Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Remake Comparison Addendum - Operation: Razorteeth


Cody and Priscilla take a look at the 1995 TV movie remake of Piranha.

A couple years ago, Priscilla and I wrote a Remake Comparison article on the 1976 Stephen King adaptation Carrie and its 2013 theatrical remake, then followed that up with an addendum article where we took a look at the 2002 TV movie version of Carrie. Now we're doing the same thing with the Piranha movies - we already wrote an article about the two versions of Piranha that get all the attention, Joe Dante's 1978 original and Alexandre Aja's 2010 3D take on the concept, but there is another version of Piranha out there in the world. A TV remake from 1995...

PIRANHA (1995)

In the mid-'90s, legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman teamed with the cable movie channel Showtime for a series of films that were aired under the banner "Roger Corman Presents", and among the movies made through that partnership were remakes of a handful of his more popular titles from the past - A Bucket of Blood, Humanoids from the Deep, The Wasp Woman, Not of this Earth (the Showtime version was the third version made of that movie), and the 1978 Joe Dante-directed Jaws cash-in Piranha.

While Dante and Piranha '78 screenwriter John Sayles are well-known names, the men tasked with taking over for them on the 1995 remake don't have the same level of recognition. The screenwriter who updated Sayles' script was Alex Simon, who also wrote the film The Alien Within for Corman the same year, and the director replacing Dante at the helm was Scott P. Levy, who also directed The Alien Within. Simon and Levy worked with Corman several times over the years, with their most notable credits (aside from Piranha) being on entries in the Bloodfist action franchise - Simon wrote Bloodfist VIII, while Levy was second assistant director on Bloodfist III and second unit director on Bloodfist V.

The remake sticks very close to the '78 film, in fact it's nearly a scene-for-scene re-do, just with some tweaks here and there. It even starts off the same way, with a young couple hiking through the wilderness on a moon-lit night and coming across a seemingly abandoned military testing facility. A facility centered around a pool. The girl, Barbara, is adventurous and horny, coming up with the idea that they should do some skinnydipping (and more) in the pool. Her boyfriend is nervous and is afraid of getting in trouble, especially since Barbara's uncle seems to be someone who could make his life difficult. But he's horny, too, so he follows Barbara's lead.

The first sign of trouble is when the guy feels a yanking sensation on his penis, and soon the couple are being devoured by the piranha that inhabit the pool.

Right from the start you can tell the budget isn't large at all. The facility, and especially the pool look so poor, you'd have trouble figuring that it used to be a military site. Also, from these first few scenes, it's hard to have faith in the movie... place is creepier (not in a good way), girl is sluttier, and her death is extremely lame.

One scene in and it's already clear that the writing and directing of this film is going to be of substantially lower quality than the '78 film. One thing I really don't like about this scene is how self-aware it is; the couple joke about the possibility of "slimy monsters" being in the pool, Barbara pretends that she's being attacked by something in the water (before she really is attacked), there are random references to Creature from the Black Lagoon and Attack of the Crab Monsters. Black Lagoon was referenced in the original as well, but in a much better way than here.

As it turns out, Barbara's uncle is wealthy land developer J.R. Randolph (Monte Markham), who hires private investigator Maggie McNamara (Alexandra Paul) - who has the best record in the detective agency she works for - to locate his missing niece before the grand opening of his latest property, the Lost River Resort, that weekend.

This Maggie is presented as being much more professional and competent than the Maggie in the original film. She may be better at her job, but she also comes off as being as rather bland character. Nothing about her really stands out.

She might be presented that way, but I don't think I'd hire her to find a missing relative.

Maggie seeks the help of Lost River local Paul Grogan (William Katt), a reclusive author who seems to only have regular interactions with two people - his drinking buddy Jack (James Brodhead), who stops by weekly, and his young daughter Susie (Mila Kunis), who visits him during the summer but is currently off at summer camp for a few days. Paul is reluctant to help at first, but informs Maggie that there is an abandoned military site nearby. Maggie tells him "You're taking me there", and that's that for his resistance.

At least she knocked before entering his home this time around.

The dialogue in Paul and Maggie's first scene together is nearly lifted straight out of Sayles' script, but there is an extra line in there where Maggie explains why she went to Paul. She was referred to him; in the '78 film she just seemed to show up at his cabin at random.

