After last week's screening of The Red Shoes, I found myself at an impasse as far as this column was concerned. While there was no shortage of movies seen between then and now – I watched The Expendables, Going the Distance, Escape from New York, And God Created Woman, Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, Tales From Earthsea, Gamera, Machete, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Not Quite Hollywood – I felt hard-pressed to choose any of them, because I either loved them regardless of their shortcomings, knew they weren't eligible (all films must be at least five years old), or felt like it would be redundant to point out how well they hold up. But then I saw Piranha 3D.
Although I did not review it for Cinematical this time around, it's truthfully one of the few I've seen I consider to be "critic-proof," meaning that it does precisely what it intends to do, in so doing defies all standards of quality or value, and yet somehow fully satisfies. It truly doesn't matter what critics say about it; if you're at all interested in what it has to offer, you'll love it. But this odd discovery also reminded me that (A) I haven't ever seen the original Piranha, and (B) I recently got a Blu-ray of the film from the good folks at Shout Factory. And all of this labyrinthine self-indulgence is why the original Piranha is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released in 1978, Piranha was Joe Dante's second film as a director, and at that time the latest in producer Roger Corman's ongoing series of b-grade blockbuster knockoffs. Although the film was predictably snubbed by most critics groups come awards time, Dante and his co-editor Mark Goldblatt won a Saturn Award for their work putting the film together. Apparently Universal intended to sue the filmmakers for copyright infringement since Piranha basically duplicates the plot of Jaws, but with piranha, but rumor has it Steven Spielberg himself headed off the lawsuit after seeing an early screening of Dante's film and loving it.
What Still Works: There's a really amazing group of people who worked on the film, both in front of and behind the camera, and their work is surprisingly consistent: among the actors, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, and Paul Bartel are all convincing in their respective roles, while future filmmaker John Sayles made a successful career debut as screenwriter, Dante of course brought to life his love for b-grade science fiction, and composer Pino Donaggio provides a really beautiful, amazingly eclectic and effective score for all of the hijinks and supposed human drama.
Indeed, the score is among the best things about the movie, because Donaggio is great at creating larger themes that highlight character development, as well as providing a bunch of punctuative stings that emphasize a moment or fifteen of suspense. Meanwhile, given that it's more than 30 years old, the special effects are really no worse than the ones used in the new film, at least in the sense that CGI doesn't necessarily make for more realistic killer piranha than rubber ones on sticks shot at faster speeds. And Dante's direction maintains a suspenseful tone that doesn't take itself too seriously, but still offers a few scares here and there, ultimately creating an entertaining, silly, well, yeah, knockoff of Jaws that manages to earn the right to exist alongside it (albeit far behind it qualitatively).
What Doesn't Work: While Sayles tells a story that's appropriately fearless and irreverent, subjecting animals, adults, and kids to piranha attacks in almost equal measures, he sets things up in a way that's maddeningly stupid. Heather Menzies, who plays the film's heroine, is a private investigator of some kind, and when she discovers clues to the whereabouts of the people she's looking for, she takes it upon herself to drain the pool where the piranha are contained. Mind you, she doesn't know there are piranha, but it's just about the stupidest thing you can imagine a person doing, and she does herself no favors by later shifting blame to the scientist who created the piranha rather than apologizing or even admitting she unleashed the greatest evil science could create on the unsuspecting town that waits down river.
Meanwhile, I suppose that there are places so remote that they don't have phones, and the nearby river is the quickest way to get to town, but a big chunk of the film involves Menzies' character making her way down stream on a makeshift raft that seems absolutely destined to fall apart. Then, later, she and her companion, a bearded alcoholic played by Bradford Dillman, find themselves assisted by the military, who ridiculously presume that the piranha infestation can be suppressed, and are instructed not to tell anyone about the incident, even though friends, neighbors and loved ones are right in the path of the piranha migration. I can actually buy a government cover-up, but I find it unlikely that the authorities would approach two people with verifiable proof of mortal danger and do nothing more than, "but you're not gonna say anything, right?"
What's The Verdict: Piranha holds up way better than it deserves to, which is to say that it's actually a decent movie, even if it was meant to be (and still is) a cash-grab copy of Jaws from start to finish. It's by no means a classic, however, and notwithstanding the obvious budgetary issues which it admirably overcomes, it's often amateurish, poorly written, broad, and inconsistent for no discernible reason. However, Shout Factory's new Blu-ray looks really, really great and comes with a ton of extra features for folks who want to dive into the deep end of this exercise in shallow suspense, so it's a movie that I actually think will continue to appreciate in value in years to come, even if it will always be little more than the chewed up remnants that a true masterpiece like Jaws leaves in its wake.