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review added: 4/7/00



Piranha
Special Edition - 1978 (1998) - New Horizons

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Piranha: Special Edition Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/B/B+

Specs and Features

92 mins, R, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, trailers for Piranha, Death Race 2000, Humanoids from the Deep, Knocking on Death's Door, Eat My Dust!, Grand Theft Auto and Big Bad Mama, audio commentary by director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison, behind-the-scenes footage with commentary by Dante and Davison, bloopers and outtakes, talent biographies, 8-page booklet on the history of Roger Corman, film-themed menu screens with animation and music, scene access (24 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 stereo), subtitles: none


"What about the goddamned piranhas?"

"They're eating the guests, sir."

Back in the mid-to-late 1970s, there were really only two horror movies to speak of: The Exorcist and Jaws. And just as The Exorcist begat The Omen, Abby, and a myriad of other sequels and rip-offs, Jaws spawned its own school of imitators and wannabes. Enter Roger Corman, who never let a bandwagon pass by without tossing one or two similar movies on board. Corman, of course, is known primarily for two attributes. First, he churns movies out cheaply and efficiently, providing a lot of bang for very little buck. Second, he can spot and nurture talent like no one else in the business. For his entry into the Jaws sweepstakes, Corman was able to assemble a creative roster that was of a much higher caliber than movies like this usually receive (and, some might argue, deserve). Piranha has quite a pedigree. It was the first solo directorial effort of Joe Dante (following Hollywood Boulevard, also done for Corman and co-directed by Allan Arkush) and the first screenplay by current independent film auteur John Sayles. With guys like this behind the scenes, Piranha is able to acknowledge and overcome its less-than-artistic origins and ultimately emerge as a first-rate B-movie.

The plot of Piranha holds few surprises for anybody who's seen Jaws. A school of genetically-engineered piranha are accidentally released from a decommissioned military base into a bucolic river in Texas. Necessarily for a movie of this type, the banks of the river are lined with homes, a summer camp, and a resort that's about to celebrate its grand opening. It's up to a hard drinking loner (Bradford Dillman) and an investigator (Heather Menzies) who's looking for a couple kids who have already become fish food to stop the rapidly reproducing creatures.

Obviously, the fun here is not in the wild twists and surprises of the story. Piranha is made enjoyable by Dante and Sayles' decision to be completely honest and up-front about their picture's knock-off roots. They know that if you're the kind of person who will go see a movie called Piranha, you're going to want to see lots of people getting eaten by the title razor-tooth fish. Fortunately, they also realize that you need a sense of humor. They deliver with plenty of blood and gnawed flesh and Dante's usual barrage of in-jokes and homages. For instance, the first time we see Menzies' character, she's playing a Jaws video game (quite a 70s relic itself). Dante also loads his movie with familiar faces including Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele, Keenan Wynn, the great Dick Miller, and cult movie icon Paul Bartel. Sayles himself even turns up briefly in an amusing cameo. Piranha was released at the same time as Jaws 2 and proved popular enough to warrant a sequel of its own, Piranha II: The Spawning, which was directed in part by none other than James Cameron (although it is unlikely to receive an Abyss-style DVD reissue any time soon).

For its 20th anniversary, New Horizons Home Video released a special edition of Piranha as part of its line of Roger Corman Classics. All things considered, the disc turned out quite well. The extras are highly enjoyable. The commentary track by Dante and producer Jon Davison is terrific, managing to be both funny and informative at the same time. The disc also presents behind-the-scenes footage (essentially home movies) shot by Davison, also with commentary. It's a good idea to listen to the feature commentary first since Dante and Davison make several references in the behind-the-scenes stuff to subjects they've discussed earlier. There's also about 7 minutes worth of bloopers, none of which are particularly hysterical unless you just can't get enough of watching actors flub lines and miss marks. The only thing that's really missing is the addition of some extra scenes that were added to the TV cut of Piranha. Dante refers to them in his commentary and we see a few outtakes from them in the blooper reel but the scenes themselves are MIA. They would have perfectly rounded out the package. Thrown in for good measure is a reproduction of the original "Theatrical Marketing Guide" doubling as a 16-page insert booklet.

The sound is presented in DD 2.0 stereo and its perfectly fine since this movie was never exactly a sonic masterwork. The video is slightly frustrating. The movie is presented full-frame, except for the credit sequence, which is letterboxed at approximately 1.85:1. This discrepancy is even commented on by Dante on his commentary track. While it does not appear that anything vital was lost, purists may be disappointed that the entire film is not presented in its original theatrical ratio. Other than that, the movie looks remarkably clear and well-defined for a movie of its age and pedigree, with very few blemishes or scratches to be seen.

Nobody is going to argue that Piranha is to Joe Dante what Citizen Kane is to Orson Welles, nor will they claim that the seeds for John Sayles' Lone Star were planted in his scathing indictment of Texas policemen in this screenplay. The highest claim a movie like this can make is that is satisfies your need to see people get eaten by fish for an hour and a half and doesn't make you feel like a complete idiot for wanting to see it in the first place. On that score, Piranha more than satisfies.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com




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