Fishy Fishy Fishy Piranha

Piranha (1978) is currently available on instant Netflix.


Piranha (1978) – Rated R

When a school of mutant piranha is accidentally released into a river — and headed straight for a kids’ summer camp — it’s up to investigator Maggie McKeown and local woodsman Paul Grogan to prevent the potential carnage”

“The piranhas” – “What about the goddamn piranhas?” – “They’re eating the guests, sir”

Arriving the same year as Barracuda (and Jaws 2), Piranha is an amusing little B-movie from director Joe Dante and the Roger Corman factory. Author John Sayles wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story making this a bit more literate than other B-flicks but oddly, for an author and filmmaker concerned about character, most of the cast are caricatures.

Joe Dante’s impish approach to horror starts here and continued through such classics as The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), and my personal favorite, Joe Dante’s love letter to William Castle, Matinee (1993). He recently made The Hole (2009) which, while it did not fare very well here, was still quite good. I highly recommend the website that he and a bunch of other writes and directors started, Trailers from Hell.

This being the late-70s our villain du jour is the military, here represented by Colonel Waxman and support scientists Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) and Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele). Other Corman regulars pop up such as Dick Miller (who has a much larger role than normal) and Paul Bartel (but no Mary Woronov).

While the military is ostensibly the villain, it is actually our two protagonists, Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and Maggie Mckeown (Heather Menzies) who cause all the trouble including releasing the genetically engineered piranha into the wild. This gave me a good laugh every time they tried to blame the military.

The piranha effects are goofy but there is some good early makeup work from Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett. Don’t expect a gorefest like the recent remake though.

Touch of Evil – South of the Border week

This is South of the Border week. We will be featuring movies based in Mexico. Touch of Evil is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Touch of Evil (1958) – NR – Not rated but contains adult content and violence.

“Narcotics detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) sees his honeymoon cut short when a car crossing the U.S.-Mexico border explodes before his eyes. Vargas forsakes his bride (Janet Leigh) to mount an investigation, but soon locks horns with corpulent Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). The shady cop is not above planting evidence — or colluding with the local crime lord — to keep Vargas from discovering the ugly truth.”

“He says you do not understand what he wants.” – “I understand very well what he wants.”

“An hour ago Rudy Linnekar had this town in his pocket.” – “Now you can strain him through a sieve.”

“A policemans job is only easy in a police state.”

Orson Welles directed this quintessential noir film. It is sort of based on the book “Badge of Evil”. When Welles took over as director, he completely rewrote the script. Mike Vargas was changed from American to Mexican and his wife from Mexican to American.

Welles was not able to get his vision released in 1958. The studio fired him, cut many of his scenes and had Harry Keller reshoot others. He wrote a 58 page memo detailing his vision of the movie and the interference of Universal.

A version of the film was released in 1975. Most of the scenes added by Harry Keller were cut and several of the scenes by Welles were added back in.

Later, thanks to Charlton Heston, the 58-page memo by Welles resurfaced. It was used as a blueprint for a directors cut. This cut was released in 1998 to theaters and later DVD.

I was lucky enough to catch the 1998 release at the theater.

It begins with perhaps the best tracking shot in motion picture history (though Scorsese has a great one in Goodfellas). An anonymous man sets a kitchen timer on a bomb and plants it in a car. We then follow the car and later the Vargases as they intersect the shot with the car. This is all done in one long continuous shot.

I love the scene where Joe Grandi and Quinlan are discussing their partnership. Quinlan starts to say “I dont…” and realizes that he is drinking.

Charlton Heston does a wonderful job as Mexican police chief Mike Vargas. His character is fairly complex. While he is a righteous police officer, he understands that his out of his depth and jurisdiction north of the border.

Janet Leigh plays his wife, Susie. She does a great job with the woman in peril role while at the same time showing a disdain for Mexicans in spite of being married to one.

The scenes scaring her are very tepid, even goofy by what we see today. On the other hand it is utterly amazing how much got past the censors of the time.

Orson Welles himself plays Hank Quinlan, the American policeman. His staccato speech rhythms work really well here. I love the scene where he is discussing his partnership with Grandi. Quinlan starts to say “I dont…” and realizes that he is drinking.

Marlene Dietrich is simply amazing in her brief part. In her first scene, she looks at Quinlan and with great impact says “we are closed”. She takes an ordinary throwaway line and makes it her own. Her final lines are incredible.

Dennis Weaver (yes McCloud and Chester from Gunsmoke) plays a freaked out night manager. Unfortunately he is terrible in every scene that he is in.

