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Water Foul: “Piranha”

Piranha

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Next up in “Water Foul” is perhaps the most famous and beloved of the “Jaws” knock-offs: Joe Dante’s “Piranha.”

“Piranha” was directed and co-edited by Joe Dante, who has also been behind “Small Soldiers,” “Gremlins,” “The ‘Burbs,” and “The Howling.” He also runs the popular website “Trailers From Hell,” in which he has filmmakers and effects gurus talk about b-movies while narrating classic trailers.

The writers on “Piranha” were Richard Robinson (“Kingdom of the Spiders”) and John Sayles, who has since received two Academy Award nominations for his screen writing (“Passion Fish” and “Lone Star”). He also wrote a number of other notable horror and sci-fi movies, including “Battle Beyond The Stars,” “Alligator,” and “The Howling,” the last of which was also directed by Joe Dante.

The cinematographer on “Piranha” was Jamie Anderson, who has also shot films like “Small Soldiers,” “Bad Santa,” and “The Girl Next Door.”

The effects team for “Piranha” was headlined by creature designer Phil Tippett, who later worked on “RoboCop,” “RoboCop 2,” “RoboCop 3,” “Howard the Duck,” “Willow,” “Jurassic Park,” “Star Wars: A New Hope,” and “The Golden Child,” and Rob Bottin, who later did special effects on “The Thing,” “Total Recall,” “RoboCop,” “Se7en,” “RoboCop 3,” “Fight Club,” and “The Howling.” The rest of the team included Vincent Prentice (“Roar,” “Heartbeeps,” “Toys”), Jon Berg (“Gremlins,” “Laserblast”), Robert Short (“Chopping Mall,” “Splash,” “1941”), Chris Walas (“Humanoids From The Deep,” “The Fly”), Bill Hedge (“It’s Alive 3,” “Species”), and Peter Kuran (“League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “Lake Placid,” “Q”).

piranha2The producers for “Piranha” were led, of course, by b-movie king Roger Corman. The others were John Davison (“Grand Theft Auto,” “White Dog,” “RoboCop”), Japanese actress Chako van Leeuwen, and Jeff Schechtman (“Killing Zoe,” “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning”).

“Piranha” was co-edited by Mark Goldblatt, who has since become a proficient editor, cutting such films as “Super Mario Bros.,” “Enter The Ninja,” “Predator 2,” and “Humanoids From The Deep.” He also directed a couple of cult classics in the late 1980s: “Dead Heat” and 1989’s “The Punisher.”

The score for “Piranha” was provided by Pino Donaggio, who also wrote the music for “Carrie” and “The Howling.” He is best known, however, for writing the 1966 hit “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.”

The cast for “Piranha” included Bradford Dillman (“The Iceman Cometh”), Heather Menzies (“The Sound of Music”), Kevin McCarthy (“Slipstream,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), Keenan Wynn (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Twilight Zone”), Dick Miller (“Chopping Mall,” “A Bucket Of Blood”), Barbara Steele (“Black Sunday”), Belinda Balaski (“The Howling”), and Paul Bartel (“Eating Raoul,” “Chopping Mall”).

piranha4The story of “Piranha” takes place at mysterious, shut down government facility on the edge of a river. After two teenagers disappear in the area, the facility’s water tank is drained into the river in an effort to find the bodies, unknowingly releasing a genetically enhanced species of piranha created by the government into the water system. The rest of the film follows a desperate attempt to kill the murderous fish, and rescue the unknowing townspeople down-river.

“Piranha” was reportedly made for under $700,000, with only $50,000 of it spent on special effects. considering that the piranhas were portrayed by fish puppets on sticks, I suppose that is a pretty believable number.

Peter Fonda was apparently offered the lead role in “Piranha” due to his long-standing relationship with Roger Corman, but he ultimately turned the part down because of the low special effects budget.

Reportedly, the production of “Piranha” was plagued with issues, such as technical problems with the cameras, constant threats to shut down the production for going over budget, and the second unit making amateur mistakes that rendered much of the footage useless.

Universal Studios attempted a lawsuit against the production due to its extreme similarities to “Jaws,” but Steven Spielberg ultimately liked the movie, and apparently convinced the studio to drop it before it went anywhere.

An earlier, unrelated “Piranha” movie was made in 1972 starring William Smith (“Hell Comes To Frogtown”), which apparently doesn’t feature a whole lot of killer piranha action. It’s available on YouTube, but be warned that it has an abysmal 2.7 on IMDb.

The success of “Piranha” led to a number of sequels and remakes, including “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning,” “Piranha (1995),” “Piranha 3D,” and “Piranha 3DD.” The remakes were successful enough to even inspire a 2010 ‘mockbuster’ made by The Asylum: “Mega Piranha,” which, for those keeping track, is a knockoff of a remake of a knockoff of “Jaws.”

Piranhas, much like sharks, have a lot of myths that surround them, which were perpetuated by the “Piranha” film. The popular perception of piranhas as ravenous killing machines in North America apparently traces back to Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote about a school of piranha eating a cow while he was traveling in the Amazon. While piranha are certainly carnivorous, they aren’t a particular danger to humans, and attacks are rare: usually contained to specific conditions where food is scarce for the fish.

