On August 3, Shout! Factory released PIRANHA in a new DVD edition, as well as a Blu-Ray disc (its debut in the latter format), to tie in with the theatrical release of the 3D remake. Both releases feature 1.85 anamorphic widescreen transfers and a bundle of special features from the previous DVD “Special Edition” of 1999.
New to this release is “The Making of PIRANHA” featurette. Interviews with many of the principle crew and some cast members (including Roger Corman, director Joe Dante, actors Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, effects experts Chris Walas and Phil Tippett, and others) provide lots of fun facts, amusing stories, and some insights into late-‘70s low-budget filmmaking at its grittiest. For instance, you’ll never guess why the US swim team did so poorly at the 1978 Summer Olympics until you watch this featurette.
Also new to this release are Radio and TV Spots, which really are something of a time portal into how movies were promoted in the not too-distant past. The film’s theatrical trailer now has an optional commentary track with producer Jon Davison, thanks to Trailers from Hell.
Scenes added to the Network Television Version have been included separately, although the option to watch them as part of the feature would have been more interesting. Finally, a Behind-the-Scenes Stills Gallery has been added, with material taken from Phil Tippett’s personal collection. There are trailers for the other releases in Shout! Factory’s Roger Corman’s Cult Classics collection, too.
Holdovers from the previous DVD release include feature-length audio commentary by Dante and Davison, Behind-the-Scenes Footage (with audio commentary), Bloopers and Outtakes, and a Stills Gallery that features posters from the international releases of the film.
The packing features a 3D lenticular slipcase that’s actually quite entertaining. The DVD case features a reversible inner cover, and there’s a nice booklet with photos and info on the film (notes provided by Michael Felsher), as well as a brief introduction by Roger Corman. The widescreen transfer is crisp and clean, with great sound quality. Some of the bonus materials are a little shabby, and the network TV scenes could have been cleaned up better. Otherwise, a rather fancy presentation for a cheap knock-off that no one ever expected to still be around in any form over thirty years after its release – and we‘re so thankful it is.
Along with DEATH RACE 2000, this fun-filled exploitation horror film from 1978 is one of the great achievements to emerge from New World Pictures, a low-budget company that Roger Corman created after giving up hands-on directing to become an executive. New World churned out enjoyable exploitation fare for drive-in theatres and multiplexes in the 1970s, in the process serving as an apprenticeship for future Oscar-winners like Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme. Among the budding young talent at New World were director Joe Dante, screenwriter Jonathan Sayles, and producer Jon Davison, whose combined talents turned PIRANHA into that rarest of rarities: a rip-off that surpasses its inspiration. Conceived as a way to cash in on JAWS 2 (which was released the same year), the independently produced PIRANHA bested its big-budget studio rival in entertainment value if not production value. PIRANHA is fas-paced, scary, and witty – with a pleasant awareness of its own subsidiary position that invites us to sit back and enjoy it for what it is: a low-budget, jokey variation on a blockbuster hit. PIRANHA begins with a back-packing coule trespassing onto an old military research center, where they are killed by something in a tank/pool. Skip tracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) traces the missing persons with the help of local drunk Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman). Searching for the bodies, Maggie drains the tank, inadvertently unleashing the piranha of the title. Unfortunately, these fish have been scientifically engineered to survive in environments (such as cold water and salt water) that are unlike their natural tropical climate; also, they are smart enough to find their way through the winding tributaries that lead down river to the ocean. The rest of the film becomes a race as Maggie and Paul try to head off the piranha before they reach open water; along the way, there is a children’s summer camp and a new resort, financed by an insider (a general privy to the military project), who is eager to protect his investment by keeping the news of the piranha quiet.
Structuring the story as a race down stream is a clever touch that lends an energetic forward momentum totally missing from the miserable 3-D remake. With only occasional pauses when our heroes are captured or incarcerated, the original PIRANHA seems to rush breathlessly to each new set-piece, including the summer camp sequence (which borders on bad taste by putting children in jeopardy) and culminating in the attack on the resort, which serves up the requisite R-rated carnage, including gallons of gore.
