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Monday, October 6, 2008

Piranha (1978) review

PIRANHA (1978)

Bradford Dillman (Paul Grogan), Heather Menzies (Maggie), Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Hoak), Keenan Wynn (Jack), Dick Miller (Buck Gardner), Barbara Steele (Dr. Mengers), Belinda Balaski (Betsy), Paul Bartel (Mr. Dumont)

Directed by Joe Dante

*Review updated March 11th, 2018*

The Short Version: New World's JAWS-lite cult favorite gobbled up millions of dollars as well as much of its indie competition back in the day. Benefiting from serious performances peppered with campy moments and splashes of gore, it's in the upper tier of water-logged terror pictures that swam into cinemas in the wake of Spielberg's monumental blockbuster.

While searching for two missing teens, a skip tracer named Maggie and a local drunk named Paul Logan, uncover a terrible secret. After draining a pool thinking the bodies might be at the bottom, they unwittingly unleash a horde of military enhanced, flesh-hungry piranha. With a resort opening and a children's camp nearby, dozens of lives become potential meals for the killer fish.

Joe Dante's assured hand behind the camera is helped immensely by John Sayle's frighteningly campy script. Dante's stint at New World Pictures lasted five productive years from 1973 to 1978. He was an editor and compiled the trailers for the Corman films. PIRANHA (1978) was released around the same time as JAWS 2 (1978). Reportedly, Universal was not amused at Corman's movie bearing similarities to their killer shark movie and threatened to halt the films release. However, Spielberg enjoyed Dante's piranha picture so much, he kept the film from being held up by Universal.

PIRANHA playfully skirts around its bigger budgeted inspiration, letting the viewer in on the joke post-credits when we see Menzies playing a JAWS video game in the airport. Spielberg later invited Dante to direct some movies like GREMLINS (1984) and INNERSPACE (1987). Made for $660,000, PIRANHA was co-financed by United Artists. They put up $400,000 of the budget. Corman was initially to match that, but decided to hold back $200,000. However, Barbara Boyle--then executive VP of New World--scrounged up an additional $60,000 for the 22 day shoot.

There are several reasons why PIRANHA is a highly regarded entry in Corman's catalog; one of them is in the superb casting.

Bradford Dillman plays Paul Grogan, a divorced and disgruntled alcoholic who lives in the mountains near the summer camp his daughter is attending.

Initially, Dillman wasn't thrilled with the script as he felt there was nothing to his character. Sayles would then flesh out the role to give Dillman something to chew on.

No stranger to horror and SciFi, Dillman starred in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971); the end-of-the-world horror flick CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1974); 1975s BUG about killer cockroaches; and the star-studded, big-budget laugh-fest THE SWARM (1978).

Reportedly, Peter Fonda was originally offered the Grogan part, but would only do it if the effects were good enough. Corman's crew had nothing to show him at the time so Fonda passed.

The beautiful Heather Menzies possessed an innocent quality which contrasts her spunky, daring character seen in the film. The scene where she flashes her breasts at a military guard (played by scriptwriter John Sayles) was not her, but a stand-in. A waitress from the Holiday Inn the crew was staying at offered to bare her bosom in Menzies place. The actress had at first agreed to the brief nudity, but got changed her mind upon feeling her husband would disapprove of it. Menzies also had a lead role in the killer snake flick, SSSSSSS (1973).

Kevin McCarthy as the mad scientist Dr. Hoak plays the guilt-ridden role to the hilt. Having played similar half-crazed characters (or those who end up that way) throughout his career, he's fondly remembered for his lead role in the SciFi classic INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). Taking a cameo in the 1978 remake, he likewise returned to Dante's fold in his segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) and INNERSPACE (1987).

Originally, the role of Dr. Hoak was played by Eric Braeden, later famous on the soap opera THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. Braeden shot some swimming scenes (that remain in the movie), but quit the movie believing it was a less than professional production. Braeden played the main villain in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971).

Fan favorite Dick Miller is the perennial resort owner who refuses to close the lake; much like Murray Hamilton refused to close the beaches in JAWS (1975).

