Last week I trekked out to the theater for the second time this summer (after Predators), to check out one of the other must-see movie events of 2010. I’m of course talking about Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3-D. For the record the 3-D gimmick alone is not enough to motivate me, there has to be something else going on to convince me I have to see a film on the big screen these days. In fact the only 3-D film I’ve seen since this present craze started was My Bloody Valentine, again a remake from my childhood era (you can see the trend here). While the nostalgia factor certainly played a role, there’s a bit more to it than that. Those titles in particular were extremely successful on an entertainment level when compared to some of their other contemporaries. Piranha was a drive-in classic, blessed with a coming together of soon-to-be Hollywood A-listers under the guidance of Roger Corman. My Bloody Valentine had a great setup, and the mine atmosphere provided for a memorably terrifying finale. Unfortunately the Valentine remake, despite the presence of Tom Atkins, was a major letdown. As such my expectations for Piranha were not all that high. The big selling point was director Alexandre Aja who has put out some pretty interesting stuff over the past few years, including a remake of The Hills Have Eyes which I ultimately enjoyed more than the original. Having seen Piranha 3-D and the original last week, I feel that nothing less than a dual review would be appropriate.
First off Piranha '78. I must confess that Piranha is something of a special movie for me. The poster above has to be one of the greatest genre posters ever created. Sure it’s a play on Jaws, but I’ve always found it to be much more terrifying. Something about that fish is more malevolent than the shark, and the girl on the raft feels a little more real than the swimmer on Spielberg’s poster. For whatever reason it captured my imagination as a kid, and thoroughly creeped me out. I remember begging to see this one at the drive-in, but my parents decided this was one we should sit out. It wasn’t until about a year later that I finally saw Piranha at a neighbor’s house on HBO. Incidentally that neighbor was the first on our street to have the service, and I remember being blown away that I could sit in his living room and watch uncut theatrical movies . . . and Piranha was a stunner! Let’s just say that the promise made in the poster, unlike many genre movies of the era, was fully kept.
There were plenty of copycats in the wake of Jaws, and certainly Piranha was a riff on the material. Unlike its fellow imitators however, Piranha had the good fortune of top talent in almost every department. First off it was produced by Roger Corman during a period in which he was hitting home runs with his el cheapo productions. We’re talking stuff like Death Race 2000, Big Bad Mama, Humanoids From the Deep, etc. It would be downhill shortly after the early 80’s, but for a time he could do little wrong. Pulling from his pool of rising stars, Corman tapped Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) to direct. Dante was an expert editor of trailers, and Piranha was his first solo directing effort. Writing duties were given to none other than art house superstar John Sayles, who took the premise and injected it with dark humor and great characters. Those characters were then brought to life by a B-list who’s who with Bradford Dillman (Escape From the Planet of the Apes), Heather Menzies (Sssssss), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), Keenan Wynn (Point Blank), Belinda Balaski (Food of the Gods), Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) and for good measure Corman favorite Dick Miller. We’re talking a dream list here!
It’s kind of amazing how John Sayles went from writing great B-movies like Piranha, Alligator, and Battle Beyond the Stars to name but a few, to celebrated, high-brow indie director. Unlike other Corman graduates like James Cameron who continued working in genre pictures, Sayles bailed and went for more traditional dramas like Eight Men Out and Matewan. It’s like if you found out David Mamet had written Grizzly or Day of the Animals prior to Glengarry Glen Ross. If you ever wondered what would happen if a brilliant writer penned a killer fish movie you need look no further. Sayles provides a cast of terrific characters, show stopping attack sequences, and most importantly a knowing wink to the genre. The humor in Piranha is often cited as one of its greatest strengths and no doubt that is true. However what Sayles does so miraculously is bring out the humor, while at the same time honoring Piranha as a serious horror film. In so doing Piranha exists as more than just a parody, Sayles allows the film to have the cake and eat it too.
Did I mention the cast? Well let me do so again, because a good cast is worth repeating. When I was a kid I was seriously under the impression that Bradford Dillman was a major star. Between Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Piranha, and being Dirty Harry’s captain, he kept turning up in things I really liked (and he was terrific in each). As the leading man in Piranha he gives what is probably his best performance as a cranky mountain man turned hero. Heather Menzies also turns in a great performance as his spunky partner in stopping the aquatic invasion. While they anchor the film ably, what is so wonderful about Piranha is that Dante loads it with cameos by genre stars who have a ball with the material. McCarthy as the mad scientist and Miller as the evil developer are noteworthy standouts (it’s actually my favorite Dick Miller performance). Better still is that Dante gives them enough time onscreen so that the cameos don’t come off as blink-and-you-miss-them stunt casting (I’m looking at you Rob Zombie). Honestly a better roster in genre cinema you will not find.
Dream lists aside if you have a film titled Piranha, you still have to be sure you are able to deliver a horde of killer fish. In the pre-CGI 70’s this was no small feat. Even Mr. Spielberg had trouble delivering a single, albeit big fish on a much larger budget. Fortunately Corman’s resources also included a talented bunch of effects artists and a brilliant young editor. Making the piranha come alive were Phil Tippett (Star Wars, Jurassic Park) and Chris Walas (The Fly), using everything from fish on poles to animation to make it all work. They were aided in their endeavor by future Academy Award-winning editor Mark Goldblatt (Terminator 2), who employed lots of judiciously timed cuts that make the piranha attacks appear frighteningly real instead of like fish on sticks. Honestly a film produced by Roger Corman in the late 70’s about killer fish has no business looking this good. I screened it this week on Blu-ray and was blown away. Don’t get me wrong it is still clearly a 70’s movie with practical effects, but what they accomplished for the time is stunning.
