He Watched It Sober.

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     "But the piranhas..."

-- Whitney    

     "What about the god@#%* piranhas!"

-- Gardner    

     "They're eating the guests, sir."

-- Whitney    




Gonzoid Cinema




Mouse Over Image to Simulate a Piranha Attack!

Awwwwww... I think

 they like you!


Watch it!



Sights &
  Joe Dante
  John Sayles
  Richard Robinson
  Jon Davidson
  Roger Corman
 New World

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Monster Kid
Makes Good:
The Infernal
Film Career
of Joe Dante

The Movie Orgy

Hollywood Boulevard


Rock-n-Roll High School

The Howling


Amazon Women on the Moon

The 'burbs

On a bright, moonlit night somewhere in the backwoods of east Texas, two back-packers trying to find the path to Lost River Lake, instead, find themselves hopelessly lost until stumbling upon what looks like an abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere, where their curiosity soon gets the better of them. Ignoring the No Trespassing signs, they crawl through the fence, and aside from a few derelict buildings, find a large pool filled with water. After a long hot day of hiking, the couple decides to take advantage and do a little skinny-dipping, and after some splashing and general horseplay, it quickly becomes quite obvious that they aren't alone in the water when the boy accuses the girl of biting him -- but she's all the way over in the deep end. Well, whatever bit him, bites him again, and again, and as he screams a warning to the girl to get out of the pool, the water around him comes to a bloody boil as he's sucked beneath the surface. Swimming for her life, the girl almost makes it out, but the unseen underwater menace starts shredding her, too, and her shrieks are quickly drowned out. And as the roiling waters quietly simmer and settle, we ominously pan over to one of the buildings, where a door slides open, and we spy someone silhouetted in the light...

Time passes and it turns out one of those missing teens was in some trouble with the law, and after missing his court date, the bondsmen (Richard Deacon) who posted his bail needs to find him quick or forfeit the money. And all of his other skip-tracers must have been busy as he winds up sending the addle-brained and disaster-prone Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) to round them up and bring them back. Retracing their steps, her investigation leads to the cabin of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) -- who after losing his job, and his wife, has become a bit of a drunken and bitter recluse; and the only bright spot in his world is his young daughter, Suzie (Shannon Collins), who's currently at a summer-camp down the river a spell. Denying ever seeing the missing hikers, Grogan figures they probably drowned in the river and the bodies are hung up in the nearby dam. Since both teens were good swimmers, McKeown doesn't buy that and keeps pressing him for some possible hideouts -- and finally gets some information about an old fish-hatchery up the mountain that the army took over for awhile before abandoning it. (He typed ominously...) Wanting him to show the way, the surly Grogan refuses, wanting no part of it, and tells her to get lost. 

Now, the reason Grogan is a little bitter over all this is simple: it was the EPA that shut down the smelting plant he worked for because they were poisoning the water, and all the land was turned over to the army very cheaply. And now that same land has been resold to a developer who built the dam to create the new Lost River Lake Resort. So while he lost everything, some fat-cats got a little fatter.

One movie-cliché induced jump-cut later, though, McKeown is dragging the reluctant Grogan up the mountain, where they break into the old hatchery. Near the pool, they find the missing girl's locket, and when looking in one of the buildings find two discarded back-packs. They also find a strange laboratory filled with hideous things preserved in dozens of jars -- and a few more live specimens lurking that were not intended for this Earth. Creeped out, Grogan wants to leave but McKeown finds the control-box to drain the pool and flips the switch, wanting to make sure there aren't any bodies at the bottom of it. Suddenly, a crazed man bursts into the lab and attacks them -- but he honestly seems more interested in the drainage switch than with the trespassers. As they struggle, he almost gets the switched turned back off before getting knocked out -- allowing the pool to drain completely away into the nearby river. Once its emptied, a few bones are found caught in the grating. Thinking they have a murderer on their hands, the couple hears McKeown's jeep start-up and realize the kook who attacked them must have woken up -- and is stealing their ride! 

But the man doesn't get very far before blacking out and totals the jeep. Hauling him to Grogan's cabin, the injured man raves about something with "razor-teeth" and warns "They breed like flies" and bemoans "You let them out!" -- and by doing so "You've doomed us all..."

A person can only scratch one's head and wonder why it took so long for film exploitationeer Roger Corman to try and cash-in on the phenomenal financial success of JAWS. The man who slapped Carnosaur together to beat Jurassic Park out of the box-office gate waited almost three years before ripping off Bruce and the boys over at Universal. But you have to remember, during the build up to the summer of 1978, audiences were waiting with baited breath to be scared out of the water again with the much anticipated premiere of JAWS 2, and old Roger finally got a financial itch that he just had to scratch.