Miller has been in dozens of Drive-in pictures; many of them for Roger Corman. He did A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959) and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) to name two. Miller returned to Dante land for more work including THE HOWLING (1981), GREMLINS (1984), and its sequel from 1991.

British actress and the Queen of Italian Gothic Horror, Barbara Steele is the icy cold Dr. Mengers. She's the shady government scientist that's a cliche of many a monster movie from past decades.

Having walked off the set of the 1960 Elvis movie FLAMING STAR (or let go depending on what story you hear), Steele made a name for herself in the Italian film industry beginning with Mario Bava's seminal BLACK SUNDAY (1960). In 1961 she co-starred in one of Roger Corman's best Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

Belinda Balaski and Paul Bartel were both New World alums. Both play memorable roles in PIRANHA. Balaski gets possibly the most memorable death scene while Bartel is the film's comic relief. The beautiful Balaski had a much bigger role in Dante's THE HOWLING (1981); and a smaller one in GREMLINS (1984). She can also be seen in Bert I. Gordon's FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and the Corman-Shaw Brothers co-production CANNONBALL (1976).

Bartel helmed one of New World's most successful features, DEATH RACE 2000 (1975); following it up with the more serious CANNONBALL the following year. His best work came in 1982 directing the black comedy EATING RAOUL co-starring alongside his frequent collaborator, Mary Woronov.

Shortly after production began, Corman was said to have canceled the movie, believing it was going to spiral out of control. The original script contained scenes that would've cost more than Corman was willing to spend; one of these was an elaborate sequence where a group of campers are mauled by a rampaging bear. They end up in the water and are then killed by the piranha. In the turmoil, a fire gets out of control so then the bear goes into the water. It, too, is then devoured by the hungry fish. John Sayles was hired to do a rewrite so filming could resume.

Interestingly, a script for PIRANHA with a Japanese company as financiers had been around since 1975 before Corman got his hands on it. After the title test-marketed well, Corman got it rolling.

The exceptional score was orchestrated by Italian composer, Pino Dinaggio. He went back to Italy to do the music and would send his progress back for the director to work with as opposed to having a scoring session at the studio. Dinaggio's unique style was employed by Dante again with the evocative and brooding soundscapes heard in THE HOWLING (1981).

FX masters Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett created the splashy gore and used some ingenious methods to bring the piranha to life. Bottin was referred by Rick Baker (who declined the film). Bottin agreed to do it if he was allowed to direct a scene. It didn't make the final cut, but a half-eaten head he made of himself for the resort attack did survive the final print.

The piranha attacks were accomplished by filming puppets attached to rods at 12 frames per second (or less). The sound effects of the flesh-shredding nibblers were taken from dentist drills. The entire SPX budget was a meager $50,000.

Much like some of the discarded attack sequences, the small stop-motion creature from the lab was intended to have a much bigger role. Dante envisioned the creature growing over the course of the movie and attack people on a pier. Deemed too expensive, Corman jettisoned that idea.

DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) was New World's biggest moneymaker at that time, but PIRANHA (1978) devoured it, raking in 30 million dollars. The inevitable sequel came in 1981 and was directed by another New World alum in James Cameron. Corman had nothing to do with it, but he did refer Cameron to Ovidio Assonitis, the Italian producer handling the production. Cameron did contact Dante for his opinion on his directorial debut. Fired from the picture by the producer, Cameron nonetheless had gotten most of the character interplay in the can by the time Assonitis removed him. Aside from picking up with PIRANHA's last shot of the fish reaching the ocean, PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING has nothing to do with Dante's film.

After PIRANHA was a huge success, Joe Dante got other offers for underwater monster pictures. Among these were two that were never made--ORCA 2 and JAWS 3--PEOPLE NOTHING. When JAWS 3 went before the cameras, it was no longer a comedy and was shot in three dimensions.

PIRANHA made its Network Television debut on Thursday October 16th, 1980 where it aired on NBC.

Corman produced a shoddy remake for the Showtime Network in 1995. A near identical do-over, it was so cheaply made, Corman even used shots from the '78 original. An enjoyably sleazy remake came in 2010 from French director Alexandre Aja. Soaring past the original in the gore department, the script injected a lot more comedy as well. An inferior sequel to the remake surfaced in 2012. 

