Piranha (1978) horror film review

Piranha (1978) posterAlong 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 (1978) Menzies and DillmanPIRANHA 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.

Terror, horror, death. Film at eleven.
Terror, horror, death. Film at eleven.

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.
Piranha (1978) Paul BartelThere 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.
Dr. Hoak confronts the results of his work.
Dr. Hoak confronts the results of his work.

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.
Piranha (1978) Bradford Dillman underwaterFortunately, 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.
Piranha (1978) prosthetic headThe 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.
Piranha (1978) teethThe 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

click to purchase
click to purchase

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.

CONCLUSION

A test subject preserved in the laboratory
A test subject preserved in the laboratory

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.
Piranah (1978) speed boat Piranah (1978) victim Yes, there are definitely piranha in the water Piranha Barbara Steele Piranha (1978) Bradford Dillman Piranah (1978) Keenan Wynn as a soon-to-be victim
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Laserblast Home Video, August 10: Max Headroom, Under the Mountain, Roger Corman Drive-in Collection

Hazel Court suffers the indignities of a premature burial in Roger Cormans 1962 film (see the Corman Collection, below)
Hazel Court suffers the indignities of a premature burial in Roger Corman's 1962 film (see the Corman Collection, below)

With only a handful of titles on display, the week of Tuesday, August 10 is not an auspicious one for home video releases of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. Fans will have to make do with a couple of cult release and/or some direct-to-video titles. MAX HEADROOM: THE COMPLETE SERIES arrives in a new Lenticular Cover DVD from the Shout Factory. The five-disc set includes all 14 episodes of the cult 1990s series starring Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, and Jeffrey Tambor. Special features include:

  • Live On Network 23: The Story Of Max Headroom – The creative team shares their stories
  • Looking Back At The Future: An intimate roundtable discussion with members of the cast
  • The Big-Time Blanks: Morgan Sheppard and Concetta Tomei reflect on Max Headroom
  • The Science Behind The Fiction – George Stone reveals the role of technology in the creation of Max Headroom


Available on VOD and DVD, Lionsgate’s PG-rated UNDER THE MOUNTAIN sounds as if it should have been an episode of the old WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY television series: Afte the death of their mother, a set of teenage twins with a psychic bond travel to Auckland, where they encounter a spooky mystery involving mysterious forces beneath an old house. With Sam Neil top-billed in what sounds like an extended cameo, this 91-minute 2009 New Zealand production features special effects from WETA.

The most interesting home video release of the week, at least for fans of cult movies, is THE ROGER CORMAN DRIVE-IN COLLECTION. This four-disc set, in a tin collector’s case, features ten films from the prolific low-budget producer-director. The contents are all over the map in terms of genre and quality, with biker gang pic THE WILD ANGELS rubbing shoulders with horror, fantasy, and science fiction titles like BUCKET OF BLOOD, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, GAS-S-S-!, and THE TRIP. There’s really nothing new hear – this stuff is available in previous releases, such as MGM’s Midnight Movies series – but it’s a great way to catch up on titles you missed or to consolidate your collection.
After that, the week offers only a handful of direct-to-video titles, including CLONE HUNTER, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and PROJECT SOLITUDE: BURIED ALIVE (with Eric Roberts).
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The Little Shop of Horrors: A 50th Anniversary Celebration of 1960

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) posterTHE 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.

Screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, who also provided Audrey's voice, appears in a cameo as an ill-fated thief.
Screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, who also provided Audrey's voice, in a cameo as an ill-fated thief.

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.
Syemour (Jonathan Haze) displays his creation to Mushnick (Mell Wells) and Audrey (Jackie Joseph).
Syemour (Jonathan Haze) displays his creation to Mushnick (Mell Welles) and Audrey (Jackie Joseph).

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.
Wilbur Force (Jack Nicholson) doesn't realize that Seymour (Jonathan Haze) has killed the real dentist.
Wilbur (Jack Nicholson) doesn't realize that Seymour (Haze) has killed the real dentist.

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.
Seymour disposes the evidence of his crime.
Seymour disposes the evidence of his crime.

(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.
Seymour (Jonathan Haze) tends to Audrey
Seymour (Jonathan Haze) tends to Audrey

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.

