I've said it before and I'll say it again: Roger Corman is the absolute king of schlock filmmaking. Even though his movies may be made on the cheap and can be some of the campiest films ever produced, I have to hand it to the guy for at least not dumping out crap just for the sake of profit -- it's very clear that he aims to entertain. To prove my point, of the half dozen or so Roger Corman Cult Classics currently on the market and reviewed on our site, not a single one of them has received less than a three-star rating. Not bad for a handful of rip-offs and other oddities!
But the most successful film from Corman's New World Productions has to be the 'Jaws'-inspired 'Piranha.' In fact, the film was originally announced as the debut feature in Shout! Factory's Corman line, but it was subsequently postponed from its April 6 release date to August 3 (thirty-two years to the day of its theatrical release for a bit of interesting trivia!) apparently due to its "supplements not being finalized," although the new 'Piranha 3D' remake also swimming to theaters this month does seem more than coincidence. Nevertheless, I won't be giving Shout! any grief about it, since without them we wouldn't be seeing these great titles at all on Blu-ray. Besides, what really counts is that this cult classic is here now and the timing is perfect. Not only is 'Piranha' releasing alongside another school of mutant fish with Corman's 'Humanoids from the Deep,' someone at Shout! must really have a sense of humor as both hit stores right in the middle of Shark Week.
Welcome to Lost River Lake, where you could say the fish are biting a little more than usual. Of course, in typical 'Jaws' tradition, a couple of backpacking teenagers learn this the hard way when they decide to take a detour on private property and go skinny-dipping beneath the moonlight and the stars -- never to be seen or heard from again. Hey, that's what they get for trespassing and not reading the brochure!
Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), a private investigator put on the case, hops on a plane and heads out to the area somewhere in the Texas countryside determined to find our missing teens. The first local she runs into is Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman)--a cantankerous alcoholic mountain man who doesn't like company much and would rather be left alone pickling his sorrows. But somehow a reluctant Grogan ends up joining the feisty young woman in her quest, escorting her to an old deserted military compound nearby that once served as a fishery. While snooping around the facility, Maggie stumbles upon the kids' belongings and begins draining the site's pool in search of more evidence. That's when mad scientist Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) enters the picture, trying to stop his life's work from being flushed into the river system -- only he's too little, too late. Now the top-secret members of "Operation: Razorteeth" are loose, heading downriver craving children and vacationers, and wouldn't you know it--a summer camp and newly opened lakeside resort are laying out an all-you-can-eat buffet.
'Piranha' was released three years after the original 'Jaws,' but only a month and a half after 'Jaws 2.' Since 'Piranha' shamelessly (and liberally) borrows ideas from that franchise, the suits at Universal Studios were getting ready to slap a lawsuit against New World for infringement, but quickly backed off when Steven Spielberg was treated to an early screening and loved the movie. Certainly he could see that Corman's production was more than just a knock-off, it was a clever tongue-in-cheek tribute to his film. Director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles have terrific synergy together (which they'd prove again a few years later with 'The Howling'), and even though the storyline isn't original and pretty absurd, they really make it work by sprinkling in just the right amount of humor that often deliberately winks at the audience. The first scene with Menzies even has her playing a 'Jaws' arcade game! So Dante's talent as a director obviously impressed Spielberg as they'd eventually collaborate on 'Twilight Zone: The Movie' and 'Gremlins.'
Corman also couldn't afford A-list talent for his films, but for 'Piranha' they managed to assemble one of the more solid casts for a B-movie. The spunky personality of Menzies ('The Sound of Music' and 'Logan's Run') perfectly complements the disgruntled pessimist portrayal by Bradford Dillman ('The Way We Were,' 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes') and they have excellent chemistry together on screen. McCarthy 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers') seems to be giving it his all hamming it up as the crazed lunatic, too. There are also appearances by the late great Keenan Wynn ('Dr. Strangelove')--who ad libs a hilarious story about his dog, Dante's frequent go-to character actor extraordinaire Dick Miller as the slimy entrepreneur of the Aquarena Resort, horror queen Barbara Steele ('Black Sunday'), Belinda Balaski ('The Howling,' 'Explorers'), Melody Thomas from 'The Young and the Restless,' and even Paul Bartel as an uptight camp counselor -- who directed Corman's 'Death Race 2000.'