The reception of “Piranha” was mixed, though it is certainly regarded as a cult classic today. It currently holds an IMDb rating of 5.9, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 72% (critics) and 42% (audience).

It is estimated that “Piranha” managed to gross $16 million in its theatrical run, with a particularly high portion of it ($10 million) coming from international markets.

“Piranha” is undoubtedly a shameless “Jaws” clone, but it is probably the best of the lot of them. Watching it side by side with, say, “Devil Fish,” you can’t help but appreciate the quality of the work here.

A lot of people consider “Piranha” to be a bit of a “Jaws” parody, and I just don’t see it. It has some funny moments, but it is a pretty straight horror/monster movie, and the content is never played for laughs as far as I could tell. Particularly when compared to later Dante films like “Gremlins” and “Gremlins 2,” “Piranha” is about the most true and pure horror movie that the man ever made.

piranha3I can’t help but be a bit forgiving about the piranha effects, which are undoubtedly cheesy. That said, they look astounding for the budget, and the shots are similarly constructed and designed after “Jaws,” meaning that the audience doesn’t actually have to see much of them. Considering that, they serve their purposes just fine.

“Piranha” interestingly capitalizes on anti-government sentiments that had grown over the course of the Vietnam era, and makes specific references to biological and chemical warfare that was intended to be used in the conflict. Concerns about nerve gas, agent orange, and other ethically dubious tools of war were (and still are) a serious concern that sits in the back of many minds, and Dante uses that fact as part of the plot. Joe Dante has described the film as working with the concept of “the war comes home,” which may sound a little ridiculous for a movie about killer piranha, but the parallel actually works pretty well for the film.

“Piranha” bogs down a little bit in sections in order to just kill random people and throw extra gore into the mix, which was apparently an edict from Roger Corman, who felt that the film needed as much gore as possible to sell it.

Overall, “Piranha” is not an awful watch. It is fun to see where Joe Dante and the now-prominent effects workers came from, and the quality is pretty excellent for such a low budget flick. Clearly there was lots of crafty work done to make the feature what it is. For fans of b-movies, “Piranha” is absolutely essential. As good-bad watch, there are better options out there for sure. I hear an awful lot of bad things about the sequel, so your eyes peeled for a feature on that one soon.

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Plotopsy Podcast #8 – Small Soldiers

Small Soldiers
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Recently, I read a book recounting the story of the early days of DreamWorks, called “The Men Who Would Be King” by Nicole LaPorte. The book features extensive insight into the many DreamWorks features produced during the Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen years of the company. One of the most interesting of these that I specifically recounted from my childhood was “Small Soldiers,” a movie that I really enjoyed at the time it was released. However, it was a critical and financial disappointment for the company, despite being technically successful. To understand why the film was so poorly received and regarded at the time, there is a fair amount of background information worth reading into.

“Small Soldiers” was conceived from an interesting mix of envy and greed. Pixar and Disney released the smash hit “Toy Story” in 1995 to massive acclaim and fortune not only on screen, but also from lucrative toy and merchandise tie-ins. In response, the team at DreamWorks struck up a deal with Hasbro to do tie-in toy merchandise for a series of films. DreamWorks notably had a historical axe to grind with Disney, due to Jeffrey Katzenberg’s rocky relationship with Michael Eisner, and the fact that many animators at DreamWorks were poached from the great mouse. Topping “Toy Story” would have been nothing short of a major triumph and vindication for the company. And so, “Small Soldiers” was the first of these Hasbro tie-in features released, and the expectation of it was to match or surpass the “Toy Story” acclaim and fortune earned for Disney and Pixar.

In a recent review of “Small Soldiers” by Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic), numerous similarities to “Toy Story” are specifically pointed out from the movie, and they are pretty undeniable. However, “Small Soldiers” is definitely a very different beast than the lofty and light-hearted “Toy Story”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those sequences were the result of not-so-subtle arm-twisting by the DreamWorks brass.

Joe Dante, a B-movie and cult director who had seen success with movies like “Gremlins,” “Piranha,” and “The Burbs,” was attached to direct “Small Soldiers.” In retrospect, this was probably a misstep for a film that was intended to primarily to serve a youth audience. Even “Gremlins,” arguably his most family friendly movie at the time, is a good deal darker than your typical blockbuster family fare. It can certainly be said that the darkly comedic ultimate product of “Small Soldiers” is a creation born from Joe Dante’s influence.

A number of writers ultimately worked on the script for “Small Soldiers.” First, the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who had struck big for Katzenberg on “Aladdin,” worked on the film. Those two continued to work for DreamWorks on a number of other films, including “The Road to El Dorado” and “Shrek,” before working extensively on the “Pirates of the Carribbean” franchise for Disney. The other writers who later worked on the screenplay included Adam Rifkin, who penned the hit “Mouse Hunt” for DreamWorks in the previous year, and Gavin Scott, who co-wrote “The Borrowers” in 1997 for Working Title.

