Thursday, May 2, 2013

Piranha (1972) review


William Smith (Caribe), Peter Brown (Jim Pendrake), Ahna Capri (Terry Greene), Tom Simcox (Art Greene)

Directed by Bill Gibson

"I can taste the very soul of every animal I hunt... what I hunt becomes a part of me... and lives on in me. Someday I'll be out-hunted. And everything that I am will become part of that hunter..."

The Short Version: This early 70s wannabe exploitation movie/LAREDO reunion isn't quite as bad as its reputation suggests, but by and large, it's a missed opportunity. It has a few things going for it, but it also wastes a great deal of potential on outright sloppy direction and editing. Still, the location shooting in and around the amazon, numerous shots of gigantic anacondas, crocodiles and monkeys (not to mention a few animal deaths) will have fans of Italian jungle shockers reminiscing of Deodato and Lenzi. Smith is the 'Piranha' of the title essaying a demented hunter who hunts "everything". His former LAREDO co-star Peter Brown is among his prey, and also formulates a running gag between the two men; possibly the single smartest thing about the film. Only fans of Drive In fare, William Smith and those who have to see every adaptation of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME will have the patience to stick with this 89 minute obscurity. 

A fearless wildlife photographer and her brother hire intrepid amazonian guide Jim Pendrake to take them deep into the South American jungle for an exotic photo shoot on the locals, their lifestyle and the diamond mines in which they make their living. Upon arriving at a bar, they meet an American man named Caribe who lives in the jungle and has a reputation for being a ruthless hunter. The big man accompanies them on their journey to find diamonds, but the trio comes to regret it as Caribe turns out to be a psycho who has set his sights on a new form of prey.

Bill Gibson's sole known directorial effort is a major disappointment, but is a modestly worthwhile viewing experience for a few reasons. It also contains a couple underlying themes that may or may not have been intended in Richard Finder's screenplay; itself the sole listed credit for the writer. In fact, the film is peppered with numerous individuals who never worked again, or if they did, those productions are even more obscure than this one. Before discussing the films few bright spots, let's get the low points out of the way since the picture has garnered predominantly less than kind notices over the years.

The films title -- despite proving to be a deceptive bit of creativity -- is likely its most telling err of judgment. This movie named 'Piranha' -- that also starts with the title laid over a real piranha -- is a cataclysmic example of false advertising for those unaware of the movies plot. It leads the viewer to expect one type of film, but end up with a different film entirely. For those who manage to pay attention as the drama slowly unfolds, it becomes apparent 60 minutes in that the title refers to William Smith's Caribe character -- the name means 'piranha' and was given to him by the local Indios.

Piranhas do play a part in the film, though -- but this, too, is a disappointment. While the hungry little flesh-eating nibblers chow down on a victim at one point, an obvious bit of poetic justice never takes place that could have ended the film on a much more satisfying note. However, the ending does possess a sharp moment of irony; but it will only be picked up on by patient viewers who have absorbed background info on one of the characters -- and gotten over the fact that the film isn't about killer fish.

Outside of losing a good deal of its audience who will feel cheated by the actual contents of the film (some DVD versions go a step further and promote the film as a killer piranha picture), Gibson's movie also suffers from a slow pace and an over-reliance on padding. Still, it's logical to ascertain that the extensive scenes of shantytown villagers working and going about their lives is from the perspective of Terry, the photographer. There's also a good deal of jungle footage including numerous animals and reptiles. However, the latter isn't nearly as intrusive as the stretches of sequences showing oldsters sifting for diamonds in rivers, or digging holes in the ground backed by music that feels like the movie has suddenly transformed into one of those old middle school film strips. That the editor Thea Bentler worked on documentaries afterward speaks volumes about why chunks of PIRANHA (1972) resembles one of them.

In their defense, the shots of the animals (particularly scenes of massive anacondas) do much to add a dangerous ambiance amidst the noticeably sweaty jungle surroundings. But had there been about ten minutes trimmed away, the film would flow, and move much better.


Then there's the static, occasionally clunky cinematography by a Jose Luis Andreu and Luis Jacko. There are a few choice camera touches in the first half (the camera mounts during the motorcycle chase being an example), but the creativity quickly runs out as the film progresses. Granted, there's a thick aura of local flavor, and you can almost feel the humidity coming off your TV screen, but the cameramen seem to lose their interest. It's very possible that the film began with one DP and finished with the other. 

To elaborate, take the burning of the village during the finale. It's photographed without even a modicum of ingenuity. The camera just sits there as Caribe sets fire to these rows of huts to flush out his prey. What should have been a tense sequence, is lazy and lacking excitement.

With the negatives out of the way, it's now time to focus on the few good things found in this 70s curio obscurio. These high points revolve mostly around William Smith, who carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders. Some periodic tense moments also benefit the picture, but they're not enough considering the lack of vision that cripples the movie more often than not.

