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Piranha Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 31, 2010

    Piranha Review

    “People eat fish, Grogan. Fish don't eat people.”

    In the cinematic history of dunderheaded US military projects, Operation Razor-teeth is perhaps the most laughably evil. At a top secret research facility located at the source of the Lost River Lake in Texas, boffins have created a mutant strain of experimental piranha fish - literally a covert force of marine predators that were intended to infiltrate the waterways of South East Asia. But before they could be unleashed, the Vietnam War was over and the project abandoned. However, if the installation has fallen into disrepair and ruin, the deadly critters have positively thrived under the care of the lone scientist who has remained in residence to carry on the sinister research. Still, there's nothing to worry about. I mean the ravenous little buggers are kept in an isolated pool and there's no way that they get out into the river ... is there? Nobody would be dumb enough to set them free, would they?

    “Last one in is a rotten egg!”

    When two young backpackers stumble across what they take to be just a tranquil pool and decide to indulge in a spot of midnight skinny-dipping, in true Jaws-style they get a whole lot more than they bargained for. And pretty soon after, we've got a plucky investigator (Heather Menzies) and an alcoholic outdoorsman (Bradford Dillman) snooping around the place in search of the missing duo. After finding the clothes and the packs belonging to the pair they drain the pool to see if they are down there. But they should have listened to the crazed ranting of the scientist before knocking him out cold ... and now they've gone and let the frenzied shoal loose into the Lost River where they can merrily chow down on anybody they find fishing, swimming or frolicking in the water. Oops.

    The really weird thing about the Roger Corman produced and Joe Dante directed killer-fish spectacular Piranha - a typically low-budget exploitationer designed purely to catch hold of Jaws' tail-fin - is that it is now revered as a classic horror film, itself, as opposed to merely a classic “cash-in” horror film. Over the years, its reputation, thanks mainly to the fabulously witty script from John Sayles and the strong vein of black humour that Dante and his fine cast of familiar faces injected into the project, has only grown. Piranha breaks away from its cheap and derivative origins and becomes its own happy-go-gory entity. The fact that it spawned its own unofficial sequel - more on that later - and has even been remade not once, but twice, with the most recent made in 3D speaks for itself about the film's popularity and box office clout. In the seventies, Hollywood had a field-day with nature fighting back. Not only was there Jaws and Jaws 2, but we had the eco-nightmare of Frogs, rabid bats in Nightwing, eighteen feet of gut-crunching terror in Grizzly, creepy-crawling troubles in Kingdom Of The Spiders, the stinging maelstrom of The Swarm and, erm, a horde of killer rabbits in Night Of The Lepus. The theme of man's tampering with nature resulting in panic and chaos was like a moral warning to us all, and if Piranha was a touch sarcastic and light-hearted, it still stuck an indignant finger up at the establishment and the Man. As producer Jon Davison asserts, anybody wearing a uniform in the seventies was a bad guy, and Piranha takes no prisoners on the political front, that's for sure.

    “Now go out there and distract him.”

    “But what if he's gay?”

    “Then I'll distract him!”

    Whilst Heather Menzies is undoubtedly cute as the unstoppable and dogged insurance investigator, Maggie McKeown, she is most definitely not the typical damsel in distress that you would normally find in this sort of material. There's no moments of her slipping over the side of a boat into the water, and no spells of helpless screaming either. Ditzy she may be, but she also has a terrific go-get-'em attitude that allows her to more than hold her own against the blokes. Once again, this is something that Corman was always able to do despite his pictures often being quite gratuitous and, naturally, very exploitative. Menzies was a regular face on TV, with stints on Logan's Run as Jessica-6, SWAT, Vegas and even TJ Hooker. Sayles ensures that her banter with Bradford Dillman is fresh and sparky, and the chemistry between the two works well by purposely straying off the beaten track. Probably at Corman's insistence, there is a romantic element that has been shoehorned-in, but thankfully, it is very brief and it is not permitted the hamper the plot in any way.

