Monday, October 6, 2008

Piranha (1978) review

PIRANHA (1978)

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

Directed by Joe Dante

Tagline: "Lost River Lake was a thriving resort-until they discovered...PIRANHA"

Searching for two missing teenagers, Maggie McKeown, a skip tracer, and Paul Grogan, a man who lives on the mountain where the couple disappeared, uncover a frightening secret. Draining a pool to see if the bodies are at the bottom, they unwittingly unleash a flood of military enhanced, flesh hungry piranha that spill out into the river threatening to consume anyone in the water. With a resort opening and a childrens camp nearby, dozens of lives are put in danger as food for the killer fish.

Joe Dante handles his first sole directorial effort with an assured hand and a propensity for crafting wonderful characters helped immensely by John Sayle's 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). 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.

Dante's film playfully skirts around its inspiration letting the viewer in on the joke after the opening credits finish; Menzies character is shown playing a Jaws video game in the airport. Spielberg later invited Dante to direct a handful of the famous filmmakers pictures including GREMLINS (1984) and INNERSPACE (1987). Made for $660,000, PIRANHA (1978) was co-financed with United Artists who put up $400,000 of the budget. Initially, Corman was to also pony up $400,000 but decided at the last minute to keep $200,000. However, Executive Vice President of New World, Barbara Boyle, managed to scrounge up an additional $60,000 for the 22 day shoot.

Bradford Dillman plays Grogan as a disgruntled alcoholic. Preferring a life of solitude, he soon finds himself thrust into this dangerous situation when he learns of the magnitude of the predicament. Even more so that his daughter is attending the summer camp up the river a ways. Dillman was no stranger to horror and science fiction having appeared in the end of the world horror flick, CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1974), ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971) and the star-studded, big budget laugh-fest, THE SWARM (1978). Peter Fonda was originally offered the lead role and would only do it if the effects were good enough. They had nothing to show him at the time so Fonda passed.

Heather Menzies is a very beautiful woman possessing an innocent quality which contrasts her spunky and 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 double. A waitress from the Holiday Inn the crew was staying at offered to bare her bosom for a scant couple seconds of screen time. Menzies had initially agreed to the nudity, but got cold feet feeling her husband would seriously disapprove of the scene. She also had a lead role in the killer snake horror flick, SSSSSSS (1973).

Kevin McCarthy plays the crazy doctor Hoak who is responsible for the mutant strain of piranha being kept inside the military test site. This strain can survive in both fresh water as well as salt water. He redeems himself later in the movie by traversing the piranha infested river to save a boy who is about to become the next meal of the mutant fish. McCarthy is remembered fondly for his role in the sci-fi classic, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). He also had a cameo in the remake of that film. McCarthy also featured in some of Dante's later movies such as INNERSPACE (1987) and in Dante's segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983).

Originally the role of Dr. Hoak was to be played by Eric Braeden who later became famous on the soap opera, THE YOUNG & THE RESTLESS. Braeden shot some swimming scenes (that remain in the film) and believing he was working on a less than professional production, he quit the movie being quickly replaced by Kevin McCarthy. Earlier in his career, Braeden played some devious bad guys including the German, Captain Hans Dietrich on the two season run of THE RAT PATROL (1966-68). He also played a supporting villain in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971).

The great Dick Miller is a favorite among horror fans. He featured in a number of Corman's early productions most notably A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959) and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960). BIG BAD MAMA (1974) and CANNONBALL (1976) are some of his other Corman films he appeared in. Miller plays the Murray Hamilton role from JAWS (1975). He's the resort owner who refuses to close and denounces the protagonists claims that a school of man-eating piranha are on their way to make meals of his guests.