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Galaxy of Terror: DVD Review

click to purchase
click to purchase

GALAXY OF TERROR is exploitation, pure and simple – I mean, if you’ve got a giant-maggot-on-naked-woman rape scene in your film it nothin’ but, baby.  And before going any further, it’s only fair to point out that this observer doesn’t normally go in for the likes of it.  Such is generally of the cheap, tawdry, banal, and even sleazy sort, so it’s not really my cup of tea.  GALAXY OF TERROR is all of the above; therefore, it stands to reason that I would find it particularly irritating.  But we’re a strange lot, we humans.  Thus, it is a curious state I find myself in when having to admit to you all that I found a certain degree of fun in watching it – both in 1981 and now via its new Blu-ray DVD release.  I can’t say I really stand behind it, but it does have its pluses.  It’s also perfect fodder for drive-in theaters (ah, the good ol’ days).
Aside from giggles, I remember very little from my first viewing of the film.  In fact, the only solid memories that have stuck with me over the years are:

  1. As a teenage boy I thought that Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran) had grown into something kind of cute.
  2. Something no young boy would likely forget – the maggot rape scene.

Erin Moran
Erin Moran

Joanie had indeed grown up, but I didn’t find her quite as alluring this time around.  I noticed something else about her this time too: her performance wasn’t very interesting.  I saw too many moments in which she seemed to have trouble putting all those years of being on a television stage as Joanie Cunningham behind her.
The maggot scene, however, is still a wild & wacky concept, yet it too seemed tamer and less dramatic than my memory had put it.  Still, it probably remains the most provocative moment in GALAXY OF TERROR, and it is certainly the scene most other folks remember as well.  Without a doubt, the cast and crew find it most interesting to reminisce about.  The commentary (found on the Blu-ray edition) makes that quite clear.  Everyone seems to remember it humorously and even fondly.  Taaffe O’Connell, who played the maggot’s victim, was particularly jocular about it all and seemed to cherish her reflections of it and its cult status.
Aside from Moran and the maggot, however, there wasn’t a single thing about the plot or characters that I could conjure up in my memory.  A testament to the film’s somewhat forgettable nature, no doubt.  The plot itself is an easy-to-see-through rip off of ALIEN, which had made a huge critical and box-office splash just two years earlier.  Oh, sure, one or two crewmembers refer to it as an “homage,” but it’s a rip off.
Galaxy of TerrorWhile on an intended rescue mission to the planet Moganthus, the crew of the starship Quest finds itself being pulled down to the planet by an unknown energy force.  Now, not only must they search for survivors of a lost mission, but they must also find the origin of the energy field that pulled them down and disable it so that their ship may achieve a successful lift off (a la the Death Star’s tractor beam scenario in STAR WARS).  The next thing you know, the crewmembers start getting picked off one by one.
“Inspiration” aside, this much can be said for GALAXY OF TERROR: it does have a fairly intriguing psychological concept at its core.  The Quest’s crewmembers are supposedly attacked and killed by things drummed up from the fears within their own subconscious.  That’s all right as far as it goes; yet the script is sloppy and generally unimaginative, and the direction does little to improve on its weaknesses.  With a budget of only about $1,000,000 one could argue that the filmmakers could only do so much, and to a certain extent that is true.  Nonetheless, there are moments that counter or betray the psychological aspects behind the issues at hand.
Let’s just take two quick examples.  First, there is Taaffe O’Connell’s character.  Roger Corman is the one who actually came up with the concept for her demise (he knew it would generate buzz and help sell the movie both domestically and overseas).  In his mind, she was supposed to have personal psychological issues in connection to sexual intimacy, not to mention a healthy dislike for little slimy worms (based on a line she throws out somewhere in the script), thus the reasoning for her rape by the giant maggot.
Yet no where in the film does her character demonstrate any negative issues regarding sex or men.  In fact, when the ship first launches and a fellow crewmember (played by a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund) doesn’t have a chance to buckle himself in she calls him over, pulls him into her open lap, and wraps her legs around him in a very suggestive manner.  The moment is supposed to be a bit of sexual innuendo joke (something that’s even light-heartedly brought up within the commentary), but it goes solidly against what is supposed to be a key psychological hurdle for O’Connell’s character.  We may just be talking about a B-picture here, but even B-pictures need to remain honest to their intended nature.
We have a similar problem with the conflict at the end of the film.  The late Edward Albert’s character (earnestly played by him, by the way) finally learns that everyone is being destroyed by their own fears and that once this is realized and one’s fears are controlled the plaguing dangers will vanish.  This allows him to “pass the test,” as it is put to him.  Yet, just a few minutes later he is confronted by the creatures conjured up by the minds of his fellow crewmembers who have met with grizzly fates and by the dead crewmembers themselves.  His only defense is to try to physically confront them and ward them off.  Again, this seems in direct conflict with what he just learned and the “test” that he just passed.
If you think I’m spending too much time concerning myself with what I see as weaknesses within a minor exploitation piece (and admittedly, I’m sure I didn’t care about them as a teen), I’ll do you a favor and stop there – except to point out that England’s character is simply forgotten about toward the film’s end, demonstrating more careless lack of concern.  Be assured, however, that there are many other points one could pick away at.  Even director Bruce Clark admits that the script is somewhat poorly fleshed out.
Ray Walston
Ray Walston

