I don't know what I was doing in 1978: probably watching Claude Chabrol's Violette, or some other film that I thought was good for me. It was a period when I wasn't watching horror movies because I mistakenly thought they were too un-intellectual. This is my only excuse for having missed Piranha that year. Now, 33 years later, I finally caught up with it after finding it in the old movie rack at Best Buy for $10.
Piranha 3D, last year. So the 1978 Piranha seemed to me like a 2D remake of the much splashier 3D original, with the setting unaccountably moved to the 1970s, the budget lower, and the facial hair thicker. All told, Piranha 2D was much better than Piranha 3D. I say this even though I enjoyed Piranha 3D.
The test of a horror movie is how good the monster is, and Piranha 3D had pretty good monsters--well- designed, fast, luminous, toothy, CGI fish that nimbly slashed to pieces countless spring break frolickers. By comparison, Piranha barely showed its monsters: they were usually in shadow, or momentarily glimpsed through a fog of underwater blood. They were less destructive too, attacking in little bites, with relatively little damage shown, rather than peeling off whole appendages. Jerry O'Connell lost his manhood to a school of piranha that then played with their food underwater, all in 3D: that was the level of mayhem in Piranha 3D.
So why is Piranha better than Piranha 3D? Part of it is a better cast, particularly Barbara Steele and Heather Menzies, who played Louisa in The Sound of Music (1965) and, by the time of Piranha, was so grown up as to be flashing her breasts (though it happened so fast I have to wonder if they were stunt breasts). Part of Piranha's superiority is the showmanship of executive producer Roger Corman, the skill of director Joe Dante, and the effects work of people like Phil Tippett, Chris Walas, and Rob Bottin.
But here is the main thing: Piranha has better monsters. They are not shown clearly, but that very epistemic shroud, coupled with a chilling, whirring sound effect that signals their presence, allows the viewer to imagine their menace and feel their presence. They seem more real than the piranhas in the remake, which, just because we can all recognize CGI at work, look like digital cartoons despite their moderate effectiveness as monsters. The original piranhas don't destroy as quickly or completely as their remade cousins, but that too makes them seem more real: they have to work at eating. It's not a video game; it's a meal.
In the end, what is essential to a movie monster are 3 features: deformity, destructiveness, and being. The piranhas in both movies are deformed, in the sense that they do not behave the way that normal piranha behave (eg, they like cold water rather than tropical water). They are both destructive. But only the piranhas in Piranha really seem like beings. They seem obscure but actual, whereas the piranhas in Piranha 3D are luminous but fake.
In this blog, I will write more about horror movies and my theory of monsters as deformed destructive beings, or DDBs.
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films