My guess is that Welles was trying for some comic relief to offset the darkness of the noir but it really comes off badly. Basically all the sequences in that hotel are poor especially the music.

The pianola score used through much of the film (not the hotel sequences) is quite haunting.

Apart from the scenes in the hotel with Dennis Weaver, this is a fabulous film noir filled with wonderful directorial flourishes. With two caveats (the hotel and below), I heartily recommend this movie. Hurry though Netflix is retiring this one on 4/7.

Please note: While very worthwhile, the instant Netflix version is the 1958 one (95 minutes). For the 1998 restoration (112 minutes) you will need the DVD version.

While Vargas is the nominal protagonist, the story is actually all about Quinlan. It is clear that Welles in his direction and rewrite subverted the original story and made Quinlan the focus of the picture. Vargas seems more of a catalyst than a hero.

It is hard to believe that one of the greatest noirs of all time was not only a B-picture but was actually the back half of a double bill for The Female Animal.

People Watch: Wow – quite a few cameos here. Zsa Zsa Gabor appears for about four seconds but is instantly recognizable. Mercedes McCambridge appears as briefly as a gang leader who likes to watch (gosh would there be some subtext here to get past the censors?). Keenan Wynn is a lawyer and Joseph Cotton is the coroner in other brief cameos.

Dr. Strangelove – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is WMD – Weapons of Mass Destruction week. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is currently available on instant Netflix.WARNING: Watch this soon as on March 1st this movie will no longer be available on instant Netflix.

Dr. Strangelove

WATCH: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – Rated PG.

“When a fanatical U.S. general (Sterling Hayden) launches an air strike against the Soviets, they raise the stakes by threatening to unleash a “doomsday device,” setting the stage for Armageddon in this classic black comedy that brilliantly skewers the nuclear age. The films star-studded cast includes George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones and Peter Sellers (who steals the show and copped an Oscar nod playing three roles).”

“Peace is our profession” – Strategic Air Command motto seen pretty much everywhere in the film.

“Gentlemen, you cant fight in here! This is the War Room.”

“Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.”

Stanley Kubrick did an absolutely phenomenal job of directing Dr. Strangelove. He received the first three of his many Oscar nominations for this movie. He was nominated for Best Film (producer), Best Director, and Best Writing (adapted screenplay).

Reportedly author Peter George was not happy with the adaptation of his book, Red Alert, by Kubrick and Terry Southern. The book presents a serious scenario similar in tone and theme to Fail-Safe (a movie I will discuss later this week).

Kubrick adapted this into an absolutely brilliant satire of the nuclear arms race and cold war politics. With the exception of the titular character, every one else plays the film straight (in spite of the ridiculous names given to much of the cast).

There are a ton of fun touches in the film. There is a nice scene with Major Kong (Slim Pickens) in an airplane poring over what appears to be a map. The camera pulls out and it is revealed to be an issue of Playboy. Tracy Reed (Miss Scott in the film) is Miss Foreign Affairs in the issue.

General Turgidson has a folder marked “World Targets in Megadeaths”. A firefight at the base takes place near a “Keep Off the Grass” sign.

Peter Sellers was nominated for a Best Actor in Dr. Strangelove. He plays Dr. Strangelove, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and President Muffley. He was supposed to play Major Kong as well but broke his ankle and was replaced in that role by Slim Pickens. He was paid a million dollars – over half the budget of the film – for his performances.

All of his roles in this film are great. He has a fun and comedic time with Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist now working with the U.S. His President Muffley is a model of reason amid the chaos of the War Room. However I most enjoyed his stiff upper lip presentation of Captain Mandrake.

A slightly over the top performance from George C. Scott as General Turgidson is a sight to behold. This is only second to his performance as Patton. Make sure to pay attention to his gum fixation. The fall he takes later in the film was a real accident that Kubrick decided to leave in.

Slim Pickens is a hoot as Major Kong and his final scene is an iconic shot from this film. Veteran actor Sterling Hayden (Captain McCluskey in The Godfather) came out of semi-retirement for this film. He had previously worked for Kubrick in The Killing (1956). James Earl Jones appears here in his first film but does not have much to do.

The music choices are inspired. Whenever Major Kong and the bomb crew are on, “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” is playing in the background. This was later adapted and is perhaps more popularly known as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.  The end montage has “We ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn played over it.

This is an absolutely incredible and iconic film and if you have not seen it then you definitely should. Do not be put off by the Black and White photography or the silly character names, this is a movie deserving of the title “classic”.

WATCH this classic movie soon before it expires on March 1st.

People Watch: Look for Keenan Wynn as Colonel Guano.