grouped together for our perusal. But what this stuff amounts to is things that Dante originally cut out from the film. When the TV execs baulked at the gore and had New World trim out the violence and nudie bits, the resulting film was too short, which is why this superfluous material was put back in. There's nothing great to be seen here, but for Piranha completists, this is is certainly a boon.
We get the Trailers from Hell entry for Piranha with a nice little voiceover from Davison, and there are also TV and Radio Spots to pad this out.
A comprehensive selection of on-set stills and posters from around the world - very nice - is complemented by behind the scenes photos from Phil Tippett's personal collection. Some great images here, too.
The release features the now-obligatory reversible packaging and, to be honest, I actually prefer the artwork on the inside, which is of poster that I grew up with. There is also a little booklet of notes on the film's history and impact from Michael Felsher.
Another extensive package has been put together for Corman-junkies like us to enjoy, although for some reason I feel a little short-changed by the 19-minute retrospective Making-Of that we get. Piranha is actually a much bigger film and certainly a much bigger success for the Corman production line and I'm surprised that this wasn't a bit more comprehensive. Still, that's just me - a massive fan that wants more and more. Otherwise, this is a great selection of material. A fun commentary, loads of extra scenes from the TV version, terrific galleries and the always giggle-worthy Trailers From Hell offering.
Shout! Factory do us proud yet again. Their release of possibly one of Corman's most accomplished flicks is typically packed with good stuff and showcased with a fine transfer that chews up any previous versions and spits 'em out. The film remains tremendous entertainment that is fast, frothy, fanged and fun. A great cast make a meal of the hokey premise and, against all the odds, wring about some genuine pathos and even an air of heroic nobility come the end. Sayles' screenplay is a winner - both witty and fresh in the face of the Jaws shadow that spawned it.
With Corman movies arriving on Blu-ray seemingly all the time, it is great to kick back and savour one of the more acclaimed entries. Joe Dante proved himself to be a swift and inventive director and Piranha has all the hallmarks that he would come to be known for. His commentary with Jon Davison is thoroughly entertaining and offers all the fascinating trivia that you could wish for. The other extras are also excellent value, with the home movies and the outtakes adding something refreshingly different to the usual slew of documentaries and featurettes.
Piranha is good grisly fun, satirically written and as downright entertaining as it is frightening. The cast of Dante regulars is like a welcome family - it is always great to see Dick Miller - and the set-pieces are full of playfully bravura momentum. The influence of Jaws looms large over the production but Piranha delightfully swims off on its own tangent and my advice is to swim after it before the big 3D remake comes up from the depths and tries to nibble a niche of its own.
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