Enter producers Jeff Schechtman and Chako van Leeuwen, who had a story by Richard Robinson about a school of piranhas being set loose in a river that terrorize the local inhabitants. Seeing the potential for some fresh-water scares, Corman agreed to finance the picture through New World and turned the production over to two of his fledgling filmmakers: Jon Davison and Joe Dante.

Dante's notorious film career began when he cobbled together The Movie Orgy by splicing scenes from hundreds of old serials, drug-scare propaganda pieces and military hygiene films. Coming in at a staggering seven hours, the end result proved impressive enough that the Schlitz Brewing Company sponsored a college tour -- once it was cut down to a more manageable four hours, and Dante took his show on the road. It was childhood friend Davison who got him a job at New World editing together trailers, and it was Davison who bet Corman that if given a chance, his old friend would be a great director. Corman took the bet, gave him one week and $500, and the result was Hollywood Boulevard -- that skewered and poked fun at the way New World made their pictures. Liking what he saw on so little an investment, Corman tabbed Dante to direct his next picture -- Piranha.

When pre-production commenced, the film ran it into it's first snag. Saddled with a script that required a forest fire to cause a bear to chase the people into the water to get eaten, the decision was made to scrap it and start over. Using a crowbar, Corman ponied up $10000 for first time screenwriter John Sayles for a little punch-up -- and the famed independent filmmaker would go on to pen such lurid fare as The Howling, Battle Beyond the Stars and Alligator before moving on to more higher aspirations. With the script set, filming was set to commence, but Corman grew a little antsy over the film's budget and abruptly pulled the plug. Apparently skewered before it even began, Piranha was saved when United Artists offered to co-finance the picture for the foreign distribution rights. They would put $400000 and New World was supposed to match it, but as production was set to begin again, Corman cut his half in half, reducing the budget by a fourth. Nearly scuttled again, scrambling madly, producer Davison managed to scrounge up some extra money to almost make up the difference. Still, Corman wasn't sold on the F/X and demanded to see a reel of the piranha in action. And with the help of F/X-men Jon Berg, Phil Tippet and Rob Bottin -- all fresh-off of working on Star Wars, they slapped together some underwater carnage, including the fish nibbling on some naked breasts, and screened it for their executive producer. Even without the breasts, Corman was sold. And as filming finally commenced in earnest, his only edict was that they had to have at least one piranha attack per reel -- and to pile on as much gore as possible...

Back in the cabin, thinking the raving man is a lunatic as well as a killer, our protagonists need to turn him over to the proper authorities. Having no phone and no car -- I assume this was lost in the divorce settlement -- the only option left is to load him up on an old-fashioned log-raft and ferry him into town. Saying he built it with his daughter after reading her Huck Finn, Grogan warns it was never been field-tested because she's terrified of the water. With that, and fingers crossed, the uneasy crew shove off into the current ... Meanwhile, whatever McKeown unwittingly let out of the pool moves on down the river ahead of them and shreds an old man's legs that were dangling from the dock, killing him, and then attacks a father and son in a canoe. And while following this trail of bodies, the kook finally comes clean:

His name is Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), and apparently he was the head scientist for a Top-Secret government project called Operation: Razor-Tooth. Seems Hoak's goal was to destroy the North Vietnamese river systems by introducing a strain of piranha that would wreak havoc on the local ecology. But the war ended before they were ready and the project was abandoned. Most of the fish were poisoned off, but Hoak did his job too well and some of them survived, and he's been babysitting them ever since -- until these two came along and let them out. Grogan doesn't buy it -- piranhas are tropical and could never survive in the colder climates. But that's where Hoak's diabolical experiments came in: he's built a bigger and better and more intelligent fish -- and now these lethal eating-machines are no longer contained, so nothing can stop them! And all the mounting evidence proves Hoak is telling the truth when they spy an overturned canoe with the boy clinging to the top. (Dad didn't make it.) Hoak dives in to save him, and while his dastardly creations eat him alive, he manages to get the boy transferred safely to the raft. Grogan pulls Hoak out of the water, too, but he's already dead and all the blood soon saturates the ropes holding the raft together, drawing the piranha who start to tear it apart. With the raft slowly disintegrating beneath them, the survivors desperately paddle for shore and make it in time -- barely. Once ashore, an air-horn sounds off, and Grogan freaks. He knows what it means -- the dam is about to open the floodgates! The piranha can still be stopped if the dam remains closed, and again, Grogan barely makes it in time and the floodgates remain shut.