On May 21, 1998, less than two months before the release of “Small Soldiers” in theaters, an expelled High School student named Kip Kinkel murdered his parents and committed a school shooting in Springfield, Oregon. This sparked a lot of public conversation about the marketing of violence to children, and some believe that this event caused the film to be more harshly criticized than it might have been otherwise.

Not helping the matter, the final product of “Small Soldiers” was far more violent than expected: promotional materials even had to be altered (most notably the poster, in which a gun was reportedly digitally removed from Chip Hazard’s hand). The movie was ultimately slapped with a PG-13 (the only DreamWorks movie to get the rating), which caused a stir given it was being marketed with the Burger King equivalent of a Happy Meal. This also theoretically limited its financial potential by keeping young children out of the theaters, which certainly didn’t go over well with DreamWorks. This also understandably further opened up a lot of questions about violent products being catered to children, which almost certainly negatively affected many reviews of the movie.

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“Small Soldiers” has a deep cast of comedic character actors that provide a lot of the comic power of the film, including David Cross, Jay Mohr, and Dennis Leary. However, it is undoubtedly not a product suitable for young children, not only because of the violence, but because the humor is rather dark and laced with social satire that they couldn’t possibly get. The PG-13 rating is certainly justified, in any case. The movie’s cast also notably features a pre-fame Kirsten Dunst, and, sadly, the last screen performance of Phil Hartman.

small3Phil Hartman, beloved comedic actor of “Saturday Night Live,” “NewsRadio,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Groundlings” comedy troupe fame, has a bit role in “Small Soldiers” as the moronic father of Kirsten Dunst’s character. Tragically, Hartman was murdered by his wife just before the release of “Small Soldiers,” making it his last live action theatrical role.

small5A number of references to Joe Dante’s movie “Gremlins” are hidden throughout the movie (including a direct reference to the Gremlin ‘Gizmo’), as well as numerous nods to classic B-movies. Dante got his start in film cutting B-movie trailers for Roger Corman, and has maintained his connection to B cinema to this day. His website, Trailers From Hell, is essentially a love letter to the old school B classics, featuring trailer commentaries from lauded B-movie writers, directors, and special effects masters such as Stuart Gordon, Eli Roth, Rick Baker, Lloyd Kaufman, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, and himself.

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The special effects and designs for the action figures in “Small Soldiers” were done by legendary creature creator Stan Winston, and includes a mixture of practical and computer generated effects. This same technique earned Winston massive acclaim on “Jurassic Park” only a handful of years before. The figures themselves are particularly impressive, as you can see on display below:

The voice acting cast of “Small Soldiers” is incredibly deep, and features a rogues gallery of notables. Outside of Tommy Lee Jones, there are a number of alums from “The Dirty Dozen” that make up the Gi Joe esque Commando Elite, including George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown. The Gorgonites feature voices from Frank Langella, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Even the Barbie analogues impressed into service by the Commando Elite late in the film feature the voices of Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

“Small Soldiers” was created during a time in which DreamWorks functioned as a massive multimedia company, with interest in film, video games, animation, and music. Appropriately, DreamWorks attempted to milk every last drop from films released during this time period, and “Small Soldiers” was no exception. The film got a soundtrack that featured rap remixes of classic rock songs, a DreamWorks video game, and a slew of tie-in toys from the DreamWorks arrangement with Hasbro. In theory, “Small Soldiers” was intended to be a family movie with massive crossover potential that would provide proof of the DreamWorks multi-media model. Of course, that isn’t what it wound up being, to the disappointment of many.

So, why was “Small Soldiers” such a disappointment? Honestly, I think that the hands-off style of DreamWorks, which operated its live action with a “power to the artists” mentality reminiscent of United Artists, really burned them with “Small Soldiers.” I don’t think that the marketing team and the brass in general quite grasped the dark creature that was being created with “Small Soldiers”, or maybe they were just incapable of reigning it in for whatever reason. If DreamWorks had it set in their mind that they wanted a “Toy Story”, they probably should have hit the panic button the minute that military-grade microchips and hostage situations popped into a draft of the script. Also, there probably should have been more thought put into giving the film to a guy known for creating dark genre movies in Joe Dante. Secondarily, part of the issue with the film was just timing: releasing on the heels of a school shooting was something outside of their control, and didn’t do them any favors in the press or with critics.

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Now, this is a case where I actually like “Small Soldiers.” I think it is a pretty enjoyable dark comedy in the vein of “The Burbs” if you can divorce it from its context. The “Toy Story” connection, the extensive and inappropriate marketing campaign, and the general social atmosphere around the film all really contributed to the generally negative reception movie if you ask me. I would recommend giving it another shot if someone hasn’t seen it in a number of years: I think it holds up pretty damn well, and is far more clever than it has any business being.

That is all for today’s (Plot)opsy Podcast! Check in next week when I’ll be covering another DreamWorks flick, Sam Mendes’s “Road to Perdition.” Make sure to like Misan[trope]y Movie Blog on Facebook and subscribe to the (Plot)opsy Podcast on iTunes to keep up with all of the latest updates.