Piranha (1978)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #29

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Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: August 3, 1978
Sub-Genre: Monster Movie
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $770,000
Box Office: $6,000,000 (US) $10,000,000 (International)
Running Time: 94 minutes
Director: Joe Dante
Producers: Roger Corman, Jon Davison, Chako van Leeuwen
Screenplay: John Sayles
Story: John Sayles, Richard Robinson
Special Effects: Rob Bottin, Vincent Prentice
Cinematography: Jamie Anderson
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Joe Dante, Mark Goldblatt
Distributors: New World Pictures (US) United Artists (International)

Stars: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas, Bruce Gordon, Barry Brown, Paul Bartel, Shannon Collins, Shawn Nelson, Richard Deacon, Janie Squire

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Suggested Audio Candy:

Pino Donaggio Soundtrack Suite

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I’ve never really been much of a fan of fish and, of all the potential domestic pets to stump for, few seem quite as utterly bereft of personality. My indifference stems from my very first personal goldfish, which naturally I decided to name Jaws as anything else would have been unthinkable. Jaws was a plucky little fella, surviving for a good four years or so before his final float to the surface. Sensing my desolation, my mother promptly dashed out and replaced him and this appeared to lift my spirits momentarily. Keen to uphold continuity, I named his successor Jaws 2 but, alas, he lasted a mere seven days before the inevitable flush. Now two fish down in little over a week, I started to question whether I was actually cut out for fish in the first place. After all, what do they actually do other than swim in a perpetual circle with a blank look on their gormless faces? Thus, my love-affair with fishes ended there, and this was unquestionably the shrewd choice as, by the time Jaws: The Revenge arrived on the scene, it surely would have been dead on arrival.

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Having said that, should I have been allowed a piranha, then perhaps I wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss them. These freshwater fiends are an entirely different proposition altogether, particularly given that they possess the ability to strip a live cow to its frame within minutes should they attack in sufficient enough quantities. Joe Dante’s Piranha just so happens to supply more of these voracious omnivores than Zulu Dawn had extras and, just like those pesky tribal troublemakers, they stick together to enhance their presence. I would have paid a princely sum to watch Michael Caine attempting to fend off a few thousand voracious piranhas in the sweltering African dunes as something tells me that his odds would have been far less than encouraging.

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We are cordially invited to kick back at Lost River Lake Resort although not everyone receives the same warm welcome. This being a Roger Corman production, it isn’t long before Piranha ticks two particular boxes, as a pair of unsuspecting backpackers take it upon themselves to skinny dip in an abandoned military base and swiftly become the entrée for our freshwater marauders. That’s not even the half of it as, while looking into the teens’ disappearance, insurance investigator Maggie (Heather Menzies) and her inebriated sidekick Paul (Bradford Dillman) unwittingly release said “razorteeth” into the river and open one helluva can of worms in the process.

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While he may be partially responsible for this mishap, if you ask me, it’s a good job we have Dillman on-hand to deal with these nibbling nuisances. While one hapless old-timer dangles his feet over the edge of a jetty and draws back two bloody stumps mere moments later, this cat can endure a good five minutes sub aqua with a whole school of these flesh-eating critters snapping at his ankles. I know who I would prefer to have on my team.

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Anyhoots, all merry hell breaks loose before we know it as the fish promptly head downstream to the bustling nearby resort and commence attacking anyone foolish enough to take to the waters. Needless to say, these particular holiday makers remain blissfully unaware that swimming in the seventies isn’t an advisable pursuit so there’s no shortage of menu options for the piranhas. From hereon in we are in more than familiar territory as Piranha willingly supplies B-Movie hijinks of the highest order. Cue gallons of blood and leagues of scantily clad females just begging to be feasted upon. Dante also throws in some great comedic highlights amidst the pandemonium. Some are intentional, others happy accidents, which is surely the sign of a good B-Movie right? You bet your ass whiskers it is. Besides Corman doesn’t put his name to duds. His extraordinary career is riddled with accomplishment and this is no exception to that rule. Made on a decidedly meager budget, Dante’s film performed well at the box office, coasting successfully on the slipstream left by Spielberg.

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Man versus nature flicks were all the rage during the seventies but few have stood the test of time as well as Piranha. One glance at Dante’s résumé is all it takes to realize how much of a springboard it provided him but, aside from his keen direction, there are a number of other factors that make this a cut above the average B-grade fodder. John Sayles’ screenplay is superb, while the excellent cast boasts the likes of Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, and Paul Bartel, in addition to our charming leads. Director of photography Jamie Anderson makes the most of the ravishing scenery and also ensures that we feel impending danger whenever we traverse sub-aqua. Pino Donaggio’s potent orchestral score raises the bar considerably and the sound design is first-rate across the board. Indeed, there are few soundbites in cinematic history that reverberate quite as ominously as the high-pitched din of the ravenous approaching horde. 

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We all know that Corman has no problem with shattering taboos and the climax of Piranha does precisely that. Mainstream movies would think twice before placing a child in peril but that is never considered an issue here. The last thing on a piranha’s one-track mind as it circles its prey is checking I.D. and, with the entire population of a children’s summer camp gleefully splashing about on the surface, absolutely no special allowances are made and said ankle-biters chowed down on without a solitary second thought. This is particularly refreshing as, much as we love the little cherubs, kids have no divine right to survive a horror movie. Dante’s film may be many things but choosy ain’t one of them and every last water baby is fair game. Kudos indeed.