    When the original star of the picture, Peter Fonda, walked, in came Bradford Dillman to play the drunken recluse Paul Grogan. He had already tackled the dark side of meddled-with nature in the great SF shocker Bug (1975), so he really should have known what he was letting himself in for with this shoal of scientifically botched fish. His jaded and cynical forest tracker starts off cantankerous and reluctant, but he ends-up a total hero. The sort of hangdog, rough 'n' ready societal drop-out who, when the chips are down, becomes precisely the type of resourceful person that you need to have around. Running, sailing, driving and swimming like a madman for much of the film's duration, his Grogan is definitely a man-of-action once he has to be. Indeed, you have to hand it to the pair of them for their supreme diligence and determination to let the world know what is headed its way. But the quirky thing about the script is that our intrepid heroes have a terrific habit of getting to places just a little bit too late for their warnings to actually have any good. In fact, in most cases they arrive in time only to help clean up the mess that the piranha have left behind. And we shouldn't forget that these two were the ones that let the piranha out in the first place, which actually means that their mission is also something of a guilt trip.

    “My God, you're actually blaming me for all this ... when you're the ones who let them out!”

    As Paul's whiskery old friend, Jack, Keenan Wynn is one of those vastly familiar faces from film and TV and somehow you feel on safe ground when he is around. Well, you do, that is, until the silly old coot sticks his tootsies over the end of the pier! Genre veteran and cult scream-queen Barbara Steele makes a wild and welcome appearance as the acidic and heartless Dr. Mengers (not too far from another notorious doctor keen on cruel experiments - Dr. Mengle). Far removed from her haunting wide-eyed beauty in Mario Bava's wonderfully infamous Mask Of Satan (Black Sunday), Sergio Corbucci's Castle Of Blood and Ricardo Freda's The Terror Of Dr. Hitchcock, Steele (born, by the way, just down the road from me) found herself moving from the flamboyant and stylish exercises in European horror and fantasy in the seventies to the more hard-core and controversial offerings from the likes of David Cronenberg, who placed her in his grim early body-horror shocker Shivers, and The Silent Scream for Denny Harris. But, of course, Roger Corman had directed her, himself, in his great 1961 Poe adaptation of The Pit And The Pendulum. Being honest, this isn't a good role for her to get her teeth into and even if she gets a final moment in which to inject a macabre character wink at the audience (something that Dante would do again at the very end of The Howling) she seems ill-at-ease and even a touch less than confident with the material. Plus it is irritating the way that she pronounces piranha as pi-rarnia!

    “I'm not afraid ... I'm a scientist. I have priorities. And some things are more important than the loss of a few peoples' lives.”

    Gee, thanks, Doctor!

    Kevin McCarthy (so memorable in the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) would crop up again and again for Dante. The long-suffering TV executive who watches his anchor-woman turn into a werewolf live on camera in The Howling. The permanently anxious surrogate father at the mercy of a child with God-like powers in his segment of Twilight Zone. And he certainly suffers at Dante's hands here as the rather pathetic Dr. Bob Hoak, the unfortunate scientist left in charge of the pool of experimental razor-fish after the facility was closed-down. Famously a student of the Method style, McCarthy actually seems to be having ball as the half-deranged and ultimately half-eaten quack. Watching Piranha again now, I can easily see how I developed such a crush on the supremely delectable Belinda Balaski, seen here as the sympathetic counsellor, Betsy, at the summer camp. Another regular of Dante, she would sample some savage teeth yet again for him in The Howling. Even in a film that is as gleefully over-the-top and as tongue-in-cheek as this, she is the recipient of a genuinely affecting sequence that the director and the composer, Italy's Pino Donaggio, both certainly viewed as being tragic.

    “My daughter's down there! There are kids down there! And the piranha are still in the river!”