Miraculously -- a little too miraculously for Grogan -- the military answers their call for help and sweeps in to clean up. Conferring with a Col. Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and Hoak's partner, Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele), they ignore Grogan's warnings that there's a small stream back up river that circumnavigates the dam. Mengers claims the fish aren't smart enough to backtrack like that and assures him that the danger has passed. Also, Waxman would appreciate it if they'd just keep the whole incident a secret, but Grogan still thinks they need to warn everyone downstream -- including the summer camp where his daughter is staying, and the new Lost River Lake Resort that is due for a gala opening the following morning. Again, the danger is downplayed -- perhaps a little too eagerly. Something stinks about the whole set-up, and when the couple asks to leave, Waxman won't let them and confines them to a tent under armed guard. Turns out Waxman was behind the shady land deals and is a silent partner in the new Lost River Lake enterprise, and he won't let a few killer-fish jeopardize his financial venture -- no matter how many bodies they pile up, or in this case, devour.

It was around this point that I realized a huge topographical error made by the script. Shouldn't Lost River Lake be on the upstream side of the dam? E'yup. The whole thing is ass-backwards. Back to the review...

Always resourceful, McKeown engineers their escape by flashing the guard -- with someone else's breasts (Menzies backed out of the nude scene and used a double), but when they find the nearest payphone, Grogan's reputation for drunk-and-disorderly proceeds him as Dutton (Paul Bartel), the head camp-counselor, tells him to sober-up and sleep it off. Tipped off by Waxman that it's all a hoax, the Sheriff doesn't believe them either and throws the couple in jail until the military can come and collect them in the morning. But McKeown comes through again, and using a few tips she picked-up from some bail-jumpers she busted, the jailbreak is on.

Meanwhile, at the summer-camp, all the campers are in the water -- except for the fearful Suzie. In collusion with a couple of the younger counselors, Betsy and Laura (Belinda Belaski and Melody Thomas), she hides from the tyrannical Dutton under a canoe and escapes the dreaded swimming competition. From her hiding spot, she watches Betsy and Laura float around in an innertube, encouraging the little swimmers on, when suddenly, the piranha swarm in and attack! And as the water turns red, the shrieking and screaming children thrash toward shore. To his credit, the wounded Dutton does his best to pull the survivors out of the water, but the two counselors are still stuck out in the middle of the river. Suzie tries to come to their rescue, dragging an inflatable raft into the water, and paddles out in time to save Laura -- but Betsy doesn't make it and is dragged to her watery doom. Grogan and McKeown arrive on scene too late. And while he heads to the water to help the kids, she tries to call ahead and warn the resort. McKeown gets through to Gardener (Dick Miller), the owner, but he's been tipped off by his buddy Waxman. Hanging up on her, Gardener then hands Waxman and Mengers a drink; the Grand-Opening of Lost River Lake Resort is on, and hundreds of people are making their way into the water -- all of them paying customers.

After a brief reunion with Suzie, and making sure medical help is on the way, Grogan and McKeown head on to Lost River Lake to get everybody out of the water. But they're already too late; the ferocious fish first take out a few scuba-divers, and then go after some water-skiers. (And I really think somebody snuck a peek at the script to JAWS 2.) These appetizers out of the way, the fish head for the main course swimming around the beach. Then the massacre is on, and as the water fills up with blood and body parts, the panicked crowd tries to get out anyway they can -- including crawling onto the floating barge where Waxman and Mengers were enjoying those drinks. Soon overloaded, the barge threatens to cap-size so Waxman tries to knock several people off to lighten the load only to wind up in the water himself, where he is promptly eaten.

Arriving too late to warn them, Grogan and McKeown wade through the wailing and the wounded and steal a boat. Grogan has a plan: the only thing in-between the piranha and the open ocean is the smelting plant he used to work for, and Mankind's last hope rests on if they can get some valves turned on and release some toxic sludge to poison the fish -- yes, that's right ... They're going to pollute the problem to death. (Somewhere, I'm sure, an Indian is crying.) To complicate matters even more, the man-made flood to create the lake has submerged the majority of the plant. Tethering himself to the boat, Grogan tells McKeown to make a slow count to 100 -- that's how long he can hold his breath -- and then gun the engine, hopefully pulling him to safety after the task is done. Into the water he goes, and Grogan swims his way into the waste-treatment plant below -- where by some miracle, the valves aren't completely rusted shut but begrudgingly crank open. But as he fights the stubborn valve, the piranha catch up and rip into his flesh. Above, McKeown continues the countdown, while below, a pipe starts spewing out a noxious cloud. And after thee longest 100-seconds in screen history, the throttle is thrown, violently pulling Grogan away from the toothy predators. After hopefully going a safe distance, McKeown tries to reel him in -- but finds the rope has been severed. Fearing she's lost him, a bloodied hand suddenly breaks the surface.