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Of course, it isn’t without its flaws, no matter how rose-tinted our recollection may be. However, it wears them as a badge of honor and never prioritizes logic over shameless entertainment, which is precisely why a director of Alexandre Aja’s fast-rising stature saw fit to tackle the inevitable remake. Sure, he put his own spin on things and ramped up the excess with regards to both nudity and gore, but he also remained true to the timeless template as it’s not worth fixing if it’s not broke in the first place. Dante may have gone on to bigger and better things, but it was this charming little gem that provided him his springboard. Fittingly for a film that focuses on freshwater predators, Piranha remains every bit as fresh now as it was almost forty years ago. If you’re looking for staying power, then look no further. I may be guilty of giving fish a hard time but it turns out they’re not so pointless after all.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: What could be more delightful than the affectionate nibbles of a thousand snapping jaws in unison? Granted, the predatory assailants in question only take small chunks of your flesh in one of their attacks, but the sheer wealth of them here gives a man like Rob Bottin all the encouragement he needs and his FX work is exemplary from stem to stern. Featuring no end of gloriously grisly chow downs and plenty of wince-inducing injury detail to boot, Piranha boldly goes where other films of its era could only dream about. This being a Corman feature, bouncing breasts are also on the platter. Is there no end to this man’s generosity?

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Why So Serious?

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Dante was responsible for a string of big-hitters in the eighties, providing audiences with the likes of The Howling, Gremlins, The Burbs, Innerspace, and Explorers during this flush period. However, one movie that doesn’t receive enough credit is John Landis’ side-splitting spoof Amazon Women on The Moon and Dante was responsible for a number of its memorable skits. Thus, I have decided to honor its memory by reeling off ten other undervalued chucklefests from the era. They ain’t big or, in some cases, even clever but they are a whole heap of fun and well worth tracking down for your rainy day shits and giggles.

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Musicals don’t ordinarily tickle my pickle but this asinine piece of debris certainly does. Featuring the classic tagline “Funnier than Driller Killer, Gorier than Airplane”, Chris Windsor’s film makes up for what it lacks in pretty much every conceivable area with horribly catchy songs and a playful nature.

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Dare yourself not to laugh for the next 75 minutes and I’ll eat my hat and the stand that comes with it if you make it through Howard R. Cohen’s delightfully inane spoof without raising at least a smile. Some of the humor sticks, a majority doesn’t. But that ultimately doesn’t matter a jot.

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This one has double relevance as it comes from the gloriously warped mind of Piranha screenwriter himself, John Sayles. Certain films just scream eighties and Sayles’ chipper oddity is well worth begging, borrowing, and stealing to get your hands on. Good luck with that as it has long since been consigned to oblivion.

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Two names. Steve Martin and Charles Grodin. That really is pretty much all you need to know. For some inexplicable reason, this charming comedy is never mentioned amongst Martin’s greats but I beg to differ on that count. Arthur Hiller’s forgotten gem is a deadpan masterpiece and deserving of far broader credit.

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Alfred Sole’s amiable slasher parody is interchangeable with both National Lampoon’s Class Reunion or Wacko but edges out its competition by a horse’s snout. Spoofs such as this would be ravaged in the modern-day but back then there was something sinfully acceptable about them. For the record, am I the only one who finds Carol Kane a touch sexy?

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I reached the cusp of adolescence around the same time that the legendary Russ Meyer’s lewd masterpiece was doing the rounds on late night television. This provided a fitting introduction to the great man’s inimitable work, while encouraging a relentless bout of monkey spanking. Which reminds me, I never did manage to track down that other gym sock. I can only assume that, with all the wank bullets said sock facilitated, it got fed up and walked away of its own devices.

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I was sold on Thom E Eberhardt’s B-grade sci-fi classic from the very moment I first laid eyes on its VHS sleeve and have remained in its back pocket ever since. Predating 28 Days Later by almost twenty years, it also supplied me with one of my most monumental childhood crushes in the delectable form of bubblegum princess Kelli Maroney. 

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Someone must remember this movie? Nobody? Not  a single one of you? Listen, I haven’t watched this movie for nearly twenty-five years so maybe I’m on crack, but I swear blind that Jeremy Kagan’s slacker comedy was worth its weight in fur balls. Forget California Man, The Hunchback Hairball of L.A. is where it’s really at. I would prefer that you don’t quote me on that.

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Herschell Gordon Lewis simply must approve of this one. I’d imagine that the undisputed Godfather of Gore would have been swollen with pride when he sat down to watch Jackie Kong’s affectionate homage of his life’s work for the first time. “Make me a cripple will ya?…cut off my hands and laugh about it will ya?” Beyond priceless.

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How could any list of oddities ever hope to be complete without mention of Harry Bromley Davenport’s bat-shit crazy E.T. anti-thesis? Answer, it couldn’t. I shall continue to plug this wondrous slice of irreverence until this movie receives the credit it so richly deserves. Speaking of which, if any of you have a spare million dollars or so lying around, please donate it to Harry so he can finally get cracking on Xtro 4 as he has been threatening this for years now. And don’t ask about the second or third installments unless you wish to be responsible for making a grown man cry.

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Read Jaws Appraisal

Read Piranha (2010) Appraisal

Read Shark Night Appraisal

Read Deep Blue Sea Appraisal

 

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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2015)

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