Making it feel less random is a plus in my book. I've always found that scene quite strange in Piranha '78.

Paul and Maggie look around the abandoned military site, and when she finds a necklace that belonged to Barbara at the edge of the pool she decides they need to find a way to drain it. They look around inside a laboratory and find a drain switch, and as soon as the switch is flipped they are attacked by a hysterical woman wielding a hook. A struggle ensues, ending with the woman being knocked unconscious.

What a small, messy place. Does not look professional at all. It looks more like some madman experiment basement, not like a laboratory.

There are some bottled up sea creatures in this laboratory set, but no little stop-motion monster running around the place like in Dante's movie. I missed that weird little thing.

I do not miss it, it's way too silly. I like it that they didn't include it in this version of the movie.

The military site looks like hell since it's been abandoned, but this place never would have been impressive looking. Even the piranha pool is just a small above-ground pool with a crappy wooden deck built around it.

My point precisely.

We'll come to find out that this woman was Dr. Leticia Baines, played by Darleen Carr. In the '78 film this character was a man named Robert Hoak and played by Kevin McCarthy.

With the pool drained, Paul and Maggie continue their investigation, with Maggie taking a taste test of remaining water to discover it's saltwater. They also discover a rib cage in there - a dog's? - before they're distracted by the sound of Baines stealing the Jeep they drove to the site in. Still groggy from being knocked out, Baines doesn't get too far before she swerves to avoid a deer and crashes the vehicle.

By draining the pool, Paul and Maggie have unwittingly released the piranha into Lost River. Baines clearly needs medical attention, but without the Jeep they're going to have to transport her on a raft that Paul built for Susie after she read Huckleberry Finn. They'll take Baines down to a dam and hand her over to a ranger there. So the three get on the raft and start floating down the now piranha-infested waters.

The first person to realize there are piranha in the river is Jack, who is killed when his legs are chewed to the bone as he sits on a dock. The raft soon reaches Jack's place, where the man's corpse is discovered. Knowing his buddy wouldn't want to be buried in town, Paul buries him right there.

It always seems very strange to me when movies have characters just bury people wherever they want. Whether it would have been the person's wishes or not, this has to be a decision that is going to cause them trouble later on.

And they usually do it very fast, without notifying anyone. So weird.

They have to spend the night in Jack's cabin, and during the night Baines starts to regain consciousness, ranting about something called Razorteeth, "they breed", "they'll kill me".

In the original film, Paul and Maggie had sex during their first night together while a ranting Hoak was in their care. The remake doesn't have a scene that implies they get intimate, the night ends with the Baines scene and the film jumps ahead to the next day, when the three people and Jack's dog Brandy are floating down the river on the raft.

Removing the "first night sex" is a choice I can agree with, because I found Maggie's out of nowhere seduction of Paul in the original to be somewhat baffling.

And out of place as well. I share this opinion. Works better this way.

Now fully conscious, Baines is questioned about what was going on at the military site and why she's acting so crazy. Baines spills details on something she calls Operation: Razorteeth - genetic experimentation, radiation, behavior modification, and selective breeding went into the process of creating bigger, badder piranha that can breed quicker and survive in any type of water with the purpose of destroying enemy river systems, specifically in Eastern Europe / Russia. Then Razorteeth's funding was cut.

Sayles' script had the piranha being bred to be set loose in Vietnam during the war. It's a ridiculous idea, but it makes more sense to me than the thought of using them in Europe.

Same here. It sounds pretty ridiculous. Also, it's very disappointing that not even the scientist character knows how to pronounce the word "piranha" correctly in the '95 movie. No one does.

Paul doesn't believe Baines' story, even though he saw Jack's corpse. Unfortunately, the story is quickly proven true when Brandy sees the piranha swimming in the water and jumps in to attack them.

The remake switches scenes around in a way that doesn't make much sense. In the original, Jack's body wasn't found until after the scientist had told them that the river was full of carnivorous fish, so that was used as proof. Here Paul doesn't even question what happened to Jack's legs.

The dog is eaten in front of the humans, and when she's dead there's, somehow, a severed piranha head left in the water for Paul to examine.

I guess we're supposed to assume that the dog bit the piranha's head off, but without a shot of such a thing occurring it seems like the piranha's head just fell off on its own.