    Corman-friend and regular collaborator Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000) puts in an enjoyable performance as the summer camp's head instructor, Mr. Dumont, a comically arrogant and hard-line task-master who bullies the kids into the water and actively seeks out anyone attempting a midnight dip. Sadly, he also intervenes when Belinda Balaski is about to take her top off, but you have to give the comic actor some credit for bringing some true pathos to the part when we see him sitting, shell-shocked, beside the shrouded body of a young victim in the bloody aftermath of the piranha attack. And, at this point, it is well worth mentioning the terrific performance from little Shannon Collins as Suzie Grogan, our hero's daughter. Painfully afraid of the water even before those nasty piranha show up, she becomes the soul of the story when she undertakes a selfless act of bravery during the massed attack on the kids at the summer camp. And no Joe Dante film would be complete without an appearance from Dick Miller. Given a meatier role than usual, Miller's pink-tie wearing owner of Lost River's Aquamarine Park, Buck Gardner, is Piranha's answer to Murray Hamilton's Mayor Vaughan. No matter what the warnings might be, no matter how riskier the proposition, he wants people in the river and having fun on the opening day of his new resort ... well, it's more of a second-hand resort, actually. Only when he is informed by his stooge-like assistant that the piranha he has been pretending don't really exist are now “eating the guests” does he begin to take the matter seriously. Miller actually got his first taste of proper success after a few years of lowly Westerns and big bug movies way back in 1959 when Corman directed him in the black comedy A Bucket Of Blood, and it is marvellous how the sarcastic and snappy actor has remained faithful to the genre ever since. Bruce Gordon (famous for his Frank Nitti portrayal in The Untouchables TV show) plays the heartless General who was overseeing the Razor-teeth project with broad malice. In one guilty pleasure of a scene, we even see him shoving a bloodied, struggling victim of his piranha platoon back into the water! Quite why a full-blown general would have invested in a fly-by-night theme park, though, is open to debate. Sayles and Corman just cannot resist that cynical edge, can they?

    Joe Dante is one of those wonderful and gifted directors who thrives on ensemble casts and works extremely well with his actors. His sense of humour is all-prevalent, as is his devotion to movie history in general and to genre pictures especially. The Howling (1981) was a complete treat and, alongside American Werewolf, remains at the high water-mark for werewolf movies. His segment of Spielberg's Twilight Zone: The Movie, A Good Life, was the most inspired and truly fantastical (Nightmare At 20,000 Feet, from George Miller, was the best, of course, but at least Dante's was an original story). But it is for Gremlins, also for Spielberg, that Dante will perhaps be best remembered. His skill for blending horror and humour is without peer and certainly Gremlins is the most magnificent showcase for developing a monster movie that appeals to everyone, yet still manages to subvert the conventions of the common festive family film. Back in his early days, toiling for Corman, he learned his craft from editing and was then given the break he needed when the celebrated producer gave him the chance to direct Rock 'n' Roll High School . But his madcap enthusiasm would prove to be far better suited to horror and sci-fi. And Piranha offered him both in spades, as well as plenty of leeways for what would be become his hallmark black humour.

    His in-jokes are justifiably famous and his use of pop culture references begins in earnest in Piranha with footage from old creature-features (The Monster That Challenged The World) and fishy cartoons on the TV, a newspaper blurting out some fabulous nature-runs-amok headlines - Dogs Tear Newborn Baby Apart ... Big Rattler Bites Teen ... Piranhas Don't Leave Much Evidence - and sticking mugshots of the crew and his friends onto Wanted posters in the cop-shop. Dante handles his various set-pieces incredibly well considering how fresh to the game of directing that he was. The film never drops the pace and the tension, despite the black comedy vibe running wild through it, is often extremely taut. The attack on the kids at the summer camp is especially gruelling, clearly ramped-up from the shark chowing down on the “little Kintner boy” in Jaws, and quite controversial in that most movies would have shied away from putting children in such peril, let alone showing them in such agony for a protracted sequence. The nerve-wracking moment when the piranha chew through the lashings on our heroes' log-raft as they attempt to sail down the river is another standout episode. The film has been leading up the grand opening of Buck Gardner's ramshackle, hand-me-down theme park (this, in itself, is a fitting tribute to the threadbare production values of a typical Corman picture, when you think about it) and the massacre of the guests that we have been waiting for all along provides a fantastic finale of thrashing limbs, sawing gnashers and gore-filled waves.

    Typically for a Corman quickie, the film has to have some explosive action along the way. Besides all the fishy-stuff, we get a jeep overturning at high speed and the sheer indulgence of violent collision out on the river between a powerboat and a little fishing vessel, although if you look closely you'll see that the explosion actually begins before the point of impact. The death-defying climactic act of heroism from Grogan is also quite dynamic and imaginatively executed.

