From The King of Guerrilla Filmaking: ‘Piranha’ and ‘Humanoids from the Deep’

Prepare yourself for more of a celebration than a review. Shout! Factory’s series of Roger Corman Cult Classics makes me want to stand up and applaud.

If we go with the theory that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, then Corman’s body of work is a national treasure to many film-lovers. An impresario of schlocky, low-budget horror, sci-fi and action films, he became best known for a series of classic Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price and written by sci-fi horror master Richard Matheson. Subsequent low-brow triumphs included Little Shop of Horrors, Rock and Roll High School and Galaxy of Terror. Don’t forget Sharktopus.

Corman’s B-movies always made money, always drew crowds, and eventually became genre classics. His audience demanded gritty, zany, scary fun, something big studio films bankrolled by big studio budgets only gave in half-measures. Corman films drew on the popular culture zeitgeist but also showed audiences what no mainstream film dared. Budget limitation allowed Corman and his merry band of pranksters to be adventurous and the results were (usually) inspired.

Shout! Factory’s most recent releases are Humanoids from the Deep (1980) and Piranha (1978), the latter getting a 3-D remake this summer. Both of these films drew from the Jaws craze and the popular disaster movie genre. In both movies (and much like Steven Spielberg’s Amity Island) we see small resort and/or fishing communities besieged by a terror from the depths. Both of these threats are sea monsters, a Creature from the Black Lagoon rip-off who wants to mate with human women in Humanoids, and flesh-chewing killer fish in Piranha.

Corman knew that B-movie audiences demanded naughty excess. In his films, breasts bounce unbidden out of bathing suits. Family pets get slaughtered on screen. Little kids get gnawed by vicious monster-fish. Jaws showed blood in the water but Corman happily shows torn bodies and gored heads floating when his creatures attack. Sick humor abounds. Particularly in Humanoids, the sexual subtext of films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon rather uncomfortably makes its way into the text as mutated salmon seek to mate with human women (yeah, you read that right).

Corman films are documents of the moment in ways that go beyond theme and genre. He almost always went for social and political subtext. In Humanoids local notables in the little town of Noyo are hoping to bring a cannery to town. Their leader is Slattery, a one-dimensional jackass played by Vic Morrow whose Caucasian ‘fro is well worth the price of the film. He is opposed by a local Native American activist who gets a “minority lawyer” to fight the town. It turns out that scientists working with the cannery are responsible for mutating the fish into the horny Humanoids.

These efforts at social consciousness never get preachy. This being a Corman film, humor softened the righteous indignation. One of the great lines of the film has the Native American activist pointing at Vic Morrow and swearing “I’ll stop your cannery, Slattery!” The aesthetic of a Corman feature is that he and his directors knew lines like this were howlingly bad, but also howlingly funny. He could scare you, make you giggle, and score political points along the way.

Piranha, with a script written by John Sayles, also features mutated monsters, this time the result of the maleficence of the military-industrial complex. Kids eager to skinny-dip in a water-treatment facility get gnawed to pieces by the munchy mutants (que breasts and blood). We learn that the piranhas are a result of an effort a creating a weaponized fish to destroy the river system of North Vietnam. Finding their way into an American river they assault a resort, killing swimmers galore. The film was released opposite Jaws 2 and was so clearly an effort to snag part of the market for killer-fish frenzy that Universal pictures filed an injunction against New World, Corman’s production company.

Formulaic plots with rather absurd conceits drive both films, but there is also a sly craftsmanship in them and a creativity that becomes genius through refusing to take itself seriously. You never quite forget that the Humanoid creatures are guys in rubber suits — but they are pretty convincing rubber suits. Corman’s SFX guys knew how to stage complex, and pretty dangerous, explosions and car wrecks. The pacing of the films are nearly perfect and the direction left plenty of room for ad libs that often worked in context. B-roll footage gave the films an odd cinema verite quality.

Humanoids from the Deep

Corman helped shape the film landscape we know today. His films became the finishing school for a whole generation of Hollywood’s most talented actors, directors and FX specialists. Corman’s production company famously provided a launch pad for the careers of Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola. Humanoids featured the SFX work of Robert Bottin who later worked pre-CGI magic for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Joe Dante, of Howling fame directed Piranha while the great, but cheap, special effects were directed by Phil Tippit, later SFX director for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Shout ! Factory has been releasing the Corman classics both in well-scrubbed DVD format and Blu-Ray. My review copies included one DVD transfer and one Blu-Ray. As with many older films, the transfer from the original prints only leaves some small, if telling, differences between the Blu-Ray and regular format transfers. Shout! Factory did a good job on both formats but the colors are a bit less washed out and the lines smoother on the Blu-Ray edition.

The extras for both films are gold for Corman aficionados. Lots of deleted material out of the vault appears for both films as well as interviews with Corman and his passionate craftsmen. The “Making Of” features rise above the normal fare. We learn, for example, that the director and original actors were furious when a psychological thriller they thought was going to be called Beneath the Darkness was transformed into the gonzo exploitation feature Humanoids from the Deep once Corman and his second unit director finished splicing in blood, gore and T and A eruptions. Piranha’s extras include more interviews with Corman, Joe Dante and Phil Tippit and a “Behind the Scenes” reel that even has footage of the cast and crew buying beer and hanging out in the Holiday Inn, circa 1977.

Genre fans and film buffs will have to have these classics for their libraries. Ironically, Corman’s celluloid fantasies are the source for today’s genre films made for hundreds of millions of dollars, the majority of which have neither the spirit nor the spark of the master’s down-at-the-heels classics. Roger Corman once said he could make a film about the fall of the Roman Empire “with two actors and some sage brush.“ I’d watch that.

RATING 8 / 10