But hey, if you can set all that in the closet and if you can get passed a truly awful electronic score by Barry Schrader (he decided he wasn’t cut out for a life as a composer after GALAXY OF TERROR and wisely decided to step away from it), and if you’re in the mood to watch a low-budget sci-fi horror flick in which a crewmember’s head implodes (specifically a sitcom star’s), and in which maggots rape women, then this just may be the right bit of exploitation for you.  Besides, many of the visuals are better (and crisper on Blu-ray) than one would expect from such a small film from its era, so you should be able to have some fun with those as well.  Everybody’s favorite Martian (Ray Walston) is in it, too.  And as a footnote to you James Cameron fans, he served as the film’s production designer.  Word has it that he was quite inventive, intense, and worked day and night on it.
Some may think me a fool to make this final note, but given a smart, psychologically based script (I mean really handled so this time) and a solid studio budget and a good team behind it, the concept for GALAXY OF TERROR, dare I say it, could be well suited for a reimaging.  There, I said it.  Now you can watch it and see what you think.
The Blu-ray edition includes these special features:

  • A rather nice, in-depth making-of doc;
  • PDF version of the script;
  • Fairly extensive photo gallery;
  • Textual pop-up trivia facts on the movie;
  • Commentary by maggot rape victim Taaffe O’Connell, creature & makeup crewmember Alan Apone, creature & makeup crewmember Alec Gillis, and production assistant/commentary moderator David DeCoteau.

All in all, the features are a thoughtful, extensive look at this nearly thirty-year old exploitation picture.  They certainly add some extra welcome fun to this guilty pleasure. … Taaffe O’Connell definitely thinks so on both counts.
GALAXY OF TERROR (New World Pictures; 1981; 81 min.) Directed by Bruce D. (B.D.) Clark.  Screenplay by Marc Siegler and Bruce (B.D.) Clark.  Outline by William Stout (uncredited).  Produced by Roger Corman.  Co-produced by Marc Siegler.  Production Design by James Cameron and Robert Skotak.  Art Direction by Steve Graziani and Alex Hajdu.  Visual Effects Supervision by Tom Campbell.  Cinematography by Jacques Haitkin and Austin McKinney.  Music Composed by Barry Schrader.  Edited By Larry Bock, R.J. Kizer and Barry Zetlin.  Cast: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston, Bernard Behrens, Zalman King, Robert Englund, Taaffe O’Connell, Sid Haig, Grace Zabriskie, Jack Blessing, and Mary Ellen O’Neill.  MPAA Rating: R for language, violence, gore, and one hell of an odd rape scene.
Galaxy of Terror Galaxy of Terror Galaxy of Terror: Robert Englund Galaxy of Terror-Picture1
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Laserblast Home Video: Galaxy of Terror, Evil Aliens, Harry Potter

The week of Tuesday, July 20 continues the month’s unfortunate trend of featuring no new horror, fantasy, or science fiction blockbusters making their home video debut. Dedicated fans of cinefantastique will have to make due with re-issues of cult movies upgraded with unrated cuts and/or Blu-ray technology.
Chief among these is GALAXY OF TERROR, one of two titles released this week as part of the Roger Corman Cult Classics line. This 1981 Corman production, directed by Bruce Clarke from a script he co-wrote with Marc Siegler, is the authentic version of what Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino failed to achieve in GRINDHOUSE: it’s an exploitation opus with more than enough sleazy sex and violence to appease the hardcore audience – and it has an interesting idea, too. (It’s about a team of astronauts who encounter a series of horrors inside a mysterious pyramid; it turns out the pyramid is projecting their own subconscious fears back at them, which they must overcome to survive.) GALAXY OF TERROR arrives on DVD and Blu-ray. The bonus features include:

