Friday, March 10, 2006




I feel not a lick of shame when I tell you that I loved watching Piranha and that I will cheerfully watch it again. Soon. This movie is strangely good. I should have known this would be true immediately when I saw that it stars Bradford Dillman. He is a wonderful man. Nobody can sweat through his beard stubble like this guy, and few can rival his ability to make a flannel shirt look not just lived-in, but possibly an actual organic extension of its owner. And can we talk ill-disguised angst? I first learned about his great talents watching Bug – the memories! He didn’t hold back in this movie, either. In fact, he may have been wearing the same shirt in both movies; I’ll have to check. The filmmakers treat us as well to the great Kevin McCarthy, the many-times-great Barbara Steele, and a cast of MAN-EATING FISH!

The movie starts with a young couple on a hiking trip getting into trouble. They go skinnydipping in the wrong pool, a concrete pond surrounded by a chain-link fence and NO TRESPASSING signs. You and I know what that means, but as expendable characters in a B-movie they cannot see the danger. Naturally, they get munched by SOMETHING TERRIBLE IN THE WATER. We see no tall fin slicing its way across the surface, no tentacles reaching to drag the swimmers under, but there is lots of blood. And they go down without much struggle. Odd…

…Soon enough, it transpires that the menace is an especially frisky and sociable version of the Piranha, altered through a government program to serve the dastardly needs of the U.S. military. THE CHASE IS ON to solve the mystery and stop the piscatorial menace before it can eat a summer camp full of kids and the entire customer base of a new riverside resort. WILL THE SHAVED MONKEYS PREVAIL?

This story takes place in a time few of us can still remember. In the Seventies, when this story was committed to celluloid, divorce was a dire event that tore people’s lives apart and drove them to lives of crime and misery. Full-time drinking, while not considered exactly healthy, was accepted as a normal lifestyle choice, even encouraged as a way of helping people through tough times. Living alone out in the woods was for hippie weirdoes. Single parenting was almost a scandal, and single fathering was seen as unnatural, impossible. So the Bradford Dillman we see in Piranha -- a man raising his little girl alone in the woods with only a bottle of booze for companionship – is a pitiable figure indeed, and about the last guy you’d call on to help you with anything. But he is our hero. Or the landscum viewer's hero, I should say. OUR heroes are the frisky little mutant fish.

There are powerful themes in this story about overcoming your personal misery to help Monkeykind, overcoming your worst fears, stuff like that.

There is also the stock theme of not trusting the government. What I love about this particular movie is that it appears to have occurred to NOBODY that the Piranhas are the ones pulling the strings…or in this case untying the lashings on the homemade raft that keeps the Naked Apes out of the water. That was a VERY moving scene.

Kevin McCarthy plays his accustomed B-movie role of Doom Crier. He imagines he is in charge of keeping the Piranhas fed and corralled. FOOL. He is keeping them in comfort until THEY decide to leave. Nobody listens to his warnings until it is far too late – the heroes have just released a school of specially modified piranhas into the river outside, where they will devour any living thing that crosses their path and, by the way, breed like rats.

We get to see Barbara Steele in an unusual modern-dress, non-Poe-movie role. As a scientific military toady, she shows up and does everything possible to interfere with the efforts of our heroes, telling everyone in charge that there is NO DANGER.

Despite the amazing ineptitude of nearly every human character in the story, the Drunken Hermit manages to stop the menace while sustaining only a few nasty nips from his finny foe. Again, it occurs to NOBODY that they let him go because HE GAVE THEM WHAT THEY WANTED. And he didn’t cheese them off by loading himself down with high-tech anti-fish weaponry.

Of course, a few fish escape into the ocean, making a sequel not only possible, but imperative. And I hardly need to point out that the military has modified the piranhas so thoroughly that they can survive in salt water as well as fresh.

This movie provides a lot of effective moments and a lot of nice touches, without ever straying from the narrow path of B-movie tradition. I like the Killer Fish effect very much, and I wish we had gotten to see more of the title characters. They convincingly looked piranha-ish, but not exactly like the real thing, so it was pretty easy to believe that they had been specially bred. They could only have been some sort of styrofoam models, but the FX crew got the piranaha scenes to work well anyway. They made the fish arrow through the water in formation as if jet-propelled, and used a creepy electronic sound effect that really makes you think of little teeth worrying pieces of flesh off the bone. The group assault on each victim is very convincing.

I recently saw one of the stars up for auction on eBay. The bidding was up to $400, if I recall correctly. The teeth on that little puppy! That is a fine piece of film memorabilia, and I hope the new owner treats her with the proper respect.

Of course, there were several broad clues in the course of this movie about what was really going on. Come on, an army of mutant fish organized enough to untie the lashing on a homemade raft? Fish who start off the movie attacking discreetly underwater, but who progress to leaping above the surface to go after the face and hands of the flailing victim, ignoring the vulnerable parts already submerged? Fish that have changed so radically that they can survive unattended in captivity or make it easily in the wild, in either fresh or salt water, who eat anything, fear nothing and take on the dominant species on earth without flinching? WHO DO YOU THINK THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT, THE EASTER BUNNY?

Sorry, I’m yelling, aren’t I?

You ladies need to see this one for its valuable lessons in teamwork, patience in waiting for the right moment to strike, and judiciousness in choosing whom – and whom NOT – to strike.

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