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HTF Blu-ray Review: Piranha



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#1 of 1 Todd Erwin

Todd Erwin

    Screenwriter

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Posted August 03 2010 - 01:16 PM


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Piranha


Studio: Shout! Factory
US Release Date: August 3, 2010
Original Release Year: 1978
Rated: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Audio: English (PCM 2.0 Mono)
Subtitles: None

Movie: 4 out of 5
A school of deadly, genetically-engineered piranha are accidentally set loose in the Lost River in Texas when Maggie (Heather Menzies), a skip-trace detective in search of two missing teenagers, drains a pool at a secret military bio-weapons facility. Thus sets the stage of Piranha, Joe Dante’s directorial debut, a very clever send-up of Steven Spielberg’s classic, Jaws, and hitting theaters just six weeks after Jaws 2 in the summer of 1978.

Apparently, Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) has been further refining and training his genetic experiements, which were originally intended to be used in Viet Nam, and bred to be extra-aggressive. Local drunkard Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) helps Maggie apprehend the mad doctor, and the three set sail in a raft, chasing the piranha downstream, hoping to keep them contained at the dam. But the fish are also intelligent and can live in both fresh and salt water, and eventually find a stream that bypasses the dam, leading through a summer camp, a newly opened resort, and eventually the open ocean. Of course, carnage ensues at the camp and resort.

What makes Piranha work as well as it does is the fact that the movie knows it is an exploitation spoof of Jaws by never taking itself too seriously, but never hits the audience over the head with its gags. The film makes this point very clear early on by including a stop-motion fish-like creature wandering around in the lab for no reason whatsoever. Piranha contains many of what would become Dante’s trademarks, such as clips from cartoons and classic monster films, as well as sight gags placed in the frame that are usually spotted upon repeat viewings. In addition to Kevin McCarthy, many actors who would become “regulars” in Dante’s later films are put to good use, including Dick Miller (“in the Murray Hamilton role,” as Dante mentions in the audio commentary) as the owner of the resort, Belinda Balaski as one of the camp counselors, and Paul Bartel as Mr. Dumont, the camp’s lead counselor. Rounding out the cast are Bruce Gordon as Colonel Waxman and Barbara Steele as Dr. Mengers. First-time screenwriter John Sayles creates a fun ride down the river, throwing in some of the funniest lines in a New World Pictures film:

  • Dr. Hoak: I never killed anybody. If you want to talk about killing, you talk to your politicians, the military people. No, no, I’m a scientist!
  • Mr. Dumont: People eat fish. Fish don’t eat people!
  • Dr. Mengers: I’m not afraid. I’m a scientist.
  • Maggie: Operator, get me the number of the Aquarena Springs Resort.... Look in the phonebook!
Piranha is one of the better films to have come out of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and holds up today without looking too dated (with the exception of the cell phones and television cameras on display).  It also launched many careers. Joe Dante would go on to direct The Howling, the It’s a Good Life segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Gremlins, and Innerspace. John Sayles would write The Howling for director Dante and become an independent filmmaker. Editor Mark Goldblatt would be nominated for Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Rob Bottin, Phil Tippett, and Chris Walas would each open their own special effects houses. Jon Davison would produce the box office hits Airplane!, Top Secret!, Robocop, and Starship Troopers.

The film has since been remade twice, once in 1995 by Corman for a series of movies for Showtime (using the same effects footage from the original), and the soon-to-be-released (but often delayed) 3D remake by The Weinstein Company.

Video: 3.5 out of 5
Shout! Factory brings Piranha to Blu-ray in a breathtaking 1080p high definition transfer, using the AVC codec, and presented for the first time in a widescreen format. Colors are solid, without bleeding, with exceptional detail for a film that is over 30 years old and most likely shot on what is now considered unstable film stock. This is very apparent in the plaid flanel shirt worn by Bradford Dillman throughout the movie. The reds are very pronounced, as are the stripes. Film grain is present and noticeable, but never distracting. The print does have some minor dirt here and there, as well as scratches, but these appear to be built-in to the negative or intermediate, and are not too distracting. This is the best Piranha has ever looked.