Back at the besieged Lost River Lake, military and civilian medical personnel have arrived and are tending to the wounded. The media have also arrived, and one of the reporters corners Dr. Mengers and asks if the threat is over. Putting on a Cheshire smile, the good doctor once more assures everyone that the danger has passed -- and even if the poison missed a few fish, they'll never survive in the salt water of the ocean. Of course, we know better, and with this being the cynical 1970's, we cut to the Gulf of Mexico and hear the interview wrap-up over some beach-bunny's radio. And as we pan out to the water -- that quickly turns blood-red, we leave the film with the ominous sounds of the swarming fish.

The End

At it's heart, Piranha is nothing more than a good old-fashioned monster movie -- and should be celebrated as such. And like a lot of those movies, a lot depended on how effective the monsters were. Here, after the stop-motion method was scrapped due to budgetary constraints, the piranha were realized by articulated rubber mock-ups puppeteer'd by Tippet and Berg. Mostly filmed dry for wet -- because the chlorine in the pool dissolved them too quickly -- the F/X, for the most part, pass muster. And when combined with Bottin's bloody prosthetics and make-up effects, the results are quite remarkable.

Also, in case you were wondering, the sound of the swarming fish was actually a chorus of distorted dental drills.

On top of the several false starts in making Piranha, the production met and overcame many other challenges to get the film on screen. Cast defections, technical problems, and a terminal lack of budget were just the tip of the iceberg. Filmed in about 30 days, the first ten were spent in pre-production at USC's Olympic swimming pool to get all the underwater shots of the piranha attacks. And after filling the pool with gallons and gallons of Karo-syrup, fake foliage, and strangling mono-filament, a wild "biological outbreak" occurred -- and after filming wrapped, the pool had to be drained and the concrete sandblasted off to kill the, as of yet, unidentified micro-organism. The other twenty days were spent on location in San Marcos, Texas, using the Aquarena Springs resort as a substitute for Lost River Lake. Filming in early March, the water was freezing and shooting had to be stopped several times as the local volunteers started turning blue. Somehow, despite all of this, they persevered and brought the film in on time. Every dime appeared to be spent and stretched as far as it would go, and I think the end results more than speak for themselves.

If you can, track down the 20th Anniversary Edition on DVD. Featuring a ton of bonus material, including a reproduction of the film's press-kit, it also contains a hilarious commentary by Davison and Dante about the trials and tribulations of bringing Piranha to the screen that's worth the price alone. And basically, the whole crew got back together again a few years later and did The Howling -- yet another film that really needs to be reviewed around here. And I implore all of them to someday reunite and start making monster movies again.

When Piranha was released it broke all kinds of New World box-office records, and Corman made over $50 million off his $200000 investment. Drawing the wrath of Universal for cashing in on their franchise, they moved to enjoin the picture until Steven Spielberg saw it and told them to lighten up. And Corman wasn't done making money on the film yet, either. When Piranha was remade for Showtime in the mid-90's, they only re-shot the actors and reused all the piranha footage from the old movie. Rumor also has it that another remake involving some giant pre-historic piranha is due out in 2008.

Despite it's harrowing trek to even get to an audience, Piranha overcame the odds and overachieves to delivers the goods -- thanks to all the talent involved. Personally, I found it to be an absolute riot: an old-fashioned thrill ride that makes no bones about what it is or what it's trying to be. It is what it is, and I love it -- and in the end, it was a helluva lot more entertaining than JAWS 2.

This review is just one part of a much bigger B-Movie Beach Party!

In the spirit of enjoying a little summer b-movie fun, Sgt. Andrew over at BADMOVIES.ORG organized twenty-three sites into joining together and writing reviews for films that represent the exact same experience that we are all seeking. Well, except for the fish monsters, flying piranhas, sand burrowing horrors, and wild bikinis (okay, maybe the wild bikinis). Big thanks to Andrew for the invite and ram-rodding this little adventure, just click on the link above for more monster mayhem and I hope that you enjoy the reviews!

Originally Posted: 07/20/07 :: Rehashed: 05/05/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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