Even the make-up and visual effects by young upstart industry greats Rob Bottin, Chris Walas, and Phil Tippett hold up pretty well even today. While the fish movements are sometimes awkward as they seem to be synchronized swimming together, the piranha and the attacks themselves look very realistic. Way better than the digital ones briefly shown in the remake trailer. And gorehounds should be in their glory as absolutely everyone's fair game (even the cute little kids) and the carnage is deliciously extra bloody at Corman's insistence. So much fake blood and other gunk was dumped into the water that they nearly ruined the olympic swimming pool they used to film the underwater scenes.
Part spoof and part homage, 'Piranha' is one of those rare B-movies that turned out much better than it really should have thanks to the combined effort of everyone on board. From the above-average performances and innovative effects, to John Sayles' smartly written script and a strong solo directorial debut by Joe Dante --the film is chumming with sharp-witted, gory fun. And even though at its core 'Piranha' is still technically a 'Jaws' rip-off, as Spielberg himself said, "it's the best of the 'Jaws' rip-offs."
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout Factory unleashes 'Piranha' to DVD and Blu-ray as part of their Roger Corman Cult Classics line. Both formats include a reversible cover featuring the iconic image from the film's original 1978 movie poster as well as the original international poster artwork (though it's worth noting that the DVD also includes 3-D lenticular packaging). The Blu-ray edition comes on a BD-25 disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase and there aren't any pre-menu promos. The disc is also reported to be locked and therefore will only function properly on Region A compatible players.
Past home video releases of 'Piranha' were always only available in 1.33:1 full screen format, but now Shout! Factory's Blu-ray and day-and-date DVD counterpart presents the film for the first time ever in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1).
While I don't have a copy of the DVD on hand for comparison's sake, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode on this Blu-ray certainly does one of Corman's better known cult classics proud. The source has been cleaned up significantly, leaving only occasional remnants of age-related defects on the print. A fine layer of grain stays relatively constant throughout the movie. Stock footage sequences (such as the shots of the moon or the plane taking off at the airport for example), are in the worst shape and heaviest grain-wise, but fortunately these scenes are very few and far between. Underwater scenes are intentionally murky since the filmmakers used milk to give them a cloudier appearance. A vertical line runs down the center of the screen once or twice in these cases as well, but to be fair it only briefly lasts for a couple of seconds at most.
Even with the palette slightly faded due to its age, the greenery along the riverbanks and the deep crimson of blood is surprisingly vibrant. Blacks are usually pretty well rendered and whites are nice and clean, too. Skin tones look mostly natural--except for the opening where the female victim's bare thighs are a shade of bright pink (must've been poison ivy in those bushes!). Fine detailing is also quite strong, and facial features reveal plenty of definition. What impresses me most, though, is the level of depth the image has here. Most of the film takes place in broad daylight and with very little debris remaining on the picture the dimensional aspect is amazing for a B-movie.
The nitty-gritty is this Blu-ray edition of 'Piranha' is way better than I could've ever hoped for -- especially when considering the fact that 'Piranha' is a low-budget flick now over thirty years old.
'Piranha' has never been graced with a 5.1 surround mix, and while the audio actually isn't listed anywhere on the packaging, Shout! Factory has upgraded the standard stereo soundtrack to an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mix.
Dialogue is fairly clean and intelligible, though it is a tad flat every once in awhile. I like how frogs can often be heard croaking in the distance, and other sound effects like the chattering of the deadly fish (or is a more appropriate word "gobbling?"), add a nice touch to the presentation. The score composed by Pino Donaggio ('Don't Look Now' and 'The Howling') sounds decent with a somewhat spacious presence. Parts of it actually remind me of a cross between the themes from 'Jaws' and John Carpenter's 'Halloween.' There's no sense talking about bass since there isn't any, only piranha and a fried trout I believe. There's no subwoofer activity, either. Crackles, hisses, and other faults also appear to have been filtered from the mix.
In the end, this track most certainly won't rock your world, but as far as low-budget productions are concerned 'Piranha' sounds pretty good and should easily please the fans.
The Blu-ray doesn't include any alternate tracks or subtitles.
Shout Factory's Special Edition of 'Piranha' offers a fair bit of bonus features, including some brand new material specifically for this release. However, all items appear on both the DVD and Blu-ray releases.
'Piranha' is a totally shameless 'Jaws' rip-off and this is precisely why it succeeds -- it knows exactly what it is doing and doesn't try to hide any of it or take itself too seriously. It also helps that the writing is smart, the direction is slick, and the performances are well above average for low-budget schlock. Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray edition of the film looks and sounds better than it ever has, and serves up a nice arrangement of supplements with some brand new material to boot. So if you enjoy gory cult classics with a bite of humor, now is the perfect time to reel in 'Piranha' -- one of the finest films in the Roger Corman library.