Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sea Beast Movies: Piranha

I heart monster movies, especially those that miss the mark and end up more campy than scary. The bad dialogue, strained acting and the abundance of cliches are simply irresistible. Hello Trog, hello Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, I'm talking to you. But nothing scratches the itch like a good/bad sea beast movie. Give me some sort of monster, a body of water and I'm hooked (so to speak).

Warning: spoilers n shit.

Roger Corman's Piranha delivers the goods. First, it was made in 1978. This avoids bad CGI stuff, which is the biggest disappointment of many modern-day sea beast films. It also provides for a lot of amazing fashion choices that make me wonder what on earth my parents' generation was thinking.

Let me set the scene: A teen couple on an unexplained midnight backpacking trip decide, hey, let's go past that NO TRESPASSING sign and see what's up at that creepy military site! They find a big dark pool surrounded by electric fence and barbed wire, and, like anyone would do, immediately begin skinnydipping in it. Piranhas eat them, making sounds reminiscent of frantic pigeons and/ or a sewing machines.

I've decided that most horror movies are about what happens to stupid people, people, I mean, who lack all common sense. These characters make such bad decisions it becomes impossible for the audience to really care for them or root for them as human beings. Empathy is impossible here. In turn, the audience gets slight satisfaction out of watching these fictional people die bloody deaths. A little part of each of us roots for the piranhas because the humans are so damn thoughtless. Well, I wouldn't do that, we think. This movie, in particular, features bad decision after bad decision on everyone's parts, beginning with the skinnydipping teens.

The film's main character is a young female detective named Maggie McKeown. The insurance company she works for sends her off to find the missing teens. A woman leading the investigation struck me as unusual. My first reaction was, huh, maybe this movie won't be so reliant on the usual man/woman stereotypes. Maybe since the film was made in 1978, some of that good-old-70s feminism had somehow opened up the possibility for a different kind of woman in a horror film. But this movie was made by Roger Corman. So no deal.

At first, Maggie works alone. We first see her at the airport, young, blond, chatty, confident, assuring her doubtful man-superior that she'll find the teens, that she can sniff anybody out because she's "part bloodhound." She believes in herself, hey, cool. But her speech and independent-woman schtick is immediately undermined when she turns around and frantically tells her boss man that ohmygod ohmygod she lost her plane ticket! Boss-man hands her the ticket that he, smart stoic man that he is, had all along. Silly female! As she boards the plane, Boss-man looks at her like, you are so going to fuck this up. Boss-man is right. Like I said, this movie is a series of badly made decisions on every character's part. Even Boss-man. Yes, you, Boss-man. You hired this inept woman and sent her on this job.

Anyway, so Maggie offroads her Jeep up into the mountains all by herself, but, silly female, overheats the vehicle and then just stares at the smoking engine like some kind of moron. Maggie seems to set out to work alone but, of course, soon stumbles upon a backwoods cabin and meets mountain man Paul. Paul is drunk all the time. Paul wears flannel shirts and is brooding and manly. Suddenly Maggie adopts Paul for help in her investigation. This happens in the most contrived dialogue exchanges imaginable. Paul, naturally, is annoyed by Maggie at first. She's annoying. But he follows her lead anyway. He's drunk. She drives the Jeep, he sits shotgun. She traces the case back to the abandoned military site and the pool and he follows her up there. Paul does a lot of silent eye-rolling at her decisions, but complies. Until Maggie does the stupidest dumbshit move of the movie and drains the entire pool of piranhas into the river. Oopsiedaisies!

Let me back up for a second and just say that the scene where Maggie and Paul stumble upon the laboratory next to the piranha pool (the lab where the Drain the Mutant Piranhas into the River lever exists) is the weirdest in the movie. The lab belongs to Dr. Robert Hoak, mad scientist who developed the piranhas. Whatever, he's just your run-of-the-mill mad scientist, nothing to see here. Except in the lab there are the weirdest, creepiest creatures that he's been creating. One of them looks like a tiny dinosaur alien that runs around, unseen by Maggie and Paul. I thought we were going somewhere with these land-piranha experiments since the camera focused on the creatures for a few minutes. But then Maggie and Paul just leave the laboratory and we never hear about the little dinosaur piranha alien again.

This was an overall problem of the movie: many, many things were left unexplained. Like why the hell keep the piranhas? Why have a switch that drains them into the goddamn river in the first place? Why violently attack the mad scientist, knock him out and basically kidnap him? Why do these creatures exist? Etc, etc, etc.

Anyway, once shit really starts to go down and the piranhas are now swimming fast towards Paul's daughter's summercamp, Paul stops drinking and mans up and takes the driver's seat. Stereotypical gender roles are restored. Maggie sits shotgun. Paul gets them a raft and leads them up the river. Mad Scientist makes his own stupid decision and dives into the piranha-infested river. Bye, Mad Scientist guy. We get cuts to lots of summercamp scenes, where Paul's daughter is, conveniently, scared of swimming but her asshole camp director keeps trying to make her get in the lake anyway. This creates a whole ticking-timebomb element as Paul tries to get to the camp to save his daughter. Lots of happy, splashy water scenes with kids and bikinied camp counselors, and a resort on the lake with tons of super 70s-looking beach crowds. Ah, the tension builds. Just can't wait for those piranha attacks.

The cool thing about Piranha, when compared to quality sea beast movies like Jaws that it was imitating, is that Piranha goes there. You keep seeing these splashy, laughing scenes at the summercamp or the resort and you're thinking, Corman won't let the piranhas eat the kids, will he? I mean, kids? Maybe a nip at the most, right?

Delightfully, Corman spares no one. By the end of the resort scene the shore is covered in victims, men, women, children. And the camp director who was such a dick to Paul's kid? Bitten in the face. So satisfying.

The movie's ending is just moronic. Paul, now off the booze, has apparently acquired some superhuman powers and can hold his breath for like five minutes underwater as he goes to find that switch that pollutes the lake and will kill the piranhas. Not like the other times they tried to poison the piranhas, no no -- this is entirely different. This is a pollution switch. What is a pollution switch? Why do the piranhas take forever to attack Paul? Why is Paul not killed by the pollution blast underwater? Who the hell is this evil scientist ex-lover of other mad scientist and why do we care? Who knows. But as Maggie holds the canteen of booze to Paul's lips at the end, when they are safely ashore, he parts his mouth and emits a little "ehhh" or something that I believe is supposed to indicate that he's going to be okay. And, who knows, maybe the embrace hints some sort of romance to come. Paul's kid is there with them, so the man+woman+kid thing forms a neat little family at the end. All's well! Oh yeah, except for the fact the piranhas are probably in the ocean now because they can swim in both fresh and saltwater and the river drains to the sea. Hello, Piranha II: The Spawning (um, directed by James Cameron, and the piranhas fuckin fly).


  1. Best thing I've read this year! Wow. I remember watching this movie as a little kid. You could probably have fun watching some of the Chuck Norris movies I was weened on, as well, especially the one where he's buried in his Bronco, but it's so tough it overdrives right out of the ground.

  2. Um ... that Chuck Norris-Bronco movie sounds amazing. I will be Googling and Netflixing this in my immediate future. :)