Thursday, January 1, 2009


The title gives you fair warning. While the film is advertised in Mill Creek Entertainment's Nightmare Worlds box set as Piranha, Piranha, the first thing you see is the single word "Piranha." Your first thought might be, "Not enough piranhas," and you might think that again during the film. But to be fair, Bill Gibson's movie was originally called just plain Piranha, but was retitled, I presume, to avoid confusion with the later Joe Dante film. But however you slice it, the title is misleading until it's finally explained well into the movie that the hunter Caribe's (pronounced "ka-ribby" for the most part) name means "piranha." He's the first human character we see after some opening jungle scenery. After some monkeys get caught in traps and protest their plight, we see William Smith laugh at them. We don't know who he is at this point, but we can guess he's a bad guy.

The scene shifts to the Caracas airport, where Jim Pendrake meets the brother-sister team of Arthur and Terry Greene, who've come to Venezuela to do a photo essay on diamond mining. That's Terry's job, actually, while Arthur's seems to be chasing women and playing the ugly American. Jim stops at a sporting-goods store to buy supplies, including a gun, but Terry tells him not to bring firearms -- "I mean it, damn you!" After plenty of travelogue footage, the trio are on their way on two motorcycles, Terry riding reluctantly with Jim.

Early on, when Terry's menaced by a rattlesnake, Jim reveals that he did bring a gun, enraging the ungrateful Terry. Arthur offers to explain why she hates guns, but Jim doesn't want to hear it-- guaranteeing that we'll hear it later, and that it'll be meaningful for the rest of the film.

Over more location footage, we hear the love theme from Piranha (Piranha): "Love All Things That Love the Sun," with lyrics like, "Tell me what you love, and I'll tell you who you are." It's of its period and so fits with the movie. During a refreshment stop at El Milagro, they meet the poacher from the opening scene wearing a perverse grin. Smith attempts to befriend the Greene party, but Jim Pendrake recognizes him as Caribe (remember, that's "ka-ribby"), whom he identifies to the Greenes as "one of South America's most renowned ... hunters."

"What do you hunt?" Terry asks.

"Everything," Caribe answers. Terry objects: "Don't you feel the pain and terror of the animals?" "The hunter feels only the excitement of the chase," Caribe explains, "Better the predator than prey." The ... hunter has certain notions about human nature and human history, dating back to the first Australopithecines fighting each other. Man has a violent instinct, he insists.

You'd believe this guy has a violent instinct, right?

William Smith as Caribe in PIRANHA, PIRANHA (image from

"Did you ever ride a bike?" Jim intervenes, "You know, vroom vroom vroom, a motorcycle?" I don't know if William Smith was well enough established as a star of biker movies by this point for this bit to be an in-joke, but it probably seems that way to cult film followers now. The point, in any event, is that Jim challenges Caribe to a motorcycle race. A completely gratuitous sequence follows which is picturesque with POV shots, nice stunt riding by Smith, and a bit where a group of gauchos join the chase, but it stops the plot dead for several minutes and serves as another instance of padding in this 89-minute feature. Suffice it to say that Caribe overcomes some early adversity to come from behind and beat Pendrake, scaring cows and jumping over an alligator in the process. During all this, Arthur's relaxing on a hammock while a native warns him that Caribe is "peligroso," which Mr. Greene takes to mean he's a big man.

Now that Jim's gotten whatever out of his system, it's off to the diamond mines. We get plenty of presumably documentary footage that establishes the squalor of the setting. While Arthur inquires about diamonds, Terry goes deeper into the jungle and Caribe indulges his hunting impulse. Then he seems to snap when he sees Terry washing a cut foot in a stream. He drops his prize and grabs her, hauling her to shore as Art and Jim freak out. But when he explains that Terry was wading barefoot, Jim lectures her about the danger of eels and other creatures.

Caribe invites the gang to his place. On the way, he explains about his name, tells Terry that she's also a hunter, albeit with a camera, and expounds his spiritual principles:

I can taste the very soul of every animal I hunt....What I hunt becomes a part of me, lives on in me. Someday I'll be outhunted and I'll become a part of that hunter. But the hunt will go on.

As further illustration, he bags a vulture and gets slapped by Terry for his trouble. He explains that he has to try out a new gun for his upcoming hunt of "El Tigre," which we later learn is a jaguar that he saved from an anaconda once upon a time. Meanwhile, Jim's finally ready to learn why Terry hates guns. Arthur explains that she saw her drunken mother blow her dad's brains out one fine night. "I guess that explains it," Jim concedes. "Does it?" Arthur wonders.

Now things fall apart. While Art and Jim travel on the river, Caribe stalks Terry on shore and rapes her. When Arthur finds out, he calls out Caribe and pursues him into the jungle with a machete. Caribe gets the drop on him, stabs him and kicks him into waters infested with ... piranhas! Fearing the worst, Jim urges Terry to flee with him, but now Caribe's blood is up, and he challenges Jim. He sets fire to a village so they'll have no hiding place, but Jim manages to wing him from ambush. But even a one-armed Caribe is more than a match for the unexpectedly feeble Pendrake. A drawn-out, one-sided battle ensues that seems only to amuse Caribe, leaving one person to save the day in perhaps predictably ironic fashion....

It must be stressed again that Piranha (Piranha) is a very padded film. The odd thing is that I'd keep a lot of the location/travelogue footage and lose the motorcylce race. Low-budget location shoots like this one sometimes achieve an atmospheric minimalism that makes up for other lacks with a strong sense of place. It's also easier for films like this to attain that transcendent quasi-documentary state that enhances their interest for me. For me, also, the small cast in the convincingly isolated location enhances Caribe's menace; you get the feeling that it is muy peligroso to be around that guy. William Smith deserves credit for that, too. He's an on-and-off performer, but he was clearly on here, or on enough for the purpose. Ultimately, if you're more interested in mood and atmosphere than efficient storytelling, you may find this effort diverting. I'm not sure what it's doing in the Nightmare Worlds set, which has a sci-fi orientation, but I'd count it toward making that box worth its usually discounted price.

1 comment:

venoms5 said...

This played on a local channel back in the early 80's under the PIRANHA, PIRANHA title. I remember virtually nothing about it. William Smith has always been a favorite actor of mine though and he can usually be counted on as a bright spot in just about anything he appears in. RUN, ANGEL, RUN (1969) is another fine Smith role and one of the best of the biker flicks.