  • Commentary With Cast And Crew
  • New Worlds: Producer Roger Corman, screenwriter Marc Siegler and director Bruce D. Clark discuss the origins of the film
  • The Crew Of The Quest: Actors Robert Englund, Sid Haig, Taaffe O Connell and Grace Zabriskie discuss their experiences as crew members of the Quest
  • Planet Of Horrors: A detailed look into the creation of the memorable sets of the film and alien landscapes
  • Future King: Memories of co-production designer (and future visionary filmmaker) James Cameron from members of the cast and crew
  • Old School: A journey into the complicated mechanical and makeup effects with artists Allan A. Apone, Douglas J. White, Alec Gillis and others
  • Launch Sequence: Co-editor R.J. Kizer walks us through postproduction and a profile on composer Barry Schrader
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • Extensive Photo Galleries Including Posters, Production Sketches And Designs
  • Theatrical Trailer With Commentary From Writer-Director Joel Olsen, Courtesy Of Trailersfromhell.com
  • Original Screenplay (PDF)

click to purchase
click to purchase

The second Roger Corman Cult Classic arriving in stores is FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982), which like GALAXY OF TERROR dates from Corman’s time as owner of New World Pictures – which means he stayed in the office and left the directing up to Allan Holzman, working from a script by Tim Curnen. The film is not without its cheesy charm (such as the use of egg cartoons to provide details to the walls of the space station sets); unfortunately, the result is considerably less interesting than GALAXY OF TERROR, being essentially an ALIEN knock-off. Still, you have to give Corman credit for providing a good home video presentation, loaded with features not normally lavished on some little exploitation title. Bonus features for the DVD and Blu-ray releases include:

  • New Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1) Transfer From The Interpositive Film Elements Of The Theatrical Cut
  • The Unrated Directors Cut (4:3 – Full Frame
  • Audio Commentary With Director Allan Holzman On The Directors Cut
  • Interview With Producer Roger Corman
  • Interviews With Cast And Crew Including Director Allan Holzman, Composer Susan Justin And Actor Jesse Vint
  • A Look At The Special Effects Of Forbidden World With John Carl Buechler, Robert Skotak, Tony Randel And R. Christopher Biggs
  • Poster And Stills Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE reappears on DVD. The disc remains the same, but this Collector’s Edition includes a “detailed re-creation of The Marauder’s Map printed on parchment paper… made by The Noble Collection.” Definitely a must-have for those who must have everything Potter.
EVIL ALIENS, a little cult movie from 2005, returns to store shelves in a new Blu-ray presentation that offers both the “Theatrical Edition” (which received a handful of screenings in 2006) and an Unrated Edition. The official description promises cult excess along the lines of BAD TASTE and THE EVIL DEAD.
The new “Bong Joon-ho Collection” is a four-disc box DVD set that packages the director’s excellent monster movie THE HOST with two other Bong Joon-ho films, MOTHER and BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE.
Television fans can while away the hours with BEING HUMAN: SEASON 1, which arrives on Blu-ray and DVD. Or if that doesn’t appeal, there is TIN MAN, the TV miniseries variation on THE WIZARD OF OZ, an already-available title that shows up on a new Blu-ray disc.
As for the rest, we get a handful of direct-to-video titles arriving on DVD: 2001 MANIACS: FIELD OF SCREAMS, a sequel to 2001 MANIACS (which was a follow-up to Hershell Gordon Lewis’s archetypal gore film, 2000 MANIACS); A TOWN CALLED PANIC; and ALTITUDE FALLING.
These and other horror, fantasy, and science fiction films are available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Video on Demand in the Cinefantastique Online Store.
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SHARKTOPUS Trailer Released

Do you sit around at night saying, “I LOVE movies that crossbreed ocean life and I LOVE Eric Roberts…but why hasn’t there been a movie with both?” Well my friends, don’t worry – Syfy and Roger Corman have you covered with the release of the first trailer of SHARKTOPUS!
More detail would be given but honestly, the trailer speaks for itself. SHARKTOPUS is set to air on the Syfy network later this year. Until then…beware the calamari!
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The Wasp Woman: A Celebration of 1960 Retrospective