The piranha soon claim more victims. A fisherman is eaten in front of his son, leaving the boy stranded on their capsized canoe. When the raft reaches the canoe, Baines jumps into the water to help the kid onto the raft and ends up getting killed as well.

The way the scene is shot makes absolutely no sense. It's obvious that Baines would fail miserably if she tried to help by jumping in the water that way, when the raft was less than a second away. Another bizarre, almost confusing moment.

The killer fish are heading toward the same dam the raft is floating toward - and that dam is about to be opened, which will let the piranha downstream toward the camp and the soon-to-be-opened resort. It becomes a race against time as Paul and Maggie try to get to the dam before it's opened. They barely make it - the blood from Baines' body has soaked the ropes holding the raft together, enticing the fish to tear into them. The raft falls apart beneath the characters as they reach the shore.

The two scenes are highly effective in the original, yet in this movie they're both uninteresting and lacking... the ropes being chewed up by the piranha, and Paul rushing to stop the dam from being opened.

Paul stops the dam from being opened, and when the police arrive they take the fisherman's son off to safety. In Dante's film, the military showed up at this point, accompanied by another scientist familiar with the piranha project. Here, the local sheriff simply gets in contact with the Defense Department and is told there was no such thing as Operation: Razorteeth.

Cutting corners to keep that budget down!

Knowing that there's a stream that will allow the piranha to bypass the dam and get to the camp and resort anyway, Paul tries to get the sheriff to have those places evacuated and to convince Randolph to cancel the resort's grand opening. Even though Randolph got Paul and Maggie started down this path, his investment in the resort is more important than anything else - not only does he refuse to change his plans, he even has the sheriff lock Paul and Maggie up for the night. There are no charges filed, the police are in Randolph's pocket and Paul and Maggie are his "guests" in the jail.

Throughout the film, Paul and Maggie's misadventures have been intercut with a subplot involving Paul's daughter Susie and her experience at camp. Susie is an outsider who is picked on by the other kids because she's afraid of the water, she won't go in it at all. While a kind counselor named Laura (Soleil Moon Frye) does her best to take the kid under her wing, another counselor, Kehli O'Byrne as Gina, puts her down and antagonizes her, even mocking her for not receiving mail.

I still don't get why Paul - or his ex for that matter - weren't sending Susie any letters. Kid just seems completely abandoned and uncared for.

And I don't blame Susie for being afraid; the water is one of the worst looking I've ever seen.

As in the original, there is a scene where the friendly counselor tells the kids a scary campfire story. While the scene in the military site laboratory, with its absence of unusual creatures, could be used as an example of the remake lacking the quirky irreverence of the '78 version (and a stop-motion effects budget), the campfire scene is itself a sign that the '95 version is lacking something the earlier film had, whether it's time, money, or vision. Even something as simple as the campfire scene had a nice stylistic touch, like a huge moon in the background, in the original, while the campfire scene here is very straightforward and bland.

No atmosphere. I'd blame acting and directing in this particular case.

Susie is somewhat overshadowed by something else that's going on around her - her fellow campers have been invited to star in a commercial for the Lost River Resort that's being directed by a man named Terry Wechsler (Leland Orser). After making something of a spectacle of herself during the commercial shoot by trying to take the attention away from the kids, Gina invites Terry to go skinnydipping with her that night. Skinnydipping only, nothing else. She's a good girl.

This is when the two storylines first collide: since Terry can't swim, Gina ends up in the water alone. And gets eaten by the piranha.

I don't think adding this plot line was successful at all. Adding the commercial shooting crew only resulted in Gina being killed by the piranha, which would have happened later on anyway. And the scene isn't great, either.

The original Maggie masterminds a jailbreak using ideas she picked up from a past investigation involving a plumber. This Maggie masterminds a jailbreak using ideas she saw in a movie about an incarcerated plumber. Regardless of where she got the idea, it works.

The cop Maggie has to knock out as they escape may be my favorite person in the movie, thanks to lines like his reaction to a loud noise - "Sweet Jesus, what's going on in here? It sounded like the damn roof fell out of the goddamn place."