Both funny and scary in equal measure; and directed with a degree of professionalism that belies the fast and furious nature of low budget filmmaking, PIRANHA is one of the best of its kind. A highly recommended creature feature classic, and a must-see for those interested in Roger Corman's New World Pictures output.

This UPDATED review is representative of the New Concorde DVD (OOP). It is currently available from Shout! Factory on DVD and bluray.


TheReverendDoom said...

A great movie - a definite must see for fans of 70's Nature Attacks movies. I loved it - Belinda Balaski is as gorgeous as ever and I like she's not just there for window dressing. Dick Miller and Barbara Steele are excellent too. Probably my third favorite from director Dante behind The Howling and Gremlins.

venoms5 said...

Right on, Rev! Did you happen to see the nearly shot for shot remake Corman did for Showtime back in the late 90's? It was terrible.

TheReverendDoom said...

Thankfully I did not. 99.9999% of remakes are worthless.

venoms5 said...

In this case, Rev, you've missed nothing. Did you know Alexandre Aja is due to start shooting PIRANHA 3-D soon? Next month I think unless something has changed.

TheReverendDoom said...

ohhh why??? the sad state of Horror films now is at it's all time lowest.

venoms5 said...

Who knows? I was pleasantly surprised at Aja's treatment of HILLS OF EYES (I was never a huge fan of the original anyways) and I thought his HIGH TENSION was a breath of fresh air.

TheReverendDoom said...

I really liked Haute Tension aka High Tension as well. I did not bother with the remake of Hills. I think he has enough talent to make an original movie.

Sean M said...

Along with THE SWARM(looking forward to your eventual review Brian) i watched this the other day for for first time since the early 1980's when i caught this on terrestial tv.I don't remember the boobs flash(shame it's only a double) from back then so maybe it was trimmed for home viewers.But yeah a wonderfully funny gore fest,and because of the large dose of black humour i don't particular find any of the gruesome stuff traumatic.I swear i could detect a hint os a smile when the previously water shy Grogans daughter didn't seem the least bit bothered to launch a rescue in the dinghy.
Even the Barabara Steele character along with the military don't seem the slightly bit concerned about the loss of life so i enjoyed the whole movie as one brilliant hoot!

10 out of 10.

Brian is PIRANHA 2 worth seeking out?

venoms5 said...

You ought to see it, Rev. I thought it was way better than the original HILLS. Actually, the remake is very faithful to Craven's film till about a little past the midway point and it's an original piece after that.

Craven was very satisfied with it nonetheless as well as being a producer on the film. I saw it in the theater and was surprised at how good it was.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Sean. I may be in the minority, but I really liked PIRANHA 2 a lot. It was James Cameron's first directors job, fresh off his work on Corman's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and GALAXY OF TERROR.

He was fired at some point during the filming and Ovidio Assonitis (TENTACLES) aka Oliver Hellman took over.

There are some really good characterizations and some decent gore effects as well as a good score by Stelvio Cipriani. It's not linked to the first film outside of featuring piranha's in the ocean. These creatures can also fly in this one.

There's a DVD, but it's fullscreen only. The film was initially called THE SPAWNING, then changed to PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING as well as PIRANHA 2: FLYING KILLERS. The latter title appears in the end credits and I think may have been used for some tv airings for the film.

TheReverendDoom said...

Hey what are your thoughts on TENTACLES? That one is a riot.

venoms5 said...

I like TENTACLES. It's not the best movie, of course, but it was one of the first monster movies I remember seeing as a kid on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. An unusually strong cast.

TheReverendDoom said...

you gotta review TENTACLES... it is a fun one

venoms5 said...

I gotta do some pics for it for the sci fi article so I may as well.

Jay Shatzer said...

I was watching this with a friend a couple of months ago and had to leave before the ending. Gonna be buying the new DVD for sure to see this great man versus nature flick. The remake looks to be completely ridiculous, but who knows, it might be a fun time at the movies.

venoms5 said...

PIRANHA is awesome. I even like the sequel, too, whose international version makes it better, imo. Can't wait for the new version from Aja!

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