More Shameless Knock-offs From the Corman Factory

Piranha may appear larger in the poster

Piranha (1978) (Shout! Factory) – “Lost River Lake: Terror, horror, death. Film at 11.” Roger Corman produced this shameless Jaws rip-off at the height of the “nature gone wild” boom of American cinema and struck B movie gold. Scripted by John Sayles (recruited by producer Roger Corman to make his feature film writing debut) and directed by Joe Dante (in his solo debut, after co-directing Hollywood Boulevard and cutting scores of Coming Attractions in the New World trailer department), the shamelessly exploitative tale of mutant piranha released in a Texas river becomes an energetic and inventive tongue-in-cheek thriller.

Bradford Dillman does his best Rip Torn impression as anti-social mountain man Paul Grogan and Heather Menzies is rookie skip tracer Maggie, looking for missing hikers and finding a long forgotten secret military lab where mutant piranha are being bred… which are, naturally, released into the river system. They race the little biters downstream while Dante and Sayles provide the requisite blood and gore for the drive-in meat-market: a kid’s summer camp and a waterfront amusement park await the little beasties.

The script is full of contrivances to slow the race down the mountain—a wrecked jeep, a log raft nibbled to driftwood (so to speak) by the fish, an arrest by an overzealous deputy—and they feel like contrivances. Yet Menzies has a bubbly charm and spunky sense of humor as junior detective Maggie and Dillman is perfectly sardonic as the alcoholic hermit roused from his isolation when he realizes that the piranha are headed right toward the summer camp where his daughter is vacationing. And of course, even a phone call to the right people is treated as a crank call.

But what finally differentiates this B-movie gem from the legion of similar knock-offs are the satirical swipes at military arrogance and crass commercialism, Dante’s energetic enthusiasm, and the bursts of black humor (“Sir, the Piranhas.” “What about the goddamm piranhas?!” “They’re eating the guests.”). And my favorite aside is a stop motion lizard creature creeping through the laboratory as Maggie and Paul investigate the army base. It’s just there as a flourish, an added detail that is never paid off narratively but who cares? It’s this kind of personality, a nod to the Harryhausen creature features that Dante loves so much, that makes it so much fun.

The culty cast also includes Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘s Kevin McCarthy as the hysterical scientist guarding the creatures, horror diva Barbara Steele as a devious government researcher, Paul Bartel is the killjoy camp director and longtime Corman regular and Dante favorite Dick Miller as an unscrupulous entrepreneur whose Texas twang turns urban wise guy once he’s out of the public eye. Watch for John Sayles as a dopey-looking MP.

Features good humored commentary by director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davidson from previous DVD releases plus an all-new 20-minute featurette (with Corman and Dante, actors Melody Thomas, Belinda Balaski and an aging Dick Miller, plus the effects crew, including future effects superstars Phil Tippet and Chris Walas) among the supplements. There is also ten minutes of good quality home movie footage shot by Davidson, six minutes of outtakes, and galleries of stills and ad art among the supplements.

It’s another of the Corman New World classics rereleased on DVD and debuting on Blu-ray in newly mastered editions, along with the 1980 Humanoids from Deep (Shout! Factory). And making its DVD debut is the double feature of Deathsport / Battletruck (Shout! Factory), which is not getting the Blu-ray treatment, and for good reason. I’m not referring to the quality of the film (it’s terrible, sure, but why let that stop a release?) but the quality of the materials. Simply put, Deathsport is in bad shape with surface scuffs, major vertical scratches and lots of splices and tears and missing chunks of soundtrack.

Deathsport (1978), imagined by Corman as another (but cheaper) Death Race 2000, is essentially a sci-fi Roman gladiator movie in a post-apocalyptic fantasy future with motorcycles, a mad dictator and David Carradine as a mystic desert warrior captured and tossed into the bread-and-circuses arena where political prisoners are served up to the spectacle-hungry population. Claudia Jennings co-stars as a tracker who is tossed naked into the psychedelic hippie lounge of a torture chamber before she’s sent into the killing fields of the arena (which looks like the old Death Race grandstand matte painting, re-used in classic Corman fashion). The matte effects and stunt work scenes are awkward at best (director Henry Suso, aka Nicholas Niciphor, is not a natural at zero-budget spectacle) and the budget appears to be spent on the exploding motorcycle and exploding tunnel effects. Which apparently left so little money for the mutant cave detour that they were left with nothing better than weird guys with ping-pong ball eyes skulking around, grunting and making animal sounds. Carradine’s pseudo-mystical dialogue isn’t much more articulate: “Taste my blade.” It’s stilted, cheap and takes itself awfully seriously for such a bad script.

Features commentary with co-director Allan Arkush and editor Larry Bock and an interview with actor Jesse Vint, plus co-feature Battletruck (1982), Corman’s answer to The Road Warrior, which features commentary with director Harley Cokliss.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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