|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 26 October 1999|
PIRANHA has been packaged as one of the series of "Roger Corman Classics" from New Horizons Home Video, and rates the designation of "classic" far more than some other titles in the series (such as the original HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP). This brassy, fast-paced movie is one of the best Corman's company made after 1972 or so, possibly the best. In the 1960s, Corman sponsored the early efforts of any number of promising young actors and directors, but in the last twenty years, very few actors and directors have emerged from the Corman stable.
Joe Dante, who directed PIRANHA, is actually one of the last Corman graduates to be successful on bigger films -- and another is John Sayles, the novelist recruited to write the script for PIRANHA. (In fact, this credits of this modest movie are studded with behind-the-camera names with impressive post-Corman careers.)
Obviously, PIRANHA was "inspired" by the success of JAWS -- amusingly acknowledged on screen with a shot of a "Jaws" arcade game -- but unlike the other imitations of Spielberg's hit, the movie goes on its own jaunty way, with the only copied plot elements being carnivorous fish. Spielberg, in fact, was so impressed by PIRANHA and THE HOWLING, Dante's next film, that he signed Dante up for GREMLINS.
Investigating the disappearances of a couple of skinny-dipping teenagers, Heather Menzies convinces reclusive writer Bradford Dillman to guide her around the west Texas area where the kids vanished. From the opening scene, we know the missing couple was eaten alive by fish in a holding tank at a mysterious installation. When Menzies and Dillman happen upon this laboratory, she impulsively throws a handle -- which releases hundreds of mutated piranha into the nearby river.
Terrified scientist Kevin McCarthy, who'd been looking after the fish, explains they were developed as a last-ditch means of battling Viet Cong. They can live in fresh or salt water, and are incredibly voracious -- as we see when the fish eat their way down the river, heading for the Aquarena Springs Resort. (A real place, and it's still there, with signs proudly proclaiming its involvement in PIRANHA.)
Although occasionally mis-identified as a spoof, and though it's often very funny, PIRANHA is basically a serious film -- as shown when the piranha devour dozens of children at a campground near Aquarena Springs. Children are often seen in danger in science fiction and horror movies, but PIRANHA is one of the few to actually feed the tots to the monsters. The menaces may be jokey at times, as when a leaping piranha bites stuffy Paul Bartel on the cheek, but there's no doubt that they're a deadly menace.
The movie is uncommonly smart for a medium-budget thriller of this nature, with good dialog and an enthusiastic cast. It does have a slap-dash feeling, a sense of improvisation and corners being cut, but it's tautly structured and surprisingly gory at times. The effects, primarily by Jon Berg and Phil Tippett (who'd just come off STAR WARS), are minimal but well done; involved in the effects are Rob Bottin (TOTAL RECALL), Robert Short (COCOON), Chris Walas (THE FLY) and others.
The DVD is a treasure, crammed with interesting stuff. It includes a reprint of the movie's original presskit, which advised theater owners to hire local children to disappear for a few days while sprinkling dead piranha along local river banks. "Watch your grosses soar!" Another booklet pictorially presents the history of Roger Corman and New Horizons (his latest company).
But the real delights are on the disc itself. Director Dante chose to have the digitally remastered film printed full-frame, rather than letterboxed, because that's how he shot it. He and PIRANHA producer Jon Davison (ROBOCOP, STARSHIP TROOPERS), one of his closest friends, have provided a hilarious and informative narrative track that's one of the best ever done for a DVD. Furthermore, they've both provided unusual behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers and outtakes, and narrated these as well. It's a shame that more interesting low-budget movies haven't been given this treatment. Hell, as far as that goes, it's a shame that more interesting high-budget movies haven't been.
PIRANHA was remade once for television under the same title, and unaccountably, Fox Family Films has announced a big-scale remake of this cheerfully gruesome thriller, hardly a movie you'd think of as a "family film." But the TV remake was just another movie; the original was often funny, but the remake was played straight, which made it even more pointless than remakes usually are. It even used footage from the original wherever possible; Corman has always known how to squeeze a penny until Lincoln screams.
Prior to PIRANHA, Joe Dante had only directed part of one movie, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD. But he's one of those people who seems born to be a movie director; there's not the slightest sense of his feeling his way in PIRANHA. It's a robust, funny, scary and very confident movie, entertaining and satisfying. Yes, it's just a junky little monster movie, but in that fondly-regarded category, it's one of the best.