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Piranha: Special Edition (Blu-ray Review)

2 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 8/3/10
Shout! Factory/Vivendi
$19.93 DVD, $26.97 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Heather Menzies, Bradford Dillman, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water (or at least worn-down shopping mall theaters), along came Roger Corman with a winking eye and wearing a few extra money belts with which to hold his refurbished stash. You have to love it hearing Corman, on the bonus section here, conceding that his picture was “influenced” by Jaws.

Except that this time, the size of the predators was scaled down — by design. The little buggers are often referred to here with the “piran-ya” pronunciation (as opposed to the harder-sounding “pir-an-UH” alternative) — the same one Jonathan Winters employed in his classic "Used Pet Shop" routine. That’s the one when the proprietor is a second too late in warning a customer not to stick his hand in a tub whose contents are ill-concealed in the store. The former can only lament, “Took ‘em right off there, didn’t they?” before alluding sympathetically to the customer’s new stubs by noting, “They’ll be blue tomorrow.”

The culprit in John Sayles’ generally smart script here is the military (now, there’s a new one), which years earlier had been experimenting with mutated piranhas in an attempt to screw up North Vietnamese tributaries — which, from the evidence here, certainly would have happened had the project not been discontinued. Now the remnants, which are plenty alive (along with some tiny, mutated, scurrying-around lab creatures that are right out of Ray Harryhausen’s rec room), have been abandoned in the woods behind a locked gate — which is something that has never, in movies, stopped a naked young couple in need of a dip. In other words, the movie’s plasma-packed indoor swimming pool opening is also “influenced” by Jaws.

I always thought Bradford Dillman was pretty dull as a conventional screen lead, but he was excellent in John Frankenheimer’s socko four-hour version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh — where, like almost everyone else in the cast, he plays a sot. Perhaps these kind of roles were his calling because he’s amusing here as a boozy single dad who’s at least attempting to act responsibly toward his away-at-camp young daughter. Heather Menzies plays Dillman’s partner in piranha combat, though her character has gummed up things in the first place by letting the piranhas escape into a mainstream stream. There was a time when Menzies had had one of the most impressively gamut-running resumés around, having first been one of the children in the screen version of The Sound and Music and later having appeared in Playboy. (What have you done lately?)

I had never seen 1978’s Piranha before its new Blu-ray edition (released in conjunction with Shout! Factory’s standard-DVD release) — which like the company’s other recent higher-def editions from the Corman library polishes the appearance of a frugally budgeted production to likely the highest level we’re likely to see. As a result, I had it pegged erroneously in terms of just which victim base genre-savvy director Joe Dante (pre-Gremlins and before even The Howling) would allow to be ravaged. The nude swimmers are locks because they’re swimming in out-of-wedlock sin, and featured player Keenan Wynn was at this time a veteran character actor in the twilight of his career, so he, too, is predictable dead meat. The same applies to fellow vet Kevin McCarthy; he plays a drunk even seedier and more cantankerous than Dillman, so, in terms of the movie, you wouldn’t be the life insurance agent who just yesterday sold him a double indemnity policy.

But kids? Threaten them, yes, but don’t let them bleed — or at least this was my assumption. Instead, the attack scenes at the daughter’s camp (natch) are fairly intense on a ‘B’-movie level — warm-ups for a more conventional assault (in terms of the victims’ ages) at a festive beach party hosted by a local entrepreneurial good-old-boy played by Dick Miller, a Corman fixture all the way back to It Conquered the World and Sorority Girl back in the ’50s. Other Corman vets in small roles include Barbara Steele from the relatively older days and the late Paul Bartel from the later ones.

The bonus section is largely devoted to the blue-smoke-and-mirrors work Dante and his effects people had to pull off to disguise the reality that that the so-called piranhas were fake and nailed/glued to sticks, which then were then manipulated by technicians. Another key player in all this was editor Mark Goldblatt (later Oscar-nominated for the somewhat more expensive Terminator 2: Judgment Day), who has a few stories to tell here. Goldblatt was also later the editor of Showgirls, and it would be fun to hear him to tell a few stories about eyeballing that raw footage as well.

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