During the nineties, producer Roger Corman remade a handful of his classic horror productions for TV and home video, and with few exceptions, most were unnecessary efforts, and none came close towards eclipsing the original films.
Joe Dante’s direction of the first Piranha (1978) was snappy and tongue-in-cheek; John Sayles’ script handled the ridiculousness of the concept with a balance of shocks, humour, and action; and the cast was drawn from old and new Hollywood (with the new quotient consisting of nascent TV stars). Even the lead special effects – often made of fake piranha fish heads stuck on broom poles - were effective in conveying a mass of hungry, water-bourn monsters capable of some advance reasoning, including getting at our heroes when they were safely floating on a raft.
Corman’s 1995 remake is worth a peek purely for the way Sayles’ script was condensed and dialogue was upgraded with nineties pop culture references, and the curiosity value of whether the original scenes could stand on their own with the new talent pool.
Writer Alex Simon kept the original heroes of P.I. Maggie (Alexandra Paul) and ex-marine biologist Paul (William Katt), but dumped the secretive military component headed by a mad doctor (largely because in the ’78 film Dante was able to coax a local militia to appear, using a bogus ‘benevolent army’ script never intended for filming).
He also changed the gender of the original scientist who created the vicious piranha to a younger woman (Darleen Carr), and once she dies at the maws of her creations, the story becomes a classic disaster scenario.
Without the military element, the story’s basically man vs. toothy fish, and follows Paul’s manic efforts to reach the local camp and save his daughter Susie (a giant-headed Mila Kunis, in one of her first roles) before the evil spawn reaches the camp’s little ‘guppies’ (girls) and ‘minnows’ (boys).
Simon also compacted a few roles into one new character - wealthy developer ‘J.R.’ Randolph (Monte Markham) who not only hired Maggie to find his busty daughter (killed at the beginning, as she and her boyfriend skinny dipped in the piranha pool), but shrugs aside the advancing fish threat to meet the start date of a new waterfront revitalization project. J.R.’s essentially drawn from the money-minded mayor in Jaws (1975), played by James Karen, who also appears as (what else?) the major in Corman’s 1995 cable TV movies.
Also expanded is the role of a commercial director, now a weasel film school grad (played by weasely Leland Orser) who attempts to woo the local camp counselor matron (formerly played by Paul Bartel, and now re-imagined as athletic Kehli O’Byrne) only to watch her get turned into chum one sad night.
The rest of Simon’s script follows Sayles’ design scene-for scene (right down to the ludicrous water skiing / exploding boat sequence), and in some cases scenes were filmed in locations nearly identical to the ’78 film. Sets and props were also designed to be visually similar to the original, so Corman, ever the cheapskate, could re-use the effective piranha effects footage from the original – a tactic that actually works because of the fast editing that keeps the ’95 TV movie moving at a frenetic pace.
Some non-effects footage also seems to have been lifted from the original, such as the final glimpse of a drowning Laura (now played by Punky Brewster’s Soleil Moon Frye); and the underwater pollution station, where Paul holds his breath for what seems like 5 minutes.
A big plus for the production was composer Christopher Lennertz, who managed to transcend the TV movie’s budget (and Corman’s cheapness) by writing a big-sounding orchestral score – quite unusual among Corman’s nineties remakes.
Director Scott P. Levy, a former Corman hand, does a credible job in keeping scenes moving without the kind of hastiness one would expect from a scene-for-scene remake, and the performances at least match the earnestness of the original film, making this remake tonally consistent with Corman’s vintage drive-in fodder.
Just as amusing are the flagrant attempts to keep the T&A values high (which may explain the gender reversals). O’Byrne takes off her top before her fatal river swim, and during a simple boardwalk shot in which the developer and sheriff stroll to a boat, Corman & Levy have a swimsuit bunny suddenly walk into frame, with her posterior bouncing back & forth before a hasty frame exit after Levy switches to a reverse angle.
Few of Corman’s nineties remakes are available on DVD, and while this 1995 version is fairly pointless, it ought to be released as part of some special set, if not a double-bill.
Entries in Corman’s remake wave include A Bucket of Blood (1995), Piranha (1995), The Wasp Woman (1995), and his riff on the 1958 Woolner production, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman - Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds (1995). During the prior decade, the producer also remade Not of This Earth (1988) and Masque of the Red Death (1989).
Scott Levy’s other directorial efforts for Corman include The Alien Within (1995), House of the Damned (1996), Baby Faced Nelson (1996), and Time Under Fire (1997).
Films within the Piranha franchise include Piranha (1978), Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981), and Piranha 3D (2010).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan