FIVE FILMS FROM...1978
(Directed by Joe Dante)
The aftershock from “Jaws” and subsequent animal-horror copy-cats was still being felt in 1978, and there were plenty of aquatic and beastly horrors to savour (including a sequel to that very movie). But in terms of innovation, entertainment, and sheer nuttiness; Dante’s fun film stands head-and-shoulders above the others in the deep-end of the exploitation swimming pool. The production was a typical roughshod project from Roger Corman, and designed solely to cash-in on the sharky blockbuster. By all rights it should have been a forgettable exercise; the special-effects budget was just $50,000 and it was all shot in Corman’s usual style of guerrilla filmmaking. But there was a perfect storm of young talent which elevated the whole thing; quirky direction by Dante, a witty screenplay from John Sayles, good early work from FX experts Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett, and solid work from the two leads (Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies). What resulted was a thoroughly enjoyable B-movie that told the story of a large shoal of genetically enhanced Piranha (designed by the US army to use in the Vietnam war!), being accidentally released into the river near a popular summer camp.
The core narrative is a satire on “Jaws” (dumb authority figures ignore the heroes and people die at a leisure facility), and in fact Universal Studios nearly took out an injunction on the film. Brilliantly that never happened because Steven Spielberg actually saw it and declared it to be “the best of the Jaws rip-offs”, and the company backed off. Suffice to say that there’s a lot to enjoy here, and some of the gory FX are quite good for such a low-budget, including a character that gets his legs skeletonized. Mostly however the film preys upon that primal fear of something-in-the-water and resorts to bubbling-blood-coloured liquid to heighten the tension, with some shots of the speeding fish being simply puppets on sticks, filmed quickly enough to just about fool the senses. Their attacks are enlivened with a “gnawing” sound that was apparently accomplished with dental drills and some water. It’s actually quite subversive in the fact that it deliberately goes to the trouble of putting crowds of kids in mortal danger (and following through on that), and has a sympathetic character die in a surprisingly moving sequence. Genre icon Barbara Steele also has an effective cameo, and the verbal sparring between Dillman and Menzies is hugely endearing. A commercial success and a later cult favourite, it’s a guilty pleasure of the highest order. It notoriously led to James Cameron’s (crap) sequel “Piranha II: The Spawning”, and a made-for-TV remake in 1995 (featuring Mila Kunis!). Best of all though was Alexandre Aja’s 3D remake in 2010, which knowingly turned up the gore and nudity to maximum levels in homage to the exploitation era.
(Directed by Brian De Palma)
Given that De Palma had directed the very successful adaptation of Stephen King’s telekinetic shocker “Carrie” only two years previously, the notion of filming a horror-thriller based on another book with a similar theme was either a no-brainer or a questionable choice. But whilst “The Fury” is far from being the director’s best work, and is something of a mish-mash in terms of tone and content, it’s still a great ride for genre fans and culminates in one of cinema’s best money-shots! It was based on the book of the same name from author John Farris, who also wrote the screenplay. Taking that link with “Carrie” one step further, it even shares a leading lady with Amy Irving, and has an excellent A-list cast including Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, and Charles Durning. Structured like a straightforward spy thriller, it follows the story of ex-CIA agent Peter Sandza (Douglas) as he searches for his son Robin (Andrew Stevens), who has been duped by evil Government official Ben Childress (Cassavetes). The added twist is that Robin has powerful psychic powers, and his father seeks the aid of the young Gillian Bellaver (Irving) to find him, as she also has emerging comparable skills.