Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Natural: Piranha

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/03/2016 – Natural: Piranha (1978)
Directed by Joe Dante

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“What about the piranhas?”
“They are eating the guests”

You know what’s really scary; the outside. A bunch of animals, plants, and diseases conspiring to make you and your friends dead. Naturally (ha!) this primal instinct makes for a good source of horror and there’s now horror films versions of just about every species out there (in giant or regular form) regardless of how threatening it actually is. While existing since the beginning of film thanks largely to the Lost World genre of films such as The Lost World and King Kong where giant prehistoric creatures have continued to exist in some remote, hidden locale, the genre (frequently known as Creature Features) has seen two booms; post-The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and post-Jaws. The former is responsible for all the giant animal and Kaiju films (thanks to its influence on Godzilla) which I will discuss later it the month, and the latter which is responsible for all the Killer [Blank] films which have popped up since.

While The Birds acts as a sort of frontrunner to that subset of the genre and is a fantastic film, it was Jaws which not only started the blockbuster craze, but also spawned a wave of imitators that continue to this day. To be fair, if you are going to ape (ha again!) a film, picking a masterpiece is hardly a bad pick and the success of these films has ranged in a ton of quality (with Night of the Lepus on one side and Slither on the other) and tone (from deadly serious to parody), the common thread, especially in the late 70’s, is how much they wish they were Jaws. So might as well talk about a film that is a direct parody of Jaws. On a somewhat unrelated note, you could probably throw yesterday’s The Flesh Eaters in this category too.

While not Joe Dante’s first film, Piranha is his solo directing debut and the one that put him on the map. It’s also been made into a remake (well two but I’m referering to Piranha 3D) which is probably the greatest justification for 3D yet (that’s a lie but it uses it perfectly in the cheesy sense) and which was surprisingly great and funny. While Dante (MatineeGremlinsThe Howling, etc.) has been reduced to TV director handling random episodes of such beloved series as Hawaii Five-0 and Salem, he’s always been such an underrated and distinctive director and this has been a film towards the top of my to-see list for a long while.

Like so many others, Dante got his start under Roger Corman and this film is very noticeably a Corman film, albeit rising far above most of them. Piranha parodies the open scene, gender swapped at first and really that’s only the start of the blatant Jaws influence. The film contains some Dante trademark stop motion along with Dante regulars Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller as well as his first collaboration with John Sayles (The Howling) who, unlike Dante who kept making glorified B-movies, eventually moved into being an Academy Award nominated writer and director on such dramas as Passion Fish and Lone Star. Like The Howling, Dante’s comic sensibilities are far more toned down (though still very much present) and for a parody it plays things mostly straight. Thankfully it does a rather good job of that and feels like its own thing more than anything else.

The so called heroes (a drunk and an insurance investigator with a penchant for asking really personal questions apropos of nothing) are the ones who released the piranhas making for a truly inspiring bunch. As to why they are able to survive in the cold water and why they are so murderous, we get yet another mad scientist (I like this theme better than last year’s theme of bad twists) this time breeding mutant piranhas and played by McCarthy. SPOILER McCarthy (who thankfully tones down the mad part of his job title at least in sanity) gets a death worthy of Volcano in its stupidity but at least I was for an understandable reason (trying to save his son) even if it meant diving into the water with nothing he can do until the raft would have gotten to him anyway. END OF SPOILER We also get an evil military (the commander of which is also trying to hide his involvement in a local business) because of course we do and between this and The Flesh Eaters, their scientists should really be more careful.

What I really dislike about films like this is their unwillingness to kill kids which leads to both obnoxious plot hoops the film has to jump through and the most obnoxious characters surviving and SPOILER boy does Piranha not have this problem. It’s very visible bloodshed truly warmed my cold heart. END OF SPOILER It’s not nearly as bloody, funny, or fun as the surprisingly faithful in many ways remake but I can’t hold that against the film too much. No dismembered penis floating towards the screen though so why even bother. For a low budget Corman title it looks great and the despite how obviously fake the piranha attacks look, they are still handled about as best as possible in its registering of a notable body count and showing off all the bloody wounds or shying away from the brutality and horror of the final scenes. SPOILER Heck the film ends with Dick Miller staggering around the dead yelling at the cameraman to stop filming and an evil scientist smiling evilly even as she knows the piranhas not only can escape into the oceans, but also that she’s gotten away with any association to it. How’s that for a downer ending? END OF SPOILER

It may not be as effective at generating tension as Jaws but it doesn’t try nearly so much and frankly, what film can say it is as tense as JawsJaws certainly never had any line as wonderful as “Terror, horror, death. Film at 11”. Also while I’m sure the message “The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only” was a common airport message at the time, I can’t help but think of Airplane!when I hear it.

