Skip to main content

The water’s filled with carnivorous fish.

Piranha
(1978)

(SPOILERS) Joe Dante’s first movie-proper, complete with a singularly solo directorial credit, in which he’s armed with John Sayles first screenplay (rewriting Richard Robinson’s effort), Piranha has considerable fun riffing on Jaws (from the very start; a character plays a delightfully basic Jaws arcade game over the opening credits). It was a little late to the party, admittedly, surfacing a very un-cash-in-like three years down the line (so much so that Universal’s own cash-in Jaws 2, from which Spielberg demurred involvement, was released two months earlier). You  can see a huge step up aesthetically between this and Dante’s next film, The Howling, but Piranha’s tongue-in-cheek scares effectively establish the director’s approach to both horror and humour; the DNA of the maker of Gremlins is all over Piranha.


Reputedly, Universal were all set to sue over Piranha copying Jaws, but Spielberg intervened when he saw and liked the film (he considered it the best of the Jaws rip-offs). For a studio known for its quickies, it took New World a long time to bring it all together. Peter Fonda turned the movie down because he didn’t think the effects would work (Bradford Dilman took the role). To his credit, Corman didn’t think it was worth doing if the effects didn’t work, and to be fair, they still look pretty good, thanks to sped up footage and an aural accompaniment that resembles a hive of subaqua bees. Rob Bottin and Phil Tippet provided the effects, both of whom went on to great acclaim in their fields over the next decade.


For his part, Dante was convinced the movie was terrible (he had wanted to direct Rock and Roll High School, on which he filled in for his Hollywood Boulevard co-director Allan Arkush for a couple of days), despite the cutting and recutting he did, so its success came as a surprise. Hollywood being prone to thinking out of the box, he would subsequently be offered the watery likes of Orca 2 and Jaws 3 People 0 (the latter might have been the Jaws sequel equivalent of his later Gremlins 2, a decade early). The plot is replete with the usual essentials of such horror fare, mostly involving people doing really dumb things, but there’s a knowingness swimming through Piranha that complements the daftness. This is, after all, the sea (river) menace as a full-blown science fiction beastie.


Dr Hoak: Of course they paid. There’s germ warfare, the bomb, chemical warfare. There’s plenty of money, special agencies. They pay. They pay a lot better than they do in private research.

The piranhas have been bred in “some kind of army test site up the mountain”, through messing with genetics and radiation as part of Operation Razorteeth, overseen by Kevin McCarthy’s morally wayard scientist Dr Robert Hoak. Courtesy of Sayles, there’s a witty commentary on politics and the environment. The project was designed to produce a creature that would destroy the river systems of the North Vietnamese, but alas, operations ended and the project was put into turn around. However, a mutant strain (of mutants) resisted the poisin and Hoak nurtured them.


While Hoak is ethically compromised, so representing the stereotypically self-deluding figure who denies culpability (“I’m a scientist. I never killed anybody. If you want to talk about killing, talk to your politicians, and the military people”), he redeems himself in a wash of frothing river blood to save a small child.


McCathy, most famously a veteran of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, would go on to work with Dante another half dozen times over the next quarter of a century, and it’s those 1950s B-trappings that most inform Piranha, rather than the ‘70s “realism” of Spielberg’s Jaws. They’re there in the monster feeding frenzies, and the oblivious holiday makers. The military even show up, although they are completely useless and it’s down to Dilman’s Grogan to save the day.


Amusingly, both our heroes are responsible for the same kind of destruction the army blithely profess is in our best interests (“Sometimes it’s necessary to destroy in order to save”). It’s insurance investigator Maggie (Heather Menzies) who lets the piranhas out (Hoak has a point when he accuses her “You pulled the plug and your holding me responsible? You’re actually blaming me?”), while Grogan’s plan to rid the river of these carnivorous terrors is “We’ll pollute the bastards to death”, through releasing industrial waste from the smelting plant tanks. Eco-disaster is thus heralded as the salvation of humanity.


Dumont: People eat fish, Grogan. Fish don’t eat people.

You can frequently feel the langoruousness pace of Piranha. At 90 minutes, it could probably have shaved 15 off and been more effective. It’s a leisurely, mostly unatmospheric ride. While there are incidental pleasures involving Dick Miller’s Lost River water park, and Paul Bartel is, yet again (following Hollywood Boulevard), a scene stealer as summer camp officiator Mr Dumont (reacting to kids throwing darts at his picture; telling Grogan – whose daughter is in attendance –  to sober up during a phone call where the latter is warning of the fishy threat; having a piranha bite his nose), too often the pace dips to a crawl.


Dante throws in occasional pleasures and distractions, from references to aquatic literature, old movies and their assorted clichés (the skinny dippers – this is still a Corman film - at the start reference the Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s a full moon, and someone is reading Moby Dick), to crass gags (a fat chap’s deck chair collapses beneath him), good ones (“Lost River Lake. Terror. Horror. Death. Film at Eleven” announces a TV reporter) to little bits of weirdness (the stop-motion mutant in Hoak’s lab, as well as the puppet one) and the occasional eye for a memorable shot (Grogan’s hand rising out of the water). There is also a fair share of nasty deaths, Keenan Wynn’s particularly, and Pino Donaggio, who was slumming it, relatively speaking, provides an effective score.


Buck Gardner: What about the goddam piranhas?
Assistant: They’re eating the guests, sir.

Piranha naturaly provides a set up for a sequel, with scream queen Barbara Steele (as military employee Dr Mengers) assuring us “There’s nothing left to fear”. Some bloke with no future called James Cameron would handle Piranha II: The Flying Killers, as Dante would be off directing werewolves accompanied by a portion of the cast (McCarthy, Miller, Belinda Balaski). The movie’s reputation as a little gem is a bit overstated, to be honest. It’s too fitfully paced to exhibit the consistent wit and unbridled flair of the director’s ‘80s efforts, poised at is between the cheap-and-cheerful Corman approach and the sensibility Dante was developing, but it’s undoubtedly been influential. And remade. Twice.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.