Because the Future is Fun

Dangerous Waters – The History of Piranha

Piranha

Do you remember the cinematic landscape before 1975?

Let’s be more precise – do you remember the cinematic landscape before Jaws?

Spielberg’s sharky saga is regarded as arguably the watershed moment of 70s cinema (sorry George), giving birth to the summer blockbuster and re-inventing audience expectations of big screen thrills and spills. Such a memorable movie was also going to spawn a sub-genre of xeroxes and homages; thus, the killer animal flick was born.

We had man vs. bear (Grizzly, Claws), man vs. killer whale (Orca), man vs. octopus (Tentacles) and even man vs. insect (Empire of the Ants). The only surprise was that King of the Cash-In, Roger Corman, was behind none of escapades of these killer critters. Usually the first to exploit a spike in audience interest, Corman spent the mid-70s churning out automotive anarchy in such cheeseball capers as Death Race 2000, Deathsport and Grand Theft Auto.

It would take three years before Corman would dip his toes in these (notoriously unsafe) waters, deciding to flip the premise of Jaws whilst paying homage to its core elements. Where Spielberg focussed on a solitary source of dorsal-finned devastation, Corman opted to introduce a fill pack of predatory piscines – the fearsome freshwater-dwelling piranha, scaly scavengers said to be capable of stripping a human body of meat in a matter of seconds.

Released in 1978, and now receiving a new, bonus material-clad Blu-ray master from Second Sight at the end of January, Piranha sounded fishy to the Universal legal team. With Jaws 2 also prepped for release in the same summer, the possibility of an injunction against Corman was discussed – only to be shelved at the request of Steven Spielberg. The most celebrated beard in Hollywood acquired a cut of Piranha, and dissuaded his studio paymasters from taking legal action once he’d finished his popcorn.

The content of that conversation has never been made public. Perhaps Spielberg pointed out that Piranha was more parodic than plagiaristic, an affectionate take on aquatic alarm rather than a straight-up cynical steal. Alternatively it’s equally likely that he was just won over by the goofy horror-comedy charm of the movie; Piranha is one of the finest B Movies of the era, a film that embraces its limitations and wears its influences gleefully on its sleeve instead of denying their existence. Indeed, the opening scene, featuring Heather Menzies’ Maggie playing on the licensed Jaws arcade game, sets the tone impeccably for the 90 minutes of nudges and winks that are set to follow.

Corman handed the directorial reigns of his scaly shocker to Joe Dante, then a virtual unknown and protégé of the producer with just a solitary co-director credit to his name (Hollywood Boulevard, helmed alongside long-time collaborator Allan Arkush). The real star of Piranha was John Sayles though, the visionary screenwriter who began his career inking scripts that elevated Corman’s sketchy quickies to higher ground, using his paycheques to finance his own pet projects. It was the inspired decision to ally Dante’s technical vision allied with Sayles pen that made Piranha a success. When the binding budget constraints began to bite, the wit of Sayles’ script, sharper than the teeth of the angling antagonists, saves the day time and again.

For all the fun of the finished article, Piranha was, unsurprisingly, a pretty fraught shoot. Underwater photography was never an easy ask, especially on a tight budget, while early pre-Sayles drafts of the script were shambolic; many lesser writers struggled to find a motivation to get the characters into the perilous waters (the first pass at story included a wild grizzly bear chase and a forest fire). As was standard with Corman’s New World Pictures, money and the lack thereof was also a constant source of chagrin. While Dante and Sayles were paid comparatively high salaries of $8,000 and $10,000 respectively, it took an excess bankroll from United Artists to get the movie made after Corman initially cancelled the project a couple of days into filming due to concerns over costs.

The cast of Piranha was largely padded out with recognisable faces from television, a move that Corman always insisted upon to enhance his chances of selling a movie to small screen distributors. The veteran Bradford Dillman took on the lead role of Paul after Peter Fonda declined (according to Dante, basing his decision on the fact that he could not be assured the special effects would be up to snuff), while the aforementioned Heather Menzies was familiar to viewers of the Logan’s Run TV show.

Legendary character actors such as Kevin McCarthy and Keenan Wynne played prominent roles, as did scream queen Barbara Steele (in a role originally planned for a male actor), while Dick Miller began his long and fruitful collaboration with Dante in small but hilarious role as the town’s cantankerous mayor. Meanwhile the real stars of the show, the ferocious fish, were created by a veritable smorgasbord of fledgling special effects talent. Rick Baker passed on the project, but recommended a then-19 year old Rob Bottin for the job; Bottin then brought in future superstars Phil Tippett and Chris Walas to work alongside him.