The Wasp WomanTHE WASP WOMAN was producer-director Roger Corman’s attempt to cash in on the success of THE FLY (1958), and although it looks cheap and chintzy, having been shot in five days on a $50,000 budget, it nevertheless has aspects of interest. Historically, it is significant because it is the first film Corman directed for Filmgroup, his then newly formed production and distribution company. Corman had been the primary supplier of films for American International Pictures, which had grown wealthy catering to the drive-in market across the country, and he realized that he needed to get into distribution if he hoped to gain a larger share of the spoils. (While Filmgroup was consistently profitable, it never had a big time success, and Corman wound up abandoning it by 1966).
Secondly, THE WASP WOMAN, like some other early Corman films, raises feminist issues. The story concerns Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) who runs her own beauty products company. In a board meeting, Starlin asks for an explanation as to why her company’s sales have fallen. The film’s protagonist, Bill Lane (Anthony Eisley), who points out that sales fell after Starlin’s face was removed from the company product line (it is implied this occurred recently when Janice turned 40), and the public did not trust the face of the model selected to replace her. Starlin begins to feel desperate as she imagines her life’s work collapsing due to the loss of her looks.
The third significant aspect of THE WASP WOMAN is the fine performance by Susan Cabot (herself 32 at the time). She convincingly portrays the elder Janice by wearing glasses, her hair in a severely pinned back hairstyle, and expressing herself more slowly and deliberately. However, her deliverance seems at hand with the appearance of a scientist named Zinthrop (Michael Mark) who avers the rejuvenating properties of enzymes derived from a wasp’s royal jelly (there were similar beliefs about the property’s of royal jelly from bees at the time). Zinthrop proves his work by injecting a guinea pig with his serum so that it turns into a younger, slimmer guinea pig (actually, Corman used a white mouse which makes this aspect a bit less convincing).
The WASP WOMAN’s script is by actor-writer, and long-time Corman associate, Leo Gordon, based on an idea by Kinta Zettuche.  Gordon makes Bill a bit of a cheapskate who tosses a coin to determine whether he or his date, Janice’s secretary Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris from THE DUNWICH HORROR),  will pay for dinner; she winds up paying, another extension of the exploitation of women theme in the film. Gordon reprises this gag during a scene when the couple are dining out with Bill’s boss Arthur Cooper (William Roerick), whom we see lose the toss and pick up the check. Cooper at first thinks Zinthrop is a con man, but then decides he is something more dangerous—a quack. Mary again gets taken advantage of when she shows the pair Zinthrop’s journal of his experiments, which she has taken without permission from her boss’s desk. Cooper takes the journal with him to study, leaving her vulnerable to her boss’s wrath once the theft has been discovered.
When Zinthrop’s formula has transformed a cat back into a kitten, Starlin is anxious to try it on herself, but after three weeks she is disappointed that she only looks five years younger and suggests upping the dose to accelerate the process. Zinthrop warns her that this would be dangerous, and becomes even more concerned when the kitten changes back into a cat with odd lumps on its back and attacks him with such ferocity that he feels forced to finish off the feline.
Unaware of this, Starlin injects herself with the formula and appears startlingly youthful the next day. Cabot sells this rejuvenation not only by removing her glasses and wearing a more flattering hairstyle (some Hollywood clichés never disappear), but also by acting more youthful and zesty. She announces a plan for a new campaign, though Cooper warns her of the dangers of conflating make-up and medicine in the public’s mind.
Corman’s limited budget and approach shows particularly during a sequence in which Zinthrop is hit by a moving vehicle – which almost takes a page out of Ed Wood’s playbook. We see Zinthrop step off a curb and walk out of frame, followed by the sound of a screeching tires with Zinthrop falling back into frame with a bruise on his noggin. Corman was skilled at blocking his actors to keep his static visuals lively, but he keeps reusing the same few angles on the same few sets over and over again, giving the movie something of a claustrophobic feel.
The Wasp Woman (1960)Naturally, since this was sold as a monster movie (with a highly misleading but delightfully outré poster), it’s time for the Wasp Woman to appear. Unfortunately, the make-up by Grant R. Keats proves grossly inadequate (a common failing in many of Corman’s early films). Corman wisely keeps the lighting level low to prevent giving the audience a really good look at the Wasp Woman, which consists of a black-furred mask with multi-faceted, bulging eyes and a pair of furry hands that have stingers on the thumbs. Cabot moves quickly and wears a black catsuit when wearing this outfit, but it is clear the transformation does not extend below her chin as her neck is normal. There is no explanation given why the formula sometimes makes her younger and more beautiful and at other times turns her into this monstrosity.