I’ll give you just one example. There’s one intense sequence in which the piranhas attack a summer camp where a tube race is taking place. As the piranhas approach there is an underwater shot in which you see them forming up in the background, with a swimmer’s legs dangling in the foreground. The shot is clearly accomplished via animation, but the composition is so artistic that you don’t even care. It’s like some beautifully designed matte painting from an old school horror/sci-fi film. The point is this – the shot is completely unnecessary. Dante could have simply just had the bathers start reacting as the piranhas launched their attack, but he took the time out on what was a shoestring, breakneck schedule to insert a cool-looking effects shot. It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes piranha stand out from its lesser brethren.
I would be remiss in my duties if last but not least I failed to mention the musical score. Corman tapped composer Pino Donaggio for scoring duties, and it proved to be an interesting choice. Donaggio became a recognizable name in horror cinema throughout the 70's and 80's lending his talents to films such as Roeg's Don't Look Now, Argento's Trauma, De Palma's Dressed to Kill and others. He became Brian De Palma's most frequent collaborator, and interestingly Piranha's score bears a certain resemblance to Carrie (in my opinion). Unlike the booming score to Jaws, Donaggio favors a more subdued type of sound that infuses the proceedings with a sense of doom. This serves as a useful counterpoint to the humorous aspects of the script, making sure that after you've laughed you still take things seriously. His scoring of the summer camp attack in particular is absolutely terrific and on par with Williams' work in Jaws.
Piranha was successful and eventually spawned an unrelated 80’s sequel directed by James Cameron and starring Lance Henriksen. This time the fish can fly. I just saw it for the first time last year, having heard nothing but bad things and expecting the worst. It wasn’t great to be sure, but what I found out is that a movie directed by James Cameron and starring Lance Henriksen can only be so bad. In fact I sort of enjoyed it. It’s certainly no Piranha, but it was an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes. There was also a mid-90’s remake starring William Katt and Alexandra Paul, which I saw on late-night television several years ago. My recollection is that Katt was an okay stand-in for Bradford Dillman, but that the film didn’t have much else going for it. Well now we’re in the far flung year of 2010, some 32 years after the original, and finally Piranha has received the big budget treatment with an up and coming horror director. The question is does it measure up? The answer is – sort of.
The plot of the new Piranha is not a whole lot different than the original. In the ’78 version the piranha were a government experiment to be used for the purposes of eco-terrorism/ending the Vietnam War. In 2010 there is nothing political going on, the piranha are simply prehistoric creatures released by an underground earthquake. Also this time instead of attacking summer campers and resort guests they attack spring break goers. Sure it’s not a carbon copy, but we’re not talking giant leaps here. Really though in a movie about killer piranhas I would argue that the plot is not the key to success. Dante and company figured that one out and focused on performances, humor, and piranha effects. Fortunately Aja gets the joke too, but he turns his focus almost entirely on stomach churning gore . . . in 3-D. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his previous films, but it’s a bit of a gamble in that to enjoy this take on the material you have to accept Aja’s choice. If you are looking for anything other than visceral thrills prepare to be sorely disappointed.
Having said that I went in to Piranha 3-D expecting exactly what I received, 80 minutes of CGI piranhas attacking swimmers . . . in 3-D. The only creativity employed was in the ridiculous quality of the attacks, which were meant to do nothing more than make one burst out laughing. There’s no suspense or horror in this movie, it’s simply a theme park ride taking the viewer from one outrageous sequence to the next. Aja keeps the gags coming so fast and furious you don’t have time to consider how silly it all is because you’re too busy taking in the next absurdity. On the one hand it is indisputably fun, but on the other I never need to see this movie again (in fact I pretty much can guarantee I won’t). These gags are good for one time only, which is where Piranha ’78 and ’10 part ways. Dante’s film is clever and has plenty to offer on repeat viewings. Aja’s is loud and dumb, but thankfully he knows it and embraces the vibe with gusto. Had he not fully committed the film would have been a lackluster outing, not too far removed from the land of SyFy Channel original movies.
One thing Aja does pay homage to with regard to the original is the use of the cameo. Here we get Richard Dreyfuss hilariously reprising his role from Jaws, Ving Rhames as an outboard-motor toting piranha slayer, Christopher Lloyd doing Doc Brown as a piranha expert, etc. I also have to give credit to Jerry O’Connell for stealing the show as a slimy movie producer, he’s come a long way since Stand By Me. While these are all great I do have to say that Aja doesn’t pull them off as well as Dante. He sort of falls into the Rob Zombie trap in that he understands it’s cool to pack in some cameos, but he doesn’t quite use them to full effect. Nevertheless they’re a good deal of fun, and in a movie this lightweight it’s hard to complain too forcefully.
After the screening I had occasion to chat with Fantasmo All-Star Lee Hansen, who works in the film biz, and he told me that some of the PR had referred to Piranha 3-D as the next installment in the Piranha franchise. We both found this to be erroneous and hilarious. Can you really count the “sequel” which maintains no continuity, the remake, and this unrelated 3-D effort as part of a coherent franchise? Do people truly walk into a Piranha film with a defined set of expectations based on previous Piranha films? I think not. It’s still fun to watch studios attempt these labored connections in the hopes of making an extra dollar. For myself I have no regrets about seeing the new one in the theater, in fact if you have any interest at all 3-D is definitely the way to go. This movie is about big, noisy thrills (in case I haven’t made that clear) and it would be almost useless to watch it at home (unless you have a major home theater setup). I’ll take the ’78 original any day of the week over the empty calories of the new model, but it’s fun while it lasts.