Audio: 3 out of 5
The PCM 2.0 mono soundtrack has good fidelity, with mostly intelligible dialogue. I say mostly because (as indicated in the audio commentary) there were production sound issues, and looping was used as a very last resort during the final audio mix back in 1978. Pops, clicks, and hiss are at a bare minimum.

Special Features: 4 out of 5
This new Blu-ray edition ports over most, if not all, of the bonus materials from the 1999 DVD release, with two new features.

The Making of Piranha (19:44): New to this edition is a documentary, featuring recent interviews with Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Mark Goldblatt, Phil Tippett, Chris Walas, Robert Short, Dick Miller, Peter Kuran, and Belinda Balaski. Much of the time is spent discussing how the piranha effects were created and the editing process. The documentary is in high definition.

Audio Commentary with Director Joe Dante and Producer Jon Davison: Originally recorded for the 1999 DVD release, Dante and Davison have a good time discussing how cheap Corman was in regards to financing the picture, how John Sayles became involved as the writer, and how they still cannot believe they managed to pull the whole movie together with a $660,000 budget and a 22-day shooting schedule. They also mention briefly how the film was saved by Steven Spielberg from a cease and desist order from Universal Pictures for being too much of a copy of Jaws.

Behind The Scenes Footage (9:35): What are essentially Jon Davison’s home movies taken during the making of Piranha, the footage is narrated by Dante and Davison, and is somewhat amusing.

Bloopers and Outtakes (6:48): Not quite as funny as one would hope, the footage consists of blown lines and effects goofs.

Additional Scenes from the Network Television Version (12:21): Due to the already short running time and the extent of cuts necessary to get past the NBC censors, many scenes left on the cutting room floor had to be reworked into the film to pad the running time. Some of the scenes appear to be identical, though, to what appeared in the finished film.

Radio Spots (1:38): Three spots recorded for radio stations are featured here, and are overly dramatic and quite humorous to listen to.

TV Spot (0:33): This television spot starts out with what I’m sure is not the actual Webster’s Dictionary definition of piranha, then cuts to very brief glimpses of the fish devouring people.

Theatrical Trailer (2:15): Sadly, only one of the trailers for the film are available here, and in a very faded and badly scratched print. Additional trailers for the film appeared on the Galaxy of Terror Blu-ray.

Piranha Trailer with Commentary by Jon Davison from Trailers From Hell (2:28): Courtesy of Joe Dante’s TrailersFromHell.com website, Jon Davison provides a commentary on the above theatrical trailer (which is in much better condition, oddly enough) that condenses the documentary found on this disc to just under two and a half minutes.

Teaser Trailer (0:33): This actually looks more like a second TV spot than a teaser, and is in much better condition than the theatrical trailer.

Poster and Still Gallery: The collection includes domestic and international posters and lobby cards, as well as what appears to be the Japanese press kit, along with newspaper ads and a TV Guide ad for the NBC broadcast of the film.

Phil Tippet’s Behind The Scenes Photo Collection: This collection includes photos taken during creation of the effects, as well as storyboards.

Bonus Trailers: Red-band trailers for Humanoids From the Deep and Deathrace 2000, plus the trailer for Up From The Depths are presented in 1.33:1 standard definition.

8-page Booklet: The booklet contains a dedication from the king himself, Roger Corman, praising Joe Dante as a director, as well as an essay on the film by Michael Felsher, supplemented by domestic and international posters and a few production stills.

Reversible Cover: Choose between the domestic or international poster art.

Overall: 4 out of 5
Perhaps my review is a bit skewed, since I am a huge fan of Joe Dante’s work. Piranha remains one of his best films (behind Innerspace and Gremlins, but before Gremlins 2 or Matinee), and the Blu-ray presentation does not disappoint. Kudos to Shout! Factory for porting over the extras from the 1999 DVD, and throwing in a new documentary with recent interviews.