Barbara Steele needs no introduction to serious horror fans having appeared in a great deal of Italian gothic horror films of the 1960's. Having walked off (or let go depending on what story you get) the set of the Elvis movie, FLAMING STAR (1960), Steele carved a niche for herself in the Italian film industry. Easily one of her most famous was her dual role in the seminal Mario Bava classic, THE MASK OF SATAN (BLACK SUNDAY; 1960). Steele also featured in one of Roger Corman's best loved Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, THE PIT & THE PENDULUM (1961).

The gorgeous Belinda Balaski also had a nice career in fantastic cinema appearing in a number of Dante's movies including a sizable role in THE HOWLING (1981) and GREMLINS (1984). She also had roles in the Bert I. Gordon 'Nature Gone Wild' flick, FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and the Roger Corman-Shaw Brothers co-production, CANNONBALL (1976).

Paul Bartel also has a small role as the the camp leader, Mr. Dumont. Bartel was a director himself having helmed New World's previous box office champ, DEATHRACE 2000 (1975). He garnered even more cult appeal with the hilarious black comedy, EATING RAOUL (1982) in which he starred with his frequent collaborator, Mary Woronov.

Not long after production began, Corman decided to cancel the movie believing the film was going to spiral out of control. However, the original script, being a bit awkward (as well as some scenes proving to be too costly had they been shot as scripted), was soon thrown out and John Sayles was hired to get the script into working order so filming could resume. The wonderful score was orchestrated by Italian composer, Pino Dinaggio. He went back to Italy to do the score and would send his progress back for Dante to work with as opposed to having a scoring session at the studio. Dinaggio would also compose the evocative and brooding score for Dante's next picture, THE HOWLING (1981).

Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett created the special effects. Bottin was referred by Rick Baker (who declined the film) and he agreed to do it if he was allowed to direct a scene. The scene Bottin and his girlfriend shot ultimately wasn't used but he had made a head of himself half eaten that did make it into the picture. It appears in the movie during the resort attack scene. The piranha attacks were accomplished by filming the piranha puppets attached to rods and filmed at 12 (or less) frames per second. The piranha sound effects were taken from the sound of dentist drills. The entire special effects budget was a meager $50,000.

The small stop motion creature seen in the lab was intended to have a much bigger role. Dante had envisioned having the creature grow over the course of the film and attack a pier but Corman wouldn't allow it presumably because it would have cost too much. The film itself is quite gory and the attack scenes during the finale are rather strong especially the many violent scenes committed on children. They aren't spared the hunger of the ravenous fish.

PIRANHA (1978) ended up being the most successful movie from New World grossing $30 million domestically supplanting the previous biggest moneymaker, DEATHRACE 2000 (1975). The inevitable sequel came three years later and was directed (partially anyways) by another New World alumni, James Cameron. Corman had nothing to do with the sequel, but referred Cameron to Italian producer, Ovidio Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR). Cameron even contacted Dante to get his opinion of his directorial debut, even though he had been let go from the production. Cameron, nonetheless, had gotten most of the character interplay in the can by the time he was removed by producer Ovidio Assonitis (TENTACLES) who finished the picture. The sequel carries over with the closing scene from the original PIRANHA (1978) with the shot of the killer fish threatening to wreck havoc in the sea. Aside from sharing that conceit, the sequel has nothing to do with Dante's film.

The 20th Anniversary DVD from New Concorde is now OOP. Strangely, the credits sequence at the beginning is slightly widescreen. The remainder of the film is an open matte presentation, the film having been shot full frame. PIRANHA (1978) is an enduring little horror picture and one of the best loved to come from Roger Corman's infamous New World Pictures. It possesses a quality usually lacking in Corman's films-- well drawn characters and witty dialog to match.

The script from future director John Sayles helps immeasurably in this department and is one of the keys to the films success and endearing qualities. The tongue-in-cheek touches prevalent in the script are also a welcome addition. The film is both funny and scary but the light comical bits never threaten to derail the films horror tone. A highly recommended horror classic and a must see for fans of creature features.

DVD availability: Shout! Factory, New Concorde (Out of Print)

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