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Case Number 19479: Small Claims Court

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Piranha (1978)

Shout! Factory // 1978 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // August 13th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Daniel Kelly loves to skinny dip in abandoned military test facilities.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Piranha (2010) (published January 11th, 2011), Piranha (2010) (Blu-Ray) (published January 10th, 2011), and Piranha (1978) (Blu-ray) (published August 2nd, 2010) are also available.

The Charge

Buck: "What about the goddamn piranhas?"
Whitney: "They're eating the guests, sir."

The Case

With a remake hitting theatres later this month, Shout! Factory has seen fit to reissue Joe Dante's Piranha on a special edition DVD. Produced by legendary Hollywood schlock king Roger Corman, the film was released in 1978 on the back of Universal's mega blockbuster Jaws. Comparisons between Spielberg's legendary aquatic thriller and Dante's cheap slice of B-movie cheese are unwarranted; one is a classic, the other a slight dose of brainless bloodshed. Piranha has some nicely tuned comedic material, but time hasn't been kind to the film; the lack of tension or believable special effects hurting the movie badly in today's cinematic climate. It goes without saying that Piranha is an intensely tongue-in-cheek experience, but as a thriller or even a schlocky horror picture it fails because it never even approaches being scary.

Whilst searching for some missing teens, Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies, The Sound of Music) and local drunkard Grogan (Bradford Dillman, Lords of the Deep) accidently unleash a swarm of genetically mutated piranhas into the local river system. As the predatory fish consume everything and everyone they come in contact with, Maggie and Grogan strive to halt the beasts and put an end to the terror. However, the US Army is less than co-operative, despite tourists and the local summer camp in danger of becoming fish food.

Piranha is serviceable for a few giggles, and at 92 minutes it's a fairly concise experience, but the film largely disappoints as a whole. Joe Dante is an extremely talented filmmaker (just look at the Gremlins films for confirmation), but Piranha lacks the energy and spark that his best work seem to generate. The movie does provide some uproarious lines of dialogue and a few hysterical set-pieces, but there are times when Dante wants the viewer to fear his antagonists and never achieves that modest goal. The special effects are Grade-F hokum (Roger Corman wasn't famed for big budgets), but even the swooping underwater camera and savage gore mongering never manage to intimidate or even unnerve. There is also a notable lack of Piranha action until the final quarter, and (unlike Jaws) the characters we spend the rest of the picture with just aren't that interesting. The performances do have an attractive rough cut and cartoonish vibe to them, but the characterization is predictably weak and one dimensional. Both Grogan and Maggie are very basic screen entities, and yet Dante insists we spend large swathes of the movie in their company, simply overhearing them pushing dialogue at one another. It's an odd, and more than slightly irritating creative choice.

The film has a low rent B-movie aesthetic, something that suits the tone of the property perfectly. The lack of scares and frightening material is a handicap Piranha can never really recover from, but there is definitely some amusement to be derived from this ridiculous picture. As the film approaches its gory denouement, the piranha attacks and interfacing between the characters becomes increasingly crazed and entertaining, and the final line is a hoot and a half. I have no doubt Piranha was pitched as a horror-comedy, but whilst it nails the latter it completely flops in terms of scaring the audience. It would take a viewer of a very sensitive disposition to be freaked by any of the stuff on display here.

Presented in a freshly restored 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, strong colors outweigh a somewhat grainy source; much better than the previous full frame DVD release, but not as impressive as its Blu-ray brethren. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix is serviceable, on par with what we've heard before. Nothing that'll rock the house.

This new edition should be welcomed by fans of the film, especially since it offers a brilliant commentary with Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison. The pair has good fun dissecting the picture and explaining how they crafted it on such a thin budget. However, it is worth noting that this track has just been ported over from the previous release. A selection of new material for the televised version of the film is interesting to watch, and a new featurette featuring interviews with Dante and even Roger Corman himself is a really fascinating bit of film history. Corman is amongst Hollywood's most influential and important figures from the last 50 years, so listening to him discuss anything is an utter privilege that film fans should cherish. Rounding out the package is a selection of trailers, stills, bloopers and outtakes. It's an incredibly valuable DVD release, for a film that by rights should be a largely forgotten chunk of '70s nonsense.

The Verdict

The film is guilty, but the DVD release is a minor gem…especially for schlock enthusiasts.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 74

Perp Profile

Studio: Shout! Factory
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Cult
• Horror
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Bonus Scenes
• Featurette
• Bloopers/Outtakes
• Photo Galleries
• Trailers


• IMDb

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