    Popular screenwriter John Sayles has a pedigree with this sort of material, with Alligator, The Howling, Battle Beyond The Stars (also for Corman) to his name, as well as the much more mainstream and ambitious re-write that he did on Apollo 13. Here, the acclaimed writer/editor/director/actor (there's no stopping him is there?) works from an original story idea from Richard Robinson (that for some silly reason had forest fires and rampaging bears in it as well) and his uncanny ability to elevate a B-grade chiller-filler is at its most potent. Whereas Alligator was rife with wry social observation, Piranha is a bitch-slap to authority and corporate chauvinism. Corman liked his movies to delve into the murky waters of bureaucratic egotism, satirising the nightmare craving of the mighty dollar and even if the bully-boy persona of Dick Miller's local entrepreneur is more of a knowing reference to Jaws, Sayles has no trust of either small town tycoons or the blinkered attitude of the hard-assed military. The statuesque Sayles actually appears in the film as a soldier posted as a guard outside the tent that Grogan and McKeown have been temporarily incarcerated in - and he winds up being the lucky beneficiary of McKeown's flashing. Sorry to say though, folks, that is not actually Heather Menzies flaunting her wares in the shot, but one of the staff at the Holiday Inn where Dante and his crew were staying who appealingly “doubled” for her.

    “You drained the pond. You let them out! They breed like flies ... there'll be no way to stop them!”

    Young Chris (The Fly/Gremlins) Walas' effects, as cheap and as cheerful as they are for the voracious shoals of little toothy blighters, are enhanced no end by their utterly evil mutated faces. When they set about devouring any unfortunate flesh in the water, the resulting carnage is quite spectacular - you've got to love the attention to detail with the swift little nibbling that we see in close-up, and the shredded remains that get hauled out of the river. Before he created werewolves for The Howling and all manner of grotesquerie for The Thing, Rob Bottin (only 17 at the time) supplied the gory makeup for the fishy victims. Chewed-up noggins (one of them actually Bottin's!) bobbing in the water look a touch too plasticy, but there are some deliciously savage tear-ups taking place, nonetheless. Rick Baker had been approached but, even at this early stage in his career, New World Pictures couldn't afford his services. But the film was also memorable for the fantastic Ray Harryhausen homage of the little genetic homunculus scampering around the secret lab at the start - a creature that helps lift the film into a more fantastical milieu. Dante obviously adored this style of effects-creation (he has even appeared in tribute featurettes to Harryhausen on other discs) as he would incorporate it into The Howling and Gremlins as well. Phil (Starship Troopers) Tippet and Peter Kuran handled a lot of the visual effects, proving that Piranha was quite a foundation stone for a lot of talented dream-merchants on the ascension and still just cutting their teeth - which is perfectly apt, wouldn't you say? Tippet even plays the diver who ends up as fish-food. It is a shame that the full animatronic piranha puppet was never ready in time, but these stick-waggled contraptions still look very impressively goofy, just the same. There is even a wonderful animated shot of the approaching shoal that really adds a frisson of shivery apprehension.

    Bernard Herrmann imitator Pino Donaggio provides a score that doesn't quite match the film's blackly comic overtones. Although I rate the composer's score for Dante's subsequent werewolf flick The Howling quite highly (and he certainly got the joke for that one), I have to confess to not being much of fan of his work overall. Overblown, archly melodramatic and much too derivative, he is a composer very much stuck in a rut. His predilection for Herrmannising everything from historical dramas to Vietnam War movies becomes quite galling. Here, his best elements come from the sustained tones that he uses to convey the unstoppable nature of the piranha as they drag their victims down, plus the grave might of the cue that serenades Betsy's last swim.

    Piranha, then, is a real gem, despite its budgetary restrictions and its wholly derivative nature. Released at the same time as Jaws 2, and some would say that it is a far superior film, Dante's killer-fish opus was a big success, certainly the most bankable production that New World ever had. Roger Corman, himself, remade the film using heaps of Dante's footage in 1995, but excised all the humour and sank the project. Famously, though, James Cameron, having worked as a production designer and effects-man for Corman, got his first stab at directing a full feature film in 1981 when he was recruited to helm the atrocious Piranha 2: The Spawning. But to save the future King Of The World any embarrassment, it is true that he was actually ousted from the project and only the infinitely better material that involved just the actors, and not the risible effects scenes, can be attributed to his direction. Although other films featuring these hungry little horrors have been made, most notably Antonio Margheriti's pulpish Killer Fish, starring Lee Major and Karen Black, Piranha remains the final word on the matter. At the time of writing, I have still to see Alexandre Aja's 3D remake, but while it seems obvious that it will improve vastly on the effects, I have doubts that it will retain the twisted charm of this witty and inspired original.