In retrospect, what startles the most about PIRANHA is the unexpected humanity. Sayles’ script defies genre expectations by loading the film with clever dialogue and likable characters. Time is spent setting up the victims in such a way that the correct buttons are pushed to make you laugh, cry, or cheer when the fateful moment arrives. Particularly memorable is a doomed camp counselor who vaguely senses an ill-wind blowing her direction: the underwater shot of her sinking into darkness almost leaps off the screen in its effectiveness; it’s all the more startling because, in a slasher movie, this quiet introspective character would be the “final girl” who survives to see the closing credits role. There is a nice variety to the approach. Mr. Dumont, the head of the camp (played by Paul Bartel, who directed DEATH RACE 2000), is a jerk but he is not painted as a complete asshole. When this comic relief character is presented with the results of ignoring a warning that could have prevented disaster, the effect is tragic rather than smug in an “I told you so” kind of way, and the film shows admirable restraint in allowing the character to suffer his moment of guilt in silence instead of having the hero punch him out.
Of course, Sayles knows the satisfaction value of setting up someone who deserves what he gets, and also of having someone who pays for his sins but goes out on a note of redemption. SPOILER. In the former case, a general figuratively goes down with the ship, his hat sinking to the riverbed as we cheer. In the later case, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pays big time for being the scientist responsible for the piranha program, suffering one of cinema’s great melodramatic deaths. It’s a moment both expected and unexpected: you know the guy has got to go, but you are surprised to care when it happens. (I stand in a small minority, possibly of one, in finding this moment more convincing and touching than Alec Guiness’s last-minute change of heart in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.) END SPOILER.
Joe Dante serves the action up with a knowing wink. He expects us to recognize McCarthy and Barbara Steele (as another scientist) for their genre associations, inviting us to see PIRANHA a a movie-movie. He introduces Maggie playing a Jaws arcade game and has an anonymous woman reading Moby Dick on the beach – reminding us that, although PIRANHA may be a rip-off of JAWS, JAWS itself was hardy a complete original. Fortunately, the tongue-in-cheek approach never diminishes the thrills;l the requisite car chases and explosions are delivered with a gusto that belies the modest budget. There is even some genuine suspense when the film leaves the pyrotechnics behind for the finale, with Grogan descending underwater to open a valve that will hopefully poison the fish – a scene that almost literally invites you to hold your breath as you wonder whether the character (attached to a boat by a tow line) will be pulled to safety before he drowns, or before the piranha get to him. The carnage consists mostly of Karo syrup, with a minimum of prosthetics, although there is a brief gruesome cut of a severed head-and-torso floating in the water. Instead, Dante builds tension through editing, carefully building to his shock effects. This style of montage is in the best tradition of Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian filmmaker and theorist who literally wrote the book on the subject, and it is fun to see this meticulous craftsmanship lavished on a little horror movie. The special effects are relatively primitive: some models, puppets, a brief bit of ell animation. There is even a cute stop-motion creature glimpsed lurking in Hoak’s laboratory – a throw-away included just for the fun of it. The approach works, because physical models are better suited to simulating the inexpressive scaliness of live fish (as opposed to the hyperactive CGI creations of the remake). Also, the live, underwater photography creates a believable ambiance missing from pristine CGI: real water is murky when stirred up, especially when laced with blood. The blurry shots of multiple fish – quickly intercut as they attack – are, more often than not, convincing in their abruptness.
Menzies and Dillman make a good on-screen couple, and it’s good to see that the film never reduces her character to a damsel in distress. Dick Miller is a hoot as Buck Gardner, the corrupt businessman in league with the general; Buck’s exasperated reaction to unwanted news about the piranha leads to the film’s best line, as his assistant uncomfortably informs him: “The piranha…they’re eating the guests.”
There is a nice post-Watergate, post-Vietnam vibe to the back story. Sure, we need an excuse for the Piranha, but this element does not feel like an arbitrary explanation; it carries weight as the kind of heavy-handed, melodramatic statement that an exploitation film can pull off, because who expects subtlety in a movie titled PIRANHA?
TELEVISION & SPIN-OFFS
On network television, PIRANHA took a slightly different form. Most of the R-rated gore was removed, and several dialogue scenes were reinstated. The changes are not improvements, but there is one interesting comic bit that allows Paul Bartel and Dick Miller to share a scene together, as the camp counselor wanders into the background of a commercial that Buck Gardner is filming to promote the opening of his resort.
PIRANHA spawned a sequel, PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING, which marked James Cameron’s feature-film directing debut. There was also a remake for Showtime television, which omitted the humor but recycled the effects footage. And of course now there is a remake, PIRANHA 3D, directed by Alexandre Aja, about which the less said the better.