Dante himself, while not always entirely complimentary about the finished picture, described the making of the flick as “very much a learning experience, like all Corman movies were” while claiming that Sayles was “so appalled [by the final film] that he considered leaving the business”. Filmmakers, eh – what do they know? Piranha is a bargain blockbuster and the very embodiment of a guilty pleasure, a flick devoid of many characteristics ordinarily associated with filmmaking excellence and instead breezes through its running time, offering yuks and yucks in equal measure. While Piranha is undoubtedly very, very funny, horror is not in short supply – scenes of the savage school attacking a children’s summer camp in particular drop the jaw with a surprisingly barbaric nature. The bloody demise of Alex Kitchner had nothing on this.

The movie turned a significant profit at the box office and launched Dante’s career – the directors next three movies were the classic werewolf horror-comedy The Howling (also scribed by Sayles), a segment of the Twilight Zone movie and the all-encompassing Gremlins. Sayles, meanwhile, used his salary to fund his directorial debut, Return of the Secaucus 7, and can’t have been too traumatised – he inked the screenplay for the tonally and thematically similar Alligator in 1980.

To the surprise of nobody but Joe Dante, a sequel to Piranha was greenlit following the reveal of the films performance – albeit without involvement from Dante, Sayles, Corman, or indeed anybody associated with the original. Miller Drake, another Corman protégé (and by the release of Piranha, Head of Post-Production at New World Pictures) was approached to direct by an Italian production company. Drake constructed a plot, alongside writer Charles Eglee, that centred around the surprise return of Kevin McCarthy’s seemingly-deceased Dr. Hoak (and Barbara Steele’s Dr. Mengers, for a showcase set-piece).

Drake was removed from the project early on for reasons that have never been made public (considering some of the decision-making later in the process, it’s probably a fair assumption that the strategy was not entirely sound), and the script was re-written to involve a mutation of the carnivorous caribes’ which saw them take to the skies. Yep, flying piranha.

naturally there would have been a line around the block demanding the job), producer Ovido Assonitis found himself facing a dilemma; he was forbidden from delivering the movie with an Italian name listed as director thanks to his US distribution contract, but budgets were tight and he wished to exercise creative control himself. He decided that the young special effects director already working on-set would provide the perfect patsy.

As is well known, that technician was a fresh-faced James Cameron, who went on to endure a tumultuous shoot of his directorial debut after he had re-written the script. Working with an Italian-speaking crew that had difficulty communicating with their leader (Re del Mondo, chaps), flying fish effects as threatening as a fairground goldfish with plastic vampire fangs and a producer/financer that disagreed with his every decision, Cameron famously found himself locked out of the editing room and barred from viewing dailies (though some might call that an act of altruism on the part of Assonitis).

Cameron, of course, is rumoured to have broken into the editing room when the movie was in the can, structuring his own monster masterpiece, only for Assonitis to find out and cut the movie back. Apparently a Laserdisc release of Cameron-approved footage emerged after the film’s 1981 cinematic release, but a coarse statement about polishing poop applies here; Piranha II (sub-titled varyingly as The Spawning or Flying Killers) is a waste of time and effort for all concerned, a cheap-and-nasty slice of fishy fright that simply bores rather than entertains, even when it plumbs the depths of camp incompetence. Just about its only redeeming feature is the hints of what would come later from its illustrious director – not in terms of quality content, but rather the sub-aquatic camerawork, the casting of Lance Henriksen in a key role, and the ass-kicking female lead.

When even Roger Corman declares your movie a turkey, you know you’ve left a franchise dead in the water. Perhaps in attempt at restoring some kudos to his franchise (though more likely to keep hold of the copyright), Corman decided to remake the original as a TV movie for the Showtime network in 1995.

This vintage of Piranha (occasionally referred to as Piranhas, though there’s no Aliens-esque evolution on offer here) is pointless, virtually a vastly inferior shot-for-shot redux of Dante’s movie. Ever economical, Corman recycles the special effects stock footage – yep, the one thing that could actually be improved over time – of the original film again here, in addition to maintaining John Sayles’ screenplay for a second pass. Good writing never ages, but for reasons best known to Corman and his director Scott Levy, the decision was made to strip the script of all humour and comedy. In case there was any doubt – films about schools of mutated prehistoric piranha really don’t work as a grim and gritty social commentary.

