Monday 7 May 2012


The Long Fish Goodnight

Piranha USA 1978
Directed by Joe Dante
MGM Region 2

So I finally took a look at the Roger Corman produced, lets-all-ride-the-Jaws-bandwagon movie Piranha because, frankly, I can’t resist the allure of the Piranha 3DD trailer which has been doing the rounds (using a bust size to denote a movie’s chronology... genius) and so I want to see the previous four Piranha movies before this one gets unleashed in cinemas (that includes the first remake of Piranha if I can get it, the TV version called Piranhas). So that’s why, if anyone asks, I’m watching movies about fish with teeth.

However, there’s good compensation to be had from sitting through some of this twaddle. For instance, this first movie in the sequence is only the second feature film by a director you may have heard of... you know, Joe Dante? He’s a great director and some of his trademark signature points are already showing up in this one, such as the use of cartoons on television. It’s also got a few of his usual cast of character actors turning up to help him out including the one and only Kevin McCarthy in the role of a crazy over-acting scientist. Of course, he doesn’t run down a street shouting “They’re here! They’re here!” but, you know, good enough.

In addition to a raft of great character actors, the cast includes Bradford Dillman as the male protagonist Grogan (in kind of a lethargic Burt Reynolds mode) and TV's Jessica 6 from Logan’s Run, Heather Menzies, as the main female protagonist. In addition to these two, there’s also genre favourite Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, Pit and The Pendulum, The She Beast, Shivers etc) as a military scientist and ex-lover to Kevin McCarthy’s character. So there’s a real display of interesting actors (or at least “personalities”) to look at in this one.

And all this is wrapped up in a package scored by the popular Italian composer Pino Donnagio... it’s not his best score but it does have some interesting trademark flourishes and, though I’m used to watching Joe Dante movies when they’ve been scored by Jerry Goldsmith, I’d happily take Pino Donnagio as an alternative.

Oh... and did I mention it’s the first story and screenplay to make it onto the screen that’s been written by John Sayles? So, yeah... there’s that too.

Now you might think that, with all this incredible talent both in front of and behind the camera on this one, it means we have an absolute masterpiece of “death fish” mayhem on our hands. Alas, I’m afraid that’s not true. It certainly wasn’t as trashy or exploitational as I’d expected it to be but, with films of this nature, I find that a lack of sleazy fun injected into the proceedings is not neccessarily a good thing... it could have done with being a lot trashier in my book. Because of the quality of the artists involved, what you have is a movie which strives to be more than its budget allows and, though this is not neccessarily a bad thing, in some ways it’s to the movies detriment. On the other hand, it’s a not bad showcase/calling card for some of these artist’s talent so there’s that too. Worthwhile creatives have begun to forge a career off the back of this one.

There have been attempts made, probably by Corman post-rough cut I should think, to “trash the movie up good”... and I guess in some ways this works better than others. There’s an obvious flash-cut (if you’ll excuse the pun) where a body double has been unceremoniously cut into the footage to make out that Heather Menzies is flashing her breasts... this is so obvious and it kinda kills the mood. Doesn’t work well at all. Kinda makes you wonder what Heather Menzies was thinking, getting involved with a Roger Corman movie.

There are, however, a lot of plusses to the movie as well. For instance, a completely superfluous stop-motion animation a-la-Harryhausen styled miniature creature is wandering around Kevin McCarthy’s lab in some of the early scenes. It doesn’t interact with the human characters, just gets out of their way, and the human characters don’t see it at any point. Now it could be argued that this loosely animated character is there to show the demented nature of Kevin McCarthy’s experiments for the military (in almost direct contradiction to what he tells our main protagonists later) but my guess is that this little creature wasn’t even mentioned in the script. I think it’s probably Joe Dante practicing his craft for his future movies where knowledge of how to handle such scenes would be more than relevant. As it is, it’s a cute curiosity which adds another little layer of interest to this film.

Piranha is certainly, and perhaps surprisingly, not a terrible movie. Nor is it a particularly good creature feature, although to be fair to the producers... it was popular enough to spawn a sequel, a remake and then a rebooted franchise, so it was obviously liked by enough people to make these things possible. I wouldn’t personally go out of my way to recommend it to anyone but for fans of this genre of film (technically I think this counts as a horror film since the plot deals with a genetically altered and mutated school of fish) then it’s always going to be worth a watch and, certainly, for anybody interested in the early careers of some of the cast and crew, it’s a bit of a modern historical document. Fish around for a while in this movie and you might find something interesting.

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