William Smith had been in motion pictures since the 1940s (where he first appeared as a child star in 1942s GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN), and had recently come off a successful run of biker movies ending with 1971s CHROME & HOT LEATHER. So successful was Smith in those roles, he was crowned the 'King of the Bikers', and he gets to relive some of that steel horse glory here during a motorcycle race with his former LAREDO co-star Peter Brown. 

This race takes up approximately six minutes of the running time, and it's one of the few things the film does right. It's edited and photographed with more originality than the rest of the film can muster. It's not known if it was intentional or not, but both men wipe out on a few occasions (Brown's is particularly brutal) during their race, and the footage remains. Both men travel over various terrain, some of which invites danger -- fields, dirt roads, mud, and even swampland.

Speaking of LAREDO, there are a couple of connections to that series as well as a couple of in-jokes that energize the film before its batteries start to run out. When Pendrake and Caribe are introduced, it's obvious Pendrake knows him, or of him. Caribe looks at him and says, "Do I know you?" Both men were partners on the western comedy series LAREDO which ran from 1966-1968. During the same scene, Pendrake asks Caribe if he knows how to ride a motorcycle just prior to challenging him to a race. This exchange is filled with all sorts of irony considering Smith's reigning status as the icon of Hog cinema. When the camera is tight on Smith's face, you can almost sense he wants to laugh when Brown asks him about his chopper prowess.

Continuing with the LAREDO connection, aside from the star turns of Smith and Brown, the other two main stars (Capri and Simcox) had also appeared on the series during its first season. Capri had previously worked with William Smith in DARKER THAN AMBER (1970). Simcox later worked with Smith again on HOLLYWOOD MAN in 1976; so PIRANHA likely has some fondness attached to it via its cast if not for those watching it. It's worth mentioning that Peter Brown (who was already an actor of some repute from his role on the LAWMAN series) briefly delved further into exploitation cinema with FOXY BROWN and ACT OF VENGEANCE (both 1974).

Going back to Smith, he plays the character of Caribe as this calculating madman. We see him at the beginning capturing some monkey's. His sly, guileful laugh lets us know he's not a nice character. When we meet him again a short time later, the evil inherent in his persona is carefully brought to the surface via Smith's facial expressions. 

As the film moves forward, he drops more and more clues that he's far from sane. His speeches about hunting and killing hammer home THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (a popular short story by Richard Connell adapted for the screen many times) aspects of the picture. Smith imbues Caribe with little nuances that adds tension to scenes where none would have been otherwise. We know he's crazy, it's just a matter of when and where he's going to erupt.

Aside from the homicidal Caribe, there are a scant few other moments of palpable dread. Sadly, these moments have no lasting power since their energy is sucked out of them by a permeating languidness. These include a building sense of danger once our trio reach their destination. There's a hint early on that the locals might not welcome the three visiting Americans. However, it's not long till it becomes apparent through subtle nods that Caribe grips the surrounding populace with terror and intimidation. It's not elaborated on, but it's definitely noticeable.

The few onscreen animal deaths won't make anyone's day, but it's fascinating to find them here in a cinematically historical context. The Italians turned animal mutilation into something of a cottage industry during the 1960s and 1970s with their mondo movies and cannibal pictures. Considering this film was shot mostly, if not entirely in South America and the amazon, the muggy, mud-caked, and sweat inducing locales will bring to mind CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) and CANNIBAL FEROX (1981) for those who are familiar with those movies.

It's not really a highlight, but just like so many 70s pictures, PIRANHA has its own theme song. It's a folksy tune titled 'Love All Things That Love the Sun'. Sung by Jim Stein, this song -- like others in 70s cinema -- relates to the onscreen action, but in an ironic fashion (and this film is brimming with irony). We see lots of animals, and Caribe is seen killing a few when he isn't talking about killing them. This survival of the fittest (as twisted as Caribe's logic is) mentality provides an interesting dichotomy for Terry's anti-gun stance -- one that would fit right in with today's 2nd amendment political maneuvering. Both characters briefly empower the film with some much needed relevancy found in their infrequent banter.

The obscurity of PIRANHA (1972) is no doubt partially, or wholly due to its inferiority when compared with much better examples of Drive In motion pictures. I've never seen the trailer, or any promotional memorabilia for the film under this, or any other title; or even the title I saw it under on what was then the best local channel for monster movies, WGGT-TV 48. I can't recall if the onscreen title was in fact PIRANHA, PIRANHA, but that's what the commercial advertised it as. I only ever saw it the one time, and, like just about everybody else who saw it, it did nothing for me when I was a kid. I was expecting what most folks would expect -- a killer fish movie.

Overall PIRANHA is a poor film, but one with a few merits. Granted, these merits are recommendations geared strictly to a core group of cinephiles. First and foremost, devoted William Smith fans will want to see this. Considering how many labels it's available on, and how cheap it is, it's well worth throwing away a few bucks on simply to see another William Smith movie. Those who feel compelled to see every filmic adaptation of 'The Most Dangerous Game' will also want to tune in. Everyone else will want to approach with caution, or steer clear of this Amazonian jaunt altogether.

This review is representative of the Miracle Pictures DVD.

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