Dante deemed the end result ‘unwatchable’ and the flick quickly skulked away into obscurity (though if you do ever have the misfortune of a viewing, keep an eye out for an extremely young Mila Kunis in the summer camp attack scene). As a result, Piranha remained a cult oddity remembered by a small band of horror enthusiasts until Hollywood’s premier architect of franchise regeneration brought it back to the public consciousness in the loudest, bounciest and goriest way possible.

It’s well documented that Hollywood loves a remake, and Piranha was ripe material for a reboot; a built-in audience of a cult original, but enough time having passed for the special effects revolution to make the new material relevant? It’s no surprise that Bob Weinstein smelled blood in the water and picked up the rights sharpish, opting for a 3D reboot utilising an existing script from Good Luck Chuck and Sorority Row screenwriter Josh Stolberg and his writing partner Peter Goldfinger.

Weinstein’s Dimension Films snapped up the screenplay under the watchful eye of producer Mark Canton, a self-proclaimed fan of Dante’s original, while low-budget horror maestro Charles Russell was attached to direct what would have been his first flick since The Scorpion King over a decade ago. Canton, however, had an altogether different director in mind; French goremeister Alexandre Aja.

There are clearly two things the helmer of The Hills Have Eyes helmer loves (and judging by Piranha 3D, they both belong to Kelly Brook). But we of course mean gore and horror remakes – in addition to re-imagining the aforementioned Craven classic, he turned the Korean flick Into the Mirror into the Kiefer Sutherland-starring Mirrors, and is currently prepping a cover version of 80’s celebration of spree-killing Maniac. Despite these reboot credentials, Aja was something of a leftfield choice for Piranha 3D thanks to the absence of levity in his previous blood-soaked ballads (or indeed his calling card debut, High Tension) – fears were expressed that we were in store for another fishy fiasco, especially when factoring in the temperamental nature of shooting for the then-fledgling 3D revival.

Utterly unfounded concerns, it turns out; Piranha 3D was arguably, pound for pound, the most entertaining movie of 2010. Aja displays a hitherto-unseen gift for goofy comedy that plays to the cheap seats without jarring, while the 3D technology is utilised perfectly in a rare case of a post-shoot conversion (chosen due to concerns over 3D filming underwater) that adds to the movie-watching experience.

The CGI piranha are excellently realised, the performances routinely riotously OTT (even teen lead Steven McQueen is relatively unpunchable), and when things take a turn for the gruesome Aja doesn’t hold back. If the attack on the summer camp in Piranha ’78 was shocking, the equivalent Spring Break massacre in Piranha 3D was scandalous – a rip-roaring riot of explosive gore and imaginative effects which were rumoured to involve over 7,000 gallons of blood daily.

With minimal outlay (Piranha 3D’s production budget was estimated at just $24m) allied with critical acclaim, a strong box office run (takings seem to more than tripled the budget) and an ongoing love affair with 3D, a sequel was hurriedly announced, to be directed by John (son of cult horror royalty Clu) Gulager. “Ho ho, given the amount of flesh on display in Aja’s effort it should be called Piranha 3DD” Beavised the audience of the original.

Oh.

The good news is that that’s still actually quite funny as a title. And Piranha 3DD is better than Piranha II. The caveat to that should maybe be that being kicked in the eye by an angry gnu is better than Piranha II, but let’s not be facetious. Sadly Piranha 3DD otherwise falls into that most grievous of sequel traps, acting as an inexpensive (the film was budgeted at just $5m) and hackneyed re-tread of a successful original that misses the point of what worked so well before.

It’s not a complete disaster– there are a handful of amusing moments of self-parody from David Hasselhoff, the returning cameos of Christopher Lloyd and Ving Rhames are most welcome, David Koechner’s evolution into the go-to guy for amusing corporate sleazebags continues apace, and a couple of lines and pratfalls from the screenplay (inked by Saw 3D scribes Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan – enough to adjust expectations accordingly) hit the mark. Alas, the movie runs for just 80 minutes (including a series of goofs and outtakes) and still manages to feel padded and ill-conceived, and as a result really can’t be recommended with any great enthusiasm.

Such is the nature of a franchise, and wherever there’s a peak there must also be a trough. The camp carnage of the Piranha pictures peaked back in 1978, but there’s a timeless quality to the man vs. nature story that allows for constant rebirth. Best of all, the Blu-ray transfer means the movie will stay in circulation, ensuring the master tapes will not be lost and generations to come will be able to enjoy Dante’s kinetic vision and Sayles’ rapier-like writing.

Hunt down a copy, and embrace the opportunity to stay home and watch it on your next beer-and-pizza based Friday night in. It’s a safer option than getting in the water.

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