Color, 1978, 92 mins.

Directed by Joe Dante

Starring Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, Paul Bartel, Richard Deacon / Written by John Sayles / Music by Pino Donaggio / Produced by Jon Davison and Chako von Leeuwen / Cinematography by Jamie Anderson

Format: DVD - New Horizons (MSRP $29.98)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital Mono

Long before he became famous for directing quirky, monster-friendly studio films, director Joe Dante cut his teeth (so to speak) on two standout horror cult films, Piranha and The Howling. When Piranha first opened, many critics didn't quite know how to take the offbeat mixture of movie buff humor and brutal violence, but audiences ate it up. By the time Dante got around to doing the same thing for werewolves, reviewers finally started catching on, and in retrospect Piranha was quickly hailed as more than a simple Jaws imitation. While Dante's first film, Hollywood Boulevard, was a comedy with violent overtones, his two early monster films have also been categorized by many as spoofs. Certainly Piranha and The Howling have their share of great one liners and sly nods to horror movie history, but at heart, both are bare knuckle scarefests, filled with unexpected violence in which anyone, no matter how sympathetic, can die anywhere, anytime. Mercifully, even in the wake of James Cameron's lackluster sequel (Piranha II: The Spawning) and a dismal 1995 Roger Corman remake, the original still holds up as a solid mixture of chills and chuckles, and the shoestring piranha attacks (with those great sound effects!) are still as much fun as ever.

The deft screenplay by John Sayles (who also penned The Howling) begins with two amusing references to Spielberg's big shark hit: a skinnydipping couple winds up getting chomped while trespassing in a swimming pool, and the heroine, Maggie (Heather Menzies), is introduced playing one of those old Jaws video games. Sent by Richard Deacon (The Dick Van Dyke Show) to find the missing kids, Maggie soon makes the acquaintance of Paul (TV pro Bradford Dillman), an alcoholic recluse who agrees to help her quest. The two stumble upon a seemingly abandoned military testing site; a curious Maggie empties out the site's pool into the nearby stream but fails to uncover any evidence. Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) surprises the two and begins a mad rant in which he explains that the duo has unleashed the product of "Operation Razorteeth," a scientific military project designed to breed mutant piranhas for destroying the North Vietnamese rivers. Of course, the piranhas are now rapidly making their way downstream... towards the local summer camp and lakeside real estate development. The predators snack on a few hapless residents, including Paul's buddy, Keenan Wynn, and Paul, Maggie, and Hoak hurriedly raft down the river to reach the camp where Paul's daughter is staying. Meanwhile, Dr. Mengers (scream queen Barbara Steele) and company arrive for damage control, and the real estate mavens hurriedly try to cover up the panic in order to avoid scaring off their potential buyers. Can the hungry fish be stopped in time?

Long unavailable on video outside of a bleary-looking old VHS release from Warner back in the early '80s, Piranha has enjoyed a growing cult reputation and has finally gotten the first class treatment from Roger Corman's New Horizons. The film is presented in unmatted full frame with all of the image exposed; however, the main titles (done by Dante himself) were filmed soft matted at 1.66:1 and are presented as such on the disc. The film itself looks like a million bucks (about $340,000 more than it cost to make!), with vivid, beautifully defined colors and no noticeable compression defects. Most of New Horizons' DVDs have looked surprisingly good, and Piranha is among the best. The murky opening scene still looks pretty dull, but it always has, even in theaters. The audio hasn't aged quite as well, with a dull hiss evident on the soundtrack throughout the picture; however, those with adequate surround processors or better can filter this out. The diverse, lyrical Pino Donaggio score sounds fine (ah, if only it had been isolated like The Howling), and dialogue is consistently clear and intelligible.

Fortunately, New Horizons has honored Piranha with a 20th Anniversary edition (actually it's the 21st Anniversary, but who's counting?). Dante and producer Jon Davison provide a very interesting, brisk audio commentary in which they discuss the budget wrangling and goofy incidents during production, then point out the various familiar actors and stock footage popping up throughout the movie. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, a very funny outtake reel (Barbara Steele's blooper is the highlight), and nine minutes of silent "home movie" style footage behind the scenes (accompanied by Dante and Davison's commentary), including a peek at a clean shaven, 17 year old Rob Bottin working on the fishies. As if that weren't enough, the disc is also packaged with a reproduction of the theatrical sales marketing guide, and the fun animated menus feature piranha fish darting around the screen and chomping on various menu items. Essential viewing.

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