Aug 21, 2012

Piranha:

Fish Sticks


07/10
Piranha
1978
Director:
Joe Dante
Screenplay:
John Sayles
Cast:
Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies,
Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn,
Dick Miller, Belinda Belaski,
Barbara Steele, Paul Bartel


"Then...you were shocked by the great white shark
 - Now...you are at the mercy of 1000 jaws!"

Roger Corman built his production company, New World Cinema, selling suggestive titles and poster art to film audiences, then cobbling together films to go with his product. And he was very good at riding on the coattails of box office hits, by cranking out bargain brand knockoffs emphasizing the more... colorful aspects of the films being exploited. New World Cinema was sort of like a classier Asylum Films, except that New World made entertaining movies.

When the title "Piranha" was test marketed in the wake of Jaws success, the results were extremely promising. There were many Jaws ripoffs in the 70's but Piranha stands apart in being a good film in it's own right. This is largely do to the efforts of director Joe Dante who infused the project with his own weird energy, and screenwriter John Sayles who added touches of self aware humor and satire similar to that he'd bring to The Howling. And like The Howling, we get a talented cast including Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller and Belinda Belaski as well as Paul Bartel and Barbara Steele. As an added bonus, Rob Bottin does some make up work. Piranha has a fine pedigree. Though there are a few deliberate nods to Jaws, Piranha more closely follows in the proud tradition of eco-horror. In which man screws around with nature, and then nature screws man right back. For a true rip off, which not only borrows from Jaws but actually steals everything not nailed down, check out Grizzly.

The opening scene is straight out of Jaws as two young hikers stumble across an abandoned military facility one night and, ignoring signs, fences and common sense, decide to swimming. The water's warm and filled with hungry piranha. They make short work of the hikers and a light turns on in the facility cluing us in to to the fact that it's not so abandoned.

JAWS FEEDS...on your quarters.
 We cut to scene that introduces us to our plucky heroin, Maggie. It's kind of meta as she's playing a Jaws arcade game. A skip tracer hired to find the hikers eaten in the previous scene. She's played by Heather Menzies most known at the time for her role as Jessica on the Logan's Run television series. A likable protagonist whose spunky tenacity plays well off our other protagonist, Paul Grogan. Grogan's played by Bradford Dillman who began with a promising career playing leading man types, but would later settle into supporting roles as the shifty guy you probably shouldn't trust. If you watch the right kind of movies you should remember him as Dr. Lewis Dixon in Escape From The Planet Of The Apes. There he played a more straightforward leading man good guy type, here he's a divorced unemployed alcoholic recluse. The part was originally intended for Peter Fonda who opted out deciding that Piranha wasn't up to his caliber of film making. Good riddance I say. I can't see Fonda bringing the gruff and gritty qualities to the part that Dillman does. Not quite an antihero, more of a defeated sad sack loser. Anyway, Maggie takes a shine to him and ropes him in to helping her out, and the two have a good,cutesy chemistry going on. Maggie picks up the hikers trail which leads her and Grogan to the not so abandoned facility. They find the hiker's discarded gear and Maggie decides to drain the reservoir to search for the bodies.

Now, you may notice the weird little stop motion creatures running around the lab. Pay no attention as they play no part in the rest of the film, and none of the characters notice or comment on them. This was likely shot before the budget was tightened and I'm guessing without Corman's knowledge. No way Corman would spring for throw away sequences like this, and there's no way he'd waste it once shot. From here on out it's all about the piranha.

Pointless waste of money.

Maggie starts to drain the reservoir and is attacked by a panicked Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Well, nothing's going to stop Maggie from draining the reservoir at that very second without pausing to hear why the guy that lives there thinks that's a very bad idea. So they beat him over the head and let the reservoir drain.

A short time later the trio are sailing on a raft down a piranha infested river. McCarthy's character is Dr. Hoak and he finally spills the beans. He was the chief genetic researcher on Operation Razor Teeth, a military project meant to engineer fast breeding piranha that could survive in the cold rivers of North Vietnam. After the war ended the project was terminated and the fish were all poisoned. Except for the ones that survived which Hoak had continued to perfect over the years. And which Maggie just drained into the river. And there is no doubt that the evil little mutants are making a B-line for the summer camp just on the other side of the dam that's opened every now and then to prevent the water from building up. Would you be surprised if I told you that Grogan's young daughter was staying at the camp?

The film does a good job keeping the characters just in step or one step behind behind the piranha. It's a race against time and the film builds suspense cutting back and forth between kids playing in the water and the protagonists being thwarted by one obstacle or another. The films villains are a shady military colonel (Bruce Gordon) determined to keep the piranhas existence secret at any cost and the greedy businessman who won't let public safety stand in the way of profit. The camp scenes are fun. Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul , Chopping Mall) has a good bit part as a hard ass summer camp leader. And Belinda Belaski is very likable as the counselor who befriends Grogan's daughter. There's also a subplot involving a water park being opened up just across the river, run by a colourful entrepreneur played by Dick Miller.

So not only do our heroes have to stop the piranha from eating the kids at the summer camp but also the guests at the water park. Of course, the audience knows that the movie isn't really going to let all those kids be attacked by killer fish. Oh, wait! this is Joe Dante we're talking about. Actually, there is a bloody feeding frenzy at the summer camp. And if a summer camp full of kids isn't off limits then that water park doesn't stand a chance.

"I can't feel my legs."

Piranha is rather gory. The fish look hokey at times, in some scenes they look like puppets mounted on sticks. But Bottin's the bloody make up effects are good and the sound made when they attack is cool, an effect achieved using dentist drills, I believe. While Dante has a playful sense of humor, he also has quite the mean streak. Anyone who remembers Poebe Cate's Christmas monologue from Gremlins knows what I'm talking about. Piranha is all in good fun but a couple of likable characters die horribly. It's a jokey response to Jaws with an evil little centre.

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