Something fishy: Piranha and Piranha 3D (Some spoilers)


Occasionally Mr Exploitica and I play ‘If I had an Independent Cinema’.

This is a game for film nerds like us and involved picking the location, theme and films for our entirely fictional establishments. Mine of course would be Exploitica Pictures, probably be based in Bristol and feature the kinds of films I write about, with an odd Rocky Horror night thrown in for good measure. Seasons of films would also be important and one idea that crops up fairly often is a season of originals and remakes.

I rarely find remakes to be as good as the original films, only the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre really springs to mind as it manages to capture the ethereal beauty of the original 1922 film but also brings something new to the story. However Nosferatu is the exception as opposed to the rule and this is expressed very clearly in Piranha (1978) and Piranha 3D (2010).

Directed by Joe Dante Piranha is a spoof of the highly successful Jaws (1975) and tells of a school of genetically modified and highly aggressive piranha that are accidentally released from an army testing site and into a local river. Insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) and reclusive alcoholic Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) are caught up in trying to prevent the piranha from reaching a nearby summer camp where Grogan’s daughter is staying. The gore is limited, aside from when local hermit Jack (Keenan Wynn) is attacked while fishing in the river and has his legs stripped to the bone, and mainly consists of underwater shots of people