Piranha – The Incredibly Strange Film Show – tape 515

The end of The London Programme opens this tape, looking at the medical complaints process in the NHS.

Before the movie there’s a trailer for international athletics. And a frankly sadistic public service advert to ‘help’ people with fear of dentists.

Then, Joe Danté’s Piranha. A Roger Corman production clearly conceived as a quick knock-off of Jaws, but when a film is written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Danté, it’s likely you’ll get something interesting. It starts off with a very cheeky nod to Citizen Kane.

No Trespassing

Two teenagers break into a strange facility in the middle of nowhere, and decide to go swimming in the large pool there. Naturally, they are not alone in the pool.

Heather Menzies plays an investigator hired to search for the missing teenagers, and she recruits Bradford Dillmann, a grumpy loner with a drink problem, to help her.

Heather Menzies and Bradford Dillmann

They soon discover the facility where the teenagers disappeared – she’s a very good investigator, clearly – and discover lots of strange things in the lab. There’s some nice stop-motion here.

Stop Motion Piranha

They find the teenagers’ belongings, and Menzies decides they must have drowned in the big pool, so they start draining it, when they are attacked by the custodian of the facility, played by Corman regular Kevin McCarthy, who clearly doesn’t want the pool drained. “They’ll kill us, they’ll kill all of us” he says, but never anything actually useful, so the mystery continues.

Kevin McCarthy

We learn that Dillmann is divorced, and his daughter is staying at the summer camp further down the river, run by another Danté regular Paul Bartel.

Paul bartel

Dillmann and Menzies have to get McCarthy downriver, but their Jeep is crashed, so naturally their only option is to raft down the river.

Rafting

McCarthy explains what was happening at the lab – Army experiments to breed killer piranha which can survive in the cold rivers of the US – and Dillmann realizes that if they don’t get to the dam lower down the river, the piranha will be released into the lower lake, where the summer camp and a new resort are waiting.

McCarthy makes a heroic but incomprehensibly pointless sacrifice when he jumps into the river to save a young boy trapped on a capsized canoe, leading to a very tense scene where the raft is being nibbled apart with four people on it.

But they do make it to the dam, just in time to stop it being opened. But that’s not the end of the story, and now the Army turn up, with Piranha expert Barbara Steele in tow – you can tell she’s an expert because she pronounces the word ‘Piranya’.

Barbara Steele

And yet another Danté (and Corman) regular Dick Miller plays the Murray Hamilton role of the owner of the new resort having their opening day gala.

Dick Miller in Piranha

While Dillmann races to save his daughter in a stolen police car…

Flying police car

…the piranha reach the summer camp, and there’s a quite nasty scene of carnage. The kids are all on the water in rubber rings, taking some merit badge or other. Dillmann’s daughter is scared of the water and refuses to swim, because she somehow knows there are creatures in the water, but when the other children and the camp counsellors start being attacked, she takes to the water in a dinghy to help rescue them.

In the same scene, Paul Bartel, who has, up until now been an officious, pompous blowhard, braves the piranhas to rescue as many children as he can. This is just one of many small character moments which help elevate this film from a campy, schlocky rip-off to a well-rounded thriller that works entirely on its own terms.

It’s also a film packed with great roles for women. Menzies takes the lead in almost all situations, rarely having to leave all the action to Dillmann, although the scene where she distracts a guard by flashing her chest betrays the film’s exploitation heritage. Dillmann’s daughter is shown as brave and resourceful. Barbara Steele is the expert. Even the female teenager at the beginning is the one taking charge. In a genre where women are often relegated to just being victims, it’s another thing that makes this so much better than it could have been.

Piranha really works. It’s clever and knowing, but without lapsing into full-blown parody. So when it does get nasty – and it definitely does – there’s true jeopardy and menace, and it doesn’t fail to deliver the blood. It shows the respect that Danté and Sayles have for the genre that they take their responsibilities to scare the audience seriously.

The effects were handled by some now-familiar names. Phil Tippett did the stop motion creatures at the start (which never reappear) and Rob Bottin, Robert Short and Chris Walas worked on the many Piranha attacks. And the score, while not quite matching up to John Williams’ iconic Jaws score, is a typically lush and rich Pino Donnagio score.

In the ‘clever and knowing’ category, I’d put the scene where a speedboat collides with another boat, and both explode.

Exploding Boat

And the TV news reporter intoning “Lost River Lake. Terror. Horror. Death. Film at 11.”

It even leaves things wide open for a sequel, but in the event, nobody involved with the original had anything to do with the eventual sequel, which marks the directorial debut of James Cameron, but not one he lists on his CV.

In an ad break, there’s a trailer for The One Game.

Following this, there’s another episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show, and this time Jonathan Ross talks to the maker of the film which gives the series its name, Ray Dennis Steckler, auteur of The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and became Mixed Up Zombies.

Ray Dennis Steckler

Following this programme, there’s a trailer for a melodramatic looking TV Movie, Toughlove.

Then the recording stops, and underneath there’s a documentary about the workforce at a Panasonic factory in Wales. Quality Circles abound. It also looks at the failure of Fidelity manufacturing in Acton. Credits reveal this was an episode of Equinox.

Following this, the start of an episode of Virtuoso, in which Valadimir Askenazy talks about his life and career to Jonathan Miller, and performs some Schumann.

Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jonathan Miller

 

There’s about 15 minutes of this programme before the tape stops.

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