Her first victim is a night watchman played by Bruno Ve Sota (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES). As Cabot told Tom Weaver and John Brunas, “I was supposed to bite their necks and draw blood. Roger wanted to see blood. And so when I attacked everybody, I had Hershey’s Chocolate syrup in my mouth—which I proceeded to blurp, right on their necks! What we did for Roger Corman!” Her victims, once killed, are never seen again (and just what she did with the bodies is never established).
THE WASP WOMAN’s score is by Fred Katz, who also did the score for Corman’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. But while his comical, jazzy score suited a film about a talking, carnivorous plant, it seems out of place here – jaunty and jovial at times that call for a more dark and exciting approach.
Zinthrop is discovered lying in a hospital bed, having suffered from brain damage. The scene provides a rare opportunity for Corman to have a cameo in one of his own productions, as Zinthrop’s doctor. Running out of the formula and planning the launch of her new line of rejuvenating cosmetics, a desperate Starlin arranges for Zinthrop to be taken to a bed at her business with an accompanying nurse, whom she attacks when she suddenly transforms right in front of the recovering Zinthrop.
The climax of THE WASP WOMAN proved particularly trying for Cabot. According to Mark McGee in his book Roger Corman, The Best of the Cheap Acts, Corman wanted to film the action climax of the film in a single take. Michael Mark was to pick up and throw a bottle marked carbolic acid at the wasp woman, and then Cabot was to duck down while a technician applied some smoke on her mask, after which she would pop up and then fall backwards through a window. Unfortunately for Cabot, Corman neglected to have Mark toss a break-away glass bottle; the real thing hit the actress like a rock, making her feel as if her lower teeth had been forced through her nose.*  Trooper that she was, she kept on, but the technician applied too much smoke, which quickly went inside the only opening in the mask, Cabot’s breathing passageso that she inhaled it into her lungs. She clawed and scratched at the mask on the mattress on the other side of the broken window, finally tearing it off but taking some of her skin in the process.
THE WASP WOMAN marked Cabot’s final film in Hollywood. She had previously worked on such epics as CARNIVAL ROCK, SORORITY GIRL, WAR OF THE SATELLITES, MACHINE-GUN KELLY and the infamous THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE WATERS OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT. Sadly, she ended tragically when she was murdered by her own son, Timothy Scott Roman, at the age of 59. Her co-star Anthony Eisley would go on to star in Sam Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS, “The Brain of Colonel Barham” episode of THE OUTER LIMITS, NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME, and THE MIGHTY GORGA.
When Allied Artists picked up Filmgroup films for television syndication, they wanted THE WASP WOMAN to run longer, so director Jack Hill was hired to shoot additional footage, including an opening in which Michael Mark, wearing a beekeeper outfit, picks up a branch with a wasp’s nest on it; a scene in which Mark shows his prior boss a full grown Doberman and a Doberman puppy, claiming both are the same age, which results in his getting fired; and a sequence in which a flunky searches town for the missing scientist. These scenes added another 7 minutes to the original 66 minute running time, and most public domain copies of the film are from this television version.
wasp_woman_poster_02cropCorman has been revered for both promoting women. Gale Anne Hurd has said that she didn’t know sexism existed in Hollywood until after she stopped working for Corman, and Roger has given many talented female writers and directors their first opportunities to make a movie. His wife Julie Corman has herself become a respected producer, many of whose films have a feminist message. At the same time, Corman also understands the exploitation market.  THE WASP WOMAN reflects its maker with its combination of some cleverness and social consciousness with cost-cutting approach and meeting the basic needs of the marketplace.
THE WASP WOMAN (1960). Director-producer: Roger Coman. Screenplay: Leo Gordon from a story by Kinuta Zertuche. Art direction: Daniel Haller. Photography: Harry C. Newman. Music: Fred Katz. Editor: Carlo Lodato. Make-up: Grant R. Keats. Cast: Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Michael Mark, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Frank Gerstle, Bruno Ve Sota, Roy Gordon, Frank Wolff, Carolyn Hughes, Lynn Cartwright, Lani Mars
FOOTNOTE:

