Piranha (1978)
New Concorde
Cast: Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Kevin McCarthy, Heather Menzies, Bradford Dillman
Extras: “Behind-the-scenes” Footage, Bloopers and Outtakes, Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailers, Marketing Material and more

Fans of late ’70s horror have had much to rejoice about lately as many classics from that time period have recently been released on DVD. The latest offering is Joe Dante’s killer fish film "Piranha." (Not to be confused with the Lee Majors stinker "Killer Fish.") This 1978 film was Dante’s first (solo) attempt at directing and it shows much of the promise that he would exhibit in his later films. Unlike many films from that era that I thought I liked ("The Boogens?" What was I thinking?), "Piranha" has stood the test of time and still packs quite a punch. New Horizons Home Video has just released a 20th Anniversary DVD of "Piranha." Sure, it’s a year late, but who’s counting?

"Piranha" opens with two hikers entering a strange fenced-in pool and then disappearing. We then meet private investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), who has been hired to find the lost hikers. She enlists the help of local hermit Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who reluctantly agrees to help her.

They find the strange pool from the first scene and learn that this is a military testing facility where mutant piranha were being bred for use in the Vietnam War. Due to bad planning, Maggie accidentally releases the piranha into the local river, much to the chagrin of the lone scientist still working on the project Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy). Once they realize what they’ve…well, Maggie has done, it’s a race against time to save the citizens of the river community from the deadly piranha. There’s a summer camp where Grogan’s daughter is staying, which is run by the pompous Mr. Dumont (Paul Bartel), who insists that all of the children engage in swimming. Then there is the new

Lost River Lake Resort, which developer Buck Gardner (Dante regular Dick Miller) will open to the public no matter what. The military sends in Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele of "Black Sunday") to help, but she seems to have a hidden agenda. It’s up to Maggie and Grogan to stop the insatiable piranha from cutting a swath of death across the river as they head for the open ocean.

As I mentioned earlier, "Piranha" still works today, and I believe that’s because of the simplicity of John Sayles’ script. The bottom line is, we buy the story. The government developed these fish and now they’re loose in the river and must be stopped. From there, Dante and Sayles (who would go on to do "The Howling" together) are free to develop the characters and place them in suspenseful situations. While the script is very clever and has a nice tongue in cheek feel, it never gets overcomplicated. We know exactly what is going on, and for the most part, exactly what is going to happen, so the viewer can just sit back and enjoying the unnerving scenes of the piranha attacking innocent bathers.
Still, I have to question the fact that no one kicked Maggie’s butt for releasing the piranha in the first place.

Despite the fact that on the <$commentary,audio commentary> Dante keeps stating that he had no idea what he was doing while making the film, "Piranha" shows the genesis of a director who would come to be one of the most daring, yet still mainstream directors of his day. Dante also edited the film and has given it a good pace. An hour and a half is the perfect length for a film like this, and "Piranha" never seems slow. Dante claims that Roger Corman, who produced the effort, wanted a piranha attack in every reel, so there is plenty of action scattered throughout the film. While the special effects may seem primitive by today’s standards, they work thanks once again to the editing. We see just enough of the carnage to get an idea of how dangerous these piranha are. The thing that really makes the film work is the sound effects used when the piranha attack. Early on in the film, we learn to associate this noise with the piranha’s attacking and it works well throughout the film as a cue that something is about to happen. Actually, if you close your eyes during the attacks, you’ll find that the sound effects are scary on their own.

"Piranha" has been called Steven Spielberg’s favorite "Jaws" rip-off. While "Piranha" certainly owes a debt to the killer shark flick, it doesn’t try to mimic its tone. From the beginning, "Piranha" lets you know that it’s not taking itself too seriously and there are some funny moments in the film. Still, the film is quite gory and violent at times. There is a shot during the attack on the camp that is very shocking and I’m sure wouldn’t get past the MPAA today. This is another reason why the film works so well. It’s somehow able to balance its good-natured goofiness with the mean-spirited nature of the piranha attacks. Dante uses this technique to keep the viewer on edge and to take the viewer by surprise. You’re never quite sure how seriously to take the film and then WHAM! people start dying. One look at the failed attempts at humor/horror that have come along in the past few years will tell you how hard it is to maintain this balance between laughing and screaming, but "Piranha" manages to pull it off.

The New Horizons Home Video 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of "Piranha" brings the viewer an all-new digitally remastered transfer, giving us the best presentation ever of this film. The picture is presented full-frame, as it was shot with an open-matte (although the credits are <$PS,letterboxed>, something that even Dante couldn’t explain). The picture is incredibly clear and during the daylight scenes, does not look like a twenty-one year old film at all. There are a couple of stock footage shots (after all, this is a Roger Corman production), and it’s jarring to go from the graininess of the stock footage, back to the clarity of the "Piranha" footage. There are some obvious defects in the source print at times, mostly blips and small scratches, but these do not interfere with the viewing experience. The sound on the DVD is <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono, and while that aspect is disappointing, the sound itself is clear and the dialogue (and the scary piranha sounds) are always distinguishable.

Being a special edition, there are several goodies included on the DVD. The highlight is the running <$commentary,commentary track> with Joe Dante and producer Jon Davidson. It’s clear that these two are having a blast watching the film (Dante claims that he hasn’t seen it in 15 years), and the commentary is rather funny at times. Neither Dante nor Davidson take the film very seriously, but it’s obvious that they are proud of what they were able to accomplish for $660,000. Both commentators have a good memory for names and places and share several amusing anecdotes about the production of the film.

The DVD contains some never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage. There is a home movie segment that contains about ten minutes of behind-the-scenes footage. This shows the crew on location and offers a look at the creation of the piranha (showing a very young Rob Bottin), and is narrated by Dante and Davidson. There is also a blooper reel, featuring about seven minutes of gaffs and blown lines, most featuring Dick Miller. The original theatrical trailer for the film is presented, in its full-frame form. There are also six bonus trailers from classic Corman exploitation films in a section labeled "Coming Attractions." These trailers are for "Humanoids From the Deep" (it’s an R-rated trailer, so you get to go ahead and see the gratuitous nudity), "Death Race 2000", "Big Bad Mama", "Eat My Dust", "Grand Theft Auto" (with Ron Howard talking to the camera), "Knocking on Death’s Door" (which is a newer film and doesn’t really fit unless you consider the appearance by David Carradine.)

There are talent files, which feature bios for most of the major players and crew. One of the best things about this edition are the wonderfully clever animated menus. When you make your selection from the main menu, a piranha suddenly swims by and eats it. Also, note what is used to highlight selections on the special features menu.

Included in the DVD case is a reproduction of the original press kit that was sent to promoters and newspapers upon the films initial release. It contains still and bios. It also contains promotional ideas, like "Persuade local bars and restaurants to feature a piranha cocktail." Yikes!

One of the great things about DVD is that little films can finally get the kind of home video presentations that they deserve. The Special Edition of "Piranha" offers a great package featuring an unbeatable transfer of the film and loads of great extras. Make no mistake, if you’re a fan of this film, gobble this one up!