Trouble is already brewing by the time Maggie and Paul get out of jail. Not only is the resort grand opening going ahead as planned, but the campers - except for Susie, who is watching from the shore - are having a water competition. The piranha reach the camp first, feasting on every bit of camper and counselor flesh they can sink their teeth into.

Seeing a camper in distress, Laura jumps onto an inner tube and goes out to try to help the kid. When Susie sees that Laura is having trouble, she overcomes her fear and goes out on the water in an inflatable raft. She's not able to save Laura, but she does save the kid Laura was trying to help.

This is one scene that worked very well in Piranha '95. Makes you feel bad for Laura and for Susie.

As Laura dies, there's a shot of her sinking in the water that's just like the shot Dante got of friendly counselor Betsy sinking in the water in his film.

Piranha '95 re-uses a lot of special effects footage from Piranha '78, so I wouldn't be surprised if this shot were stock footage as well. I don't know if it is or not, though.

Susie is left to handle the situation at the camp as Paul and Maggie speed off to the resort, hoping to stop another massacre from happening there. Again, they're too late. By the time they reach the resort, the piranha are already eating the guests and anyone else unlucky enough to be in the water. Divers are killed, a fishing boat is smashed, a jet ski crashes into an exploding speedboat.

That explosion is amusingly dumb. After the speedboat runs over the fishing boat, the engine sputters out and starts smoking. A passenger immediately realizes, "It's gonna explode!"

One of my favorite moments. I laughed.

Paul and Maggie have failed at helping anyone at the camp or resort, but they do still have a chance at stopping the piranha from continuing on out into the ocean. At a point where the waterway narrows is a closed down smelting plant that Paul has some familiarity with. If Paul can drain the smelting tanks, they can pollute the piranha to death. Problem is, the smelting plant is flooded, so Paul has to go underwater to reach the dump valve...

I'm not sure what Paul's connection to the smelting plant is in this film. The '78 Paul had worked at the plant before it was closed down. In this one, there's reference to Paul having lost some kind of lawsuit filed by environmentalists that resulted in the smelting plant being closed down, but it's not explained what that lawsuit was. Was Paul a lawyer? He defended the plant and lost?

One of the biggest problems the '95 version has is that it's painfully obvious not much effort was put into making it. They figured they would just copy the original with tiny tweaks here and there without much thought. It didn't work. Made it messy and a bit confusing at times.

Jack was complaining to Paul about pollution earlier, so it would have been more interesting if Paul was actually an anti-pollution crusader who purposely got the plant shut down. Then he has to make this decision to kill the fish by releasing the pollution. But that's not what's going on in this movie.

The piranha suffer the same fate they did in '78, but as the Governor (played by James Karen) assures the citizens that the threat has been taken care of, shots at a beach indicate that some of the piranha have reached the ocean after all.

Piranha '95 isn't a terrible movie, but it's not a movie I would say you really need to see, either. It's just Piranha '78 all over again, but substantially lower quality. Writing, directing, production value, it all pales in comparison to what was accomplished seventeen years earlier.

Unless seeing Mila Kunis as a little girl, with only a couple of lines, acting awkward and almost out of place is something you'd want to watch, I can't think of any reason why I'd recommend Piranha '95 to anyone. It's not the worst movie ever, but it really doesn't have much going for it. Just stick with the original, and you'll be better off.

Sayles and Dante elevated a silly, cash-in premise to such a degree that they managed to get the Steven Spielberg seal of approval. Nothing is being elevated in the '95 version - it's clearly perfectly content with being a mid-'90s TV movie and nothing more. Something to fill out a cable station's program schedule for a while, then fade away. The existence of Piranha '95 has been largely forgotten because there's nothing particularly memorable about it.

Like I said, there's no effort...they didn't try to make it better, they just wanted to copy the '78 movie. I didn't even know this version existed, until Cody told me about it.

It's now an obscure curiosity. "Did you know there was a Piranha remake before that 3D Alexandre Aja movie? Maybe we should check it out." If you liked the original Piranha and don't mind seeing what it would be like if it had been a generic TV movie, find Piranha '95 and satisfy that curiosity.

And have some laughs. If anything, there are some pretty funny moments in there... intentional or not. To be fair, there were some good choices like not having the weird creature in the military facility, and Paul and Maggie not having sex, but the movie itself is pretty lackluster. Not awful, but definitely not great.

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