  • According to journalist Tom Weaver, who interviewed Susan Cabot, the bottle was made of break-away glass and would not have hurt Cabot if it had been empty. The problem was that the bottle was filled with water, which added mass to the impact when it hit her face.

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House of Usher: A Celebration of 1960 Review

House of Usher (1960)Although many younger television and movie fans may think that the 1970s represent an archaic time in entertainment, there were certain advantages to growing up during this period. One was that television was all about local markets, and this made it necessary for local stations to find programming that would keep the viewer’s attention. One reservoir often tapped during this period was horror films, not only as late night fare, but also as afternoon and weekend entertainment. This television broadcasting circumstance worked to my advantage as a young fan of the wondrous and horrific: it opened a world of horror cinema that is hard to find today, short of rare videos at specialty stores or online. One such film that holds a special place in my heart is HOUSE OF USHER, which I knew by its alternative title in the U.S. and U.K. (as well as on the DVD cover I hold in my hand as I write this article), THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER.
I first saw this film as a teenager, and it came with a sense of great anticipation. At an early age, I had gravitated toward all things fantastic and the horrific, and this included the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. I developed a habit of searching each week’s TV Guide and circling the fantasy, science fiction, and horror film, so that I could watch as many as my parents would allow me to see. In past programming searches, I had learned of a series of horror films based upon Poe’s writings. I had already seen THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), and enjoyed those immensely. Now HOUSE OF USHER was soon to air, and I was sure it would deliver the same cinematic frights. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Phillip (Mark Damon) demands that Roderick (Vincent Price) allow his sister to leave the House of Usher
Phillip (Mark Damon) demands that Roderick (Vincent Price) allow his sister to leave the House of Usher

HOUSE OF USHER tells the story of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who has traveled to the house owned by the Usher family in search of his fiancé, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). He is anxious for her to leave with him in order to be married, but Madeline’s brooding brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), desperately desires that she stay in the home. He is convinced that she is tainted by the family curse, which Roderick feels he shares as well, as does the Usher house that is literally fracturing around them. After some conflict between these characters over Madeline’s fate, she apparently dies following an argument with her brother and is buried in the family crypt, located in the basement. Winthrop eventually discovers that Madeline was buried alive, with the full awareness of her brother, but has escaped her tomb to prowl the grounds as a mad woman intent on seeking vengeance for her death. Eventually, the last two remaining Ushers meet their tragic end, as does their house, fulfilling the alternative title of this film both metaphorically and literally.
Much critical analysis has been devoted to director Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, often to the neglect of his other films, but this is not without good reason. Corman had himself been inspired by Poe as a young person, and was able to adapt this source material for a popular audience of the period. Although the Poe films were produced on modest budgets, Corman was able to maximize the investment in order to produce atmospheric and frightening films without recourse to lavish special effects or gory makeup, which would become popular in the 1970s and which dominate contemporary trends in horror.
British poster (note the X certificate) with the film's full title
British poster (note the X certificate) with the film's full title

HOUSE OF USHER, and the other series of Poe films directed by Corman, have the distinction of being part of the brief revival of American gothic horror that had been fueled by television broadcasts of the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the fresh interpretations of these classics by Britain’s Hammer Films. While this classification has some merit, HOUSE OF USHER may also be understood as a hybrid in keeping with another trend in horror from the period. HOUSE OF USHER is in a sense Gothic, in that it takes place against the backdrop of a mansion that appears at first glance to be a haunted house; however, it is not haunted in typical supernatural fashion by ghosts or poltergeists. Instead, the haunting of the Usher House takes place through the troubled psyches of the homeowners who wrestle with their family legacy. In this sense it is similar to another classic of 1960 cinema, PSYCHO, which signaled a shift from supernatural horror in the 1930s and 1940s, and the science-fiction-horror of the 1950s, to an internalization of horror (horror is not the supernatural other; it is us) that would later take a quantum leap forward with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
HOUSE OF USHER was well received by audiences in 1960. One of the “fun facts” included with the DVD release, as part of the MGM Presents Midnite Movies series, states that it “scored among the top 5 box office hits of 1960.” But how well does it hold up today? That depends upon what one is looking for in a horror film. If one is a fan of much of the drivel seen in contemporary horror cinema, then you are likely to find HOUSE OF USHER disappointing. Fortunately, if you have a broader appreciation for horror, you will likely find this film of continued value.
Roderick (PRice) at the funeral of his sister Medline (Myrna Fahey)
Roderick (PRice) at the funeral of his sister Medline (Myrna Fahey)