DVD AND BLU-RAY DETAILS
PIRANHA was issued in a special edition DVD by new Concorde in 1999. This disc included a full-frame transfer (which looks reasonably good when expanded to fill a widescreen television). Extras included a trailer, a blooper real, behind-the-scenes home movies (with audio commentary), and a feature-length commentary track from director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison.
On August 3, 2010, Shout Factory re-issued PIRANHA on DVD and Blu-ray. The discs featured a new widescreen transfer. The old bonus features were ported over, and new ones were added: a making-of featurette, stills and poster galleries, radio and television spots, and footage from the Network Television version.
PIRANHA proves that low-budget does not have to mean low-ambition or low-quality. It is not just a good exploitation movie or a good camp movie or a good schlock movie. It’s a good movie, period, thanks to a clever script, lively performances, and solid craftsmanship. As crazy as it may sound, I actually prefer this upstart little film to its more famous progenitor: the rest of the world can sing hymns of praise to JAWS; I’ll stick to PIRANHA. PIRANHA (1978). Directed by Joe Dante. Written by John Sayles, story by Sayles and Richard Robinson. Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce Gordon, Barry Brown, Paul Bartel, Shannon Collins.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is an eccentric horror-comedy whose very premise almost single-handedly guarantees cult status: it’s about a goofy guy who becomes a homicidal outlaw after accidentally cross-breeding a carnivorous plant that not only craves humans for food but also talks, demanding in a ridiculously insistent voice: “Feed me! Feed meeeeeeee.”). The concept is so crazy that you have to laugh – in disbelief, if nothing else. Whether the film fully lives up to its reputation is another matter, but there is no doubt that THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS has earned its small place in cult movie history.
My own reactions to the film have waxed and waned over the years. As a young fan of classic horror movies, particularly those from Universal Pictures, I saw THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS as just another bad monster movie that showed up on the local Creature Features show instead of something good like like DRACULA (1931) or FRANKENSTEIN (1931). THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS looked cheap to me; the talking plant was not scary; and the ending was too abrupt, leaving me with a “is that all?” feeling.
In grade school, I first realized I had missed the joke: after a weekend airing of the film, I returned to class on Monday and heard some other student talking about “the funniest movie I have ever seen.” He seemed particularly amused by the voice of the talking plant, whose plaintive demands of “Feed me!” he did his best to imitate for the rest of the class. The next time the film aired, I watched again, thinking of it as a comedy, and indeed found myself laughing.
Later, as I started reading books and magazines about films, horror films in particular, I came across the hitherto alien concept of camp – of enjoying a bad movie by laughing at it. I think it started to occur to me that films like THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS beat audiences to the punch, deliberately embracing their low-budget origins and inviting viewers to giggle at their shoddy production values.
I put the theory to the test during various television airings over the years and eventually at theatrical screening on the campus of the University of Southern California, during a weekend long festival of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. The weird humor of the film went over even better with an appreciative audience,* and there was the additional bonus of an after-screening panel with the cast and crew.
Mostly what I remember from the question-and-answer session is producer-director Roger Corman explaining that the voice of Audrey, the talking plant, was delivered by screenwriter Charles B. Griffith on set; Corman had planned to loop in his own voice during post-production but then decided to save a buck by leaving in the sound recorded live. Also, actress Jackie Joseph (who played Audrey, the woman after whom the plant is named) expressed her amazement at the film’s longevity, noting that from time to time she would hear people quoting the talking plant, most recently at a fast-food drive-in, where she approached a man she heard calling out, “Feed me!” as he waited impatiently for his food to be delivered. His awestruck response to seeing Joseph in person was: “You – you were in…that movie!”
That long-ago screening – a 20th anniversary screening, if memory serves, back in 1980 – was probably the pinnacle of my enjoyment of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Since then, the humor has begun to wear a little thin, especially because much of it is too far broad when it should be droll and deadpan. Except for a couple of cops doing a dead-on DRAGNET impersonation, the performances tend to be very broad, almost to the point of elbowing you in the ribs. Fortunately, the film is so off-the-wall and eager to please that you have to sort of like it – you simply can’t totally knock a film that so joyfully embraces its own absurdity.
Audrey the carnivorous carnation is still fun, but the real satirical highlight of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is her half-witted creator, Seymour Krelboin, played with pathetic sincerity by Jonathan Haze. Seymour is a nobody who wants to be somebody; he gets his wish when Audrey attracts crowds of paying customers to Mushnik’s flower shop, but fames comes with a price that must be paid in blood. As Audrey grows bigger and hungrier, Seymour must satisfy the plant’s demands more food, leading him – reluctantly and mostly accidentally – to kill a handful of victims.
The idea of the unassuming schnook going rogue is priceless comedy gold, but it is essentially a retread of Corman’s earlier production, BUCKET OF BLOOD, also scripted by Charles B. Griffith. Although LITTLE SHOP has gained greater fame because of its talking plant (leading to an off-Broadway musical that was turned into a 1986 movie), it is the lesser of the two films; its skid-row setting (indicative of the poverty row production values) offers some comic potential, but it is no match for the Beatnik coffee house of BUCKET OF BLOOD.
Still, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS has a few good things going for it, like the character of Burson Fouch, who casually purchases flowers not to look at them but to eat them; Dick Miller’s matter of fact approach to the character’s eccentricity hits just the right note. (Miller was offered the lead role but turned it down because it was too much like the lead role he had just played in BUCKET OF BLOOD.) There is also a good bit wherein store owner Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles), who suspects the truth about Audrey, stays late to prevent the plant from eating anyone else – only to wind up saving his own neck by fooling an armed robber into searching for hidden loot inside the maw of the killer vegetable. And of course there is the memorable cameo by a young Jack Nicholson, as a masochist who comes to the dentist in search of pain – not knowing the Krellboin has killed the dentist and taken his place.
Of course, you cannot discuss THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS without discussing the legend of its creation. This little low-budget film was pumped out at high-speed even by the lightening-paced standards of Corman, who was known for knocking off an entire film in a week; reputedly, the shooting for THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS was completed within two days. Like many legends, this one is not completely true, although there is an element of truth to it. The interior scenes were apparently shot in the stated time; however, several exterior scenes were shot later, under the direction of screenwriter Griffiths.
(In a retrospective article on the making of the film, which appeared in an issue of Cinefantastique magazine devoted to the 1986 remake, Dennis Fischer credits Griffith with being the unsung genius behind THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; though Griffith deserves credit for the screenplay, the exterior footage he directed is mostly lacking in interest, especially a lackluster attempt at a slapstick chase near the end, with Krellboin outrunning Detectives Fink and Stoolie. The one exception is Krellboin’s accidental killing of a drunk, who stumbles in front of a train after being hit in the head by a rock intended to hit an empty bottle; there is something both ghastly and darkly amusing about the sudden shocking realization that Seymour has become a killer. Of course, it all works out conveniently, because he can dispose of the evidence by feeding the body parts to Audrey.)
I’m not sure I will be revisiting THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS often in the future (I’m more likely to review BUCKET OF BLOOD). But it continues to hold a fond place in my heart. The broad caricatures (Seymour’s drunken mother, the dentist who challenges Seymour to a duel with his drill) will probably elicit more groan than chuckles from modern audiences. Nevertheless, the low-budget ambiance adds its own vitality to the film, which I think of as the cinematic equivalent of a garage band: it’s not up to the professional standards we usually expect from our entertainment, but it’s just so much fun to see so much raw enthusiasm reach the screen in a form unpasteurized by the slick and often soulless stylings seen in many big-budget productions. In a sense, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS creates its own standards; you can take ’em or leave ’em, but you have to give the film at least a small measure of respect on its own terms.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960). Produced and directed by Roger Corman; additional scenes directed by Charles B. Griffith. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Cast: Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, Myrtle Vail, Tammy Windsor, Toby Michaels. Leola Wendorff, Lynn Storey, Wally Campo, Jack Warford, Meri Welles, John Herman Shaner, Jack Nicholson. FOOTNOTE:
Note everyone was appreciative at the screening. Some of the crew responsible for SHOGUN ASSASSIN, the re-edited and dubbed version of the Japanese Lone Wolf movies that was also screening at the fest, were nothing but contemptuous of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’s camp humor. Considering that their big achievement was to take a great Japanese original, cut out all the plot, leave in all the violence, and add a new soundtrack (with bad synth music, unnecessary narration, and lame attempts at deadpan camp), you would think they would act a bit less high and mighty.