Naturally with the release of Piranha 3D this summer and the rerelease of Avatar in the theaters, it was a good time to cash in by releasing the original 1978 Piranha on Blu-ray as well as the James Cameron directed flying Piranha sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning on DVD (I’m insulted that they didn’t think it was good enough for a Blu-ray release). Marketer’s dream that I am, I bought both. And completist that I am…I had to get the 1995 remake of Piranha as well.
Released the same year as Jaws 2, Piranha rules simply because of the awesome sound effect of the attacking piranha (pronounced pir-on-ya by like every character in this movie). To simulate this sound effect, simply roll your tongue while letting out a high pitched tone. Hey, if Jaws can get personal in Jaws: The Revenge and growl as he’s jumping out of the water, then these piranha have every right to roll their tongues while eating.
Naturally, every film involving underwater man eaters from this era has to begin with skinny dipping. So our first couple takes a dive at night in a pool behind a no trespassing sign. The guy bites it first (actually, gets bit first), and the girl follows, clinging to the dock with the last of her strength much like the skinny dipping chick clinging to the buoy in the first Jaws. Which makes the very next scene so awesome: a chick playing the Jaws arcade game with its stick figure swimming character and pixel-block shark.
Bradford Dillman portrays lead character Paul, a loner living in a cabin on the lake, but he’s not alone for long. This chick Maggie comes knocking on his door looking for those missing skinny dippers. She insists he go with her, which begins one of the best romantic/comedic duos that predates Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. The movie immediately gets REALLY weird when they go into the lab right next to that pool behind the no trespassing sign. There are loads of test tubes filled with alien-looking little critters, but there’s also a weird little two legged creature running around and hiding behind furniture. The couple doesn’t notice him—and he never makes another appearance in this film about piranha. WTF? This little creature gets so much focus for a few minutes that you’re sure the film is going to revisit him.
Things quickly get complicated. Hoping to find clues to the skinny dippers’ disappearance, Maggie empties the pool—right into the lake, which sets the isolated piranha attacks into motion. Meanwhile, Maggie and Paul meet the scientist who created all the freaky creatures, the army is called in, Maggie and Paul are held against their will, and during one of the best escape plans ever, Paul, tells Maggie to distract the army soldier guarding their tent, Maggie says, “I think he’s gay,” and Paul replies, “Then I’ll distract him.”
The typical “don’t go in the water” movie plot device is used—a big celebration on the water and a bigwig dude who doesn’t want to stop the tourism. The true chaos and gore is saved for the last 25 minutes, which is definitely the inspiration for the ending of the 2010 3D film, with crashing boats, and divers, water skiers, and swimmers being gnawed in a sea of blood (actually, a lake of blood).
The final plan by Maggie and Paul to pollute the piranha to death features a whole countdown/pull me out of the water! sequence as in the remake. But the best bad part of the film is the end, when one of the characters looks RIGHT at the camera and speaks a line of dialogue that might as well have been, “You’d best bet there’s going to be a sequel.”
Now, aside from being a cash in on Spielberg’s hugely successful killer fish film, Piranha is directed by Joe Dante, whose rip off actually impressed Spielberg enough for him to enlist Dante to direct Gremlins and a segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Dante also went on to direct one of my werewolf faves, The Howling, so several of the actors from that film are actually in Piranha (but not Dee Wallace. For shame, Joe!).
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the salt water because all the piranha were in the lake, along came Piranha Part Two: The Spawning in 1981. James Cameron wanted his name removed as director of this film because he says it was edited after he made it so it wasn’t the film he planned. Well, you may not have been the director of editing James, but you did direct the filming of the movie, so, you’re kind of obligated to get credit for it.
Once again, skinny dipping is the aphrodisiac for the feeding frenzy. A couple puts on all their gear, dives way down into the ocean at night, enters a sunken naval vessel…and then gets naked!!! The guy has a HOT bod, nice and hairy. The piranha think he’s delicious as well.
They also retain the great tongue rolling sound they made in the first movie, so I can understand why James Cameron became such a brilliant filmmaker.
The film also gets 80s cred. The hair is high, the shorts are short. One “cougar” staying at the beach resort even echoes my sentiment when she grabs a male staff’s short-shorts and growls, “Love those shorts!” Not to mention, the film totally delivers the goods in terms of the 80s gore quotient.
Lance Henriksen, who is pretty much on the SyFy Original payroll these days, stars as a blatant Roy Scheider rip off character patrolling the beach shores looking for trouble.
“Look! It’s the lead singer of Loverboy!”
His ex-wife, Anne, gives diving tours, and their son gets himself a job on some rich dude’s boat (a plot line borrowed for the 3D film, perhaps?). As in the 3D film, there are also topless girls on a boat—only not the one the kid is on. And of course, there are piranha. Hungry piranha. Hungry, FLYING piranha.
They thunk loudly against peoples’ heads and go for the jugular. Blood flows, fish fly, a shore-side “we want fish” ritual (I don’t know what it means) turns into a gory mess, and the lead actress references the occurrences from the first movie to satisfy us continuity sticklers.
The ending of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (which means, the ending of every Piranha film in the franchise) also involves a countdown/pull me out of the water! sequence. But the film also appears to have a deeper message: flying piranha might pull people apart, but they bring families back together.
While following the original plot pretty closely, this remake removes the absurdity of the 1978 film (like the little creature in the lab) but adds loads of piranha attack action and water bubbling with blood to create a much more exciting horror film. It also seems much more like the basis for the Piranha 3D script than the original film, with a total massacre in the water by the shore, as well as an asshole filmmaker with a craving for his sexy actresses. I actually prefer this one to the original.
The cast is also more my style. Our hero is The Greatest American Hero William Katt (Carrie, House, House IV), our leading lady is Alexandra Paul (Christine), and Katt’s daughter is a young Mila Kunis.
Only two real downsides for me with this remake. It lacks the same great fish sound effects (why change a perfect thing?), and has an unforgivably graphic scene of a dog being eaten alive.