Beyond the rich atmosphere emodied by the Usher House, and the great performance of Vincent Price (who would continue to build on his work as the horror actor successor of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), HOUSE OF USHER provides something for viewers who want to probe a little more deeply into horror. One of the film’s interesting facets is its treatment of the struggles of personal identity within the context of family legacy, particularly a dysfunctional one. Roderick Usher is convinced that he is doomed by the Usher curse, and that neither he nor his sister can escape. Rather than engaging in a flight of fancy and illusion by trying to flee, he has consigned not only himself but also his sister to what he sees as an inevitable outcome. Contemporary audiences are perhaps more aware of the dysfunctional nature of all families (to some degree) than were audiences of the 1960s, and this self-awareness – coupled with the realization that, despite a problematic family history, it may still be possible to transcend the “curse” of the lineage and the past – makes this film relevant for the present day, and an item for self-reflection.
If you are a horror fan who hails from my generation, then a new viewing of HOUSE OF USHER will provide a nice trip down memory lane. If you are a younger fan interested in considering a solid piece of horror filmmaking now celebrating its 50th  anniversary, then this film is worth adding to your library.
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Roger Corman still going strong with Dinoshark

Tied in with the premiere on SyFy of DINOSHARK last weekend, IESB has an exclusive interview with legendary producer Roger Corman (PIRANHA, DEATH RACE 2000). Corman’s career ranges from classics to cult to shlock. Decades ago, he provided endless fodder for drive-in theatres; with the home video era having decimated the drive-ins, one would wonder whether he could adapt to the new millennium. It turns out he’s right at home supplying modestly budgeted monster movies for SyFy on a regular basis:

IESB: How did Dinoshark come to be? Was it your idea, or did SyFy approach you about it?
Roger: It started a few years ago. I made a pictured called Dinocroc and I sold it to the SyFy Channel, and it got the highest rating of the year. So, needless to say, they wanted to have another one. I was having lunch with their executives in New York and they said, “We’d like to have another Dinocroc,” and I said, “Certainly, we’ll do Dinocroc 2.” And then, they said, “No. We find that if we put the number 2 on a picture, it gets a lower rating. What works for us is to have a similar title.” So, I said, “Did I say Dinocroc 2? Of course, I meant Supergator.” And they said, “Right, we’ll make Supergator.” Now, Supergator got another very high ratings, so this time they came up with the title Dinoshark, which is an obvious continuation of the Dinocroc title. The first two were my concepts, and this one was my concept for the story, but it was their title.

Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction at the 2010 Oscar Show

AVATAR took home three Oscars at the 2010 ceremony.

Despite multiple nominations, genre films take home only a handful of technical awards.

Going into Sunday evening, the 2010 Academy Awards presentation had ample opportunity to break with their standard tradition of snubbing horror, fantasy, and science fiction films in all but technical categories: two major films, AVATAR and DISTRICT 9, had been nominated not only for Best Picture but also in other top categories, such as Direction and/or Screenplay. However, when the dust settled and the wins counted at the end of the night, it was the same-old story, with cinefantastique shut out of all but a handful of categories: science fiction and fantasy films wound up with a total of six Oscar statues, almost all of them in technical categories:

  • The genre’s “big” winner was AVATAR, which earned the nod for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects.
  • UP took home the gold twice, for Animated Feature and for Music
  • Finally, STAR TREK took home the statue for Makeup.

Genre fans could perhaps take some solace by noting that the evening’s Best Picture winner, THE HURT LOCKER, was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who helmed the effective cult vampire film NEAR DARK back in 1987. Bigelow made history last night by becoming the first female director to win an Oscar.
One towering figure in the realm of horror, fantasy, and science fiction was honored on Oscar night, though not in the way he fully deserved. Producer-director Roger Corman (THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND) was among four winners of a lifetime achievement award. Unfortunately, in its infinite wisdom, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had handed out these awards at a smaller ceremony last November. All we saw last night was a few, short video clips, followed by a brief shot of Corman sitting in the audience (well, at least they invited him to the big show).
For fans of cinefantastique, the highlight of the 2010 ceremony was the tribute to the horror genre. NEW MOON co-stars Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart introduced the segment by noting that horror, although a perennially popular genre, has not been honored by the Oscars since THE EXORCIST took home two statues back in 1974. One could quibble with this factoid (it all depends on whether you include Oscar-winners like ALIEN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in the “horror” genre), but the essential point is a good one.
Below is a complete list of the genre’s winners at the 2010 Academy Awards ceremony:
ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

  • Up: Pete Docter

ART DIRECTION

  • Avatar: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg (Art Direction); Kim Sinclair (Set Decoration)

CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Avatar: Mauro Fiore

MAKEUP

  • Star Trek: Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow

MUSIC

  • Up: Michael Giacchino

VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Avatar: Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones

For the complete list of 2010 Oscar winners, click here.