Bonus Episode #7 – Natural: The Pack (1977)
Directed by Robert Clouse

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Speaking of Jaws knockoffs, here’s an unironic one, except with dogs released two years later. The film stars Mitchell himself, Joe Don Baker, as a father who is essentially an amalgamation of the three Jaws leads. He’s Brody with Quint’s animal hunting skills and Hooper’s knowledge (albeit far more toned down) and he handles the role well. The rest of the characters are generally non-entities aside from the massive nob and idiot of a vacationer who gets an extremely random subplot of him trying to get his grown Philip Seymour Hoffman-looking son to sleep with their ditzy but kind cook. He’s the “mayor” of the film who exists to keep the film from being Night of the Living Dead with dogs (since the film refreshingly wastes no time deducing the threat the dogs prove and having everyone, especially those unlikely to help with the protecting, hole up in a house) by his relative dismissing of the threat, sending his son outside (which sparks most of the time they venture outside when they go searching for him SPOILER after he disappears. The son is not a small man yet still able to out run a bunch of ravenous dogs which is pretty damn impressive well at least until he runs out running room. It just leaves the story of his Paul from You’re the Worst like interests and unintentional charming of the ditz he wants nothing to do with as a time killing device or maybe as a way of trying to endear us to him and be bummed he died instead of the father.  END OF SPOILER

For a Jaws rip-off though, the film is surprisingly decent. The dogs are both effective as a threat but kept realistic enough that they aren’t completely out of the realm of possibility. They also engender plenty of sympathy by being a group of starving dogs abandoned by assholes who come together to survive. Granted, getting me sympathetic to a group of dogs, especially over paper thin humans, is an incredibly easy task, but man did that poor dog abandoned in the opening scene crush me. He serves as sort of a runner and silent entry into these dog’s world and complete with distinctive gnawed off rope gets probably the best characterization and actual arc of the film. It’s not a great film but it’s a decent enough watch.

Bonus Episode #8 – Natural: The Shallows (2016)
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

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Despite the positive reviews, I can’t say I went into this movie expecting much. Jaume Collet-Serra’s career has consisted of bad horror movies (House of WaxOrphan) and mediocre Liam Neeson action-thrillers films (UnknownNon-Stop, and Run All Night) while relying on a notoriously flat acting Blake Lively to hold up the film and a genre which rarely leads to great films. The film has potential to be her Buried (which starred her husband Ryan Reynolds) though proving her ability.

The notion of a person or a few stranded thanks to sharks is hardly original as Open Water is still a film that exists (even if it wasn’t actually any good), but it’s a good premise. It’s also refreshing to have a believably capable and prepared lead character. Nothing Lively does is ever something I wouldn’t expect a reasonably capable surfer would be able to achieve. Okay, it’s annoying that she just happens to be a med student and therefore capable of using technical medical terms, but practically this doesn’t help her too much.

It’s not even the shark that’s creates the tensest horror, that would be the stitching with a necklace scene. It draws me back to Bone Tomahawk where crippling the lead (and the onset of gangrene) that really gets to me so I guess the lesson is CGI animals can’t mess with some good old fashioned practical body horror. Even the sharp rocks and coral feel like bigger threats. It feels unfair to criticize a film for special effects when I just finished watching a film that used fake piranhas tied to sticks and liberal editing, but as always, the CGI shark is much better the less you see of it. When it pops out of the water, I feel like I accidently switched over to Syfy original movie and it elicits more laughs than terror.

SPOILER The CGI jellyfish that just pop up randomly feel like a cruel joke generating first a dark laugh of disbelief in a “can you believe her luck kind of way?” (the film gets an even better one when the flare gun misfires in pathetic fashion) before moving to “please don’t just show your protagonist hovering in the water amongst these really fake looking things like she just stepped into a lousy remake of the video for ‘Only You’”. END OF SPOILER Speaking of which, did the film really need slo-mo whenever something went wrong? The answer is no, no it didn’t. The times slow motion has been used effectively in action scenes without eliciting laughter can probably be counted on one hand and this certainly isn’t the movie to change that. It undercuts all the horror you have been building up.

The film just reeks of missed potential that make me wish it had been in far more capable hands than Collet-Serra’s. It wastes a surprisingly great performance from Lively and some moments of effective tension on what’s ultimately a mediocre end product. It’s as if he needed a producer there to smack some sense into him every time he overthought things. You were so close but you botched it and then you went out with a SPOILER one year later scene showing our protagonist happy, in apparently perfect physical condition, having achieved everything she wanted surrounded by her remaining family and crappy pop song playing in the background. Don’t try to be the later Fast and the Furious films if you want me to take you seriously, they sure as heck aren’t. End with the damned close up on the hand faintly moving. You had the perfect shot and chance to leave me at least satisfied instead of making me want to chuck the disc in the air and shoot it with a flare gun. END OF SPOILER

Bonus Episode #9 – Vampire: Dracula’s Dog (1978)
Directed by Albert Band

Really it felt only fair to bookend today with late 70’s horror movies about killer dogs. This is the kind of title though that I’m shocked was made this late. Vampire dog has 60’s written all over it. Being from the director of Prehysteria! (somehow I have this on VHS) and Ghoulies II does not bode well for the film right off the bat but he also directed I Bury the Living which is supposed to be pretty good (and I could have sworn I’ve seen before but apparently not).

Well Between this and The Swarm, it was not a good year for José Ferrer, seen here playing an inspector with all the enthusiasm this film deserves (none). Like the film itself, his and everyone else’s performance is merely bad, not really entertainingly so. I do love the awful musical sting that accompanies the dog’s staring eyes but really all the music is terrible. Also hilarious is the way he communicates telepathically with his human ally and the dog’s name, Zoltan, which is completely ridiculous and belongs on a magician or a carnival game (though the alternate film title, Zoltan Hound of Dracula, is a much better name). Unlike say, The Pack which actually makes you care and feel like these dogs are real characters, here they are just all interchangeable and we have to take the human’s word for which ones we are supposed to care about (not that they seem to all that much). I said before that it is not difficult to make me sympathetic to a dog but this film has just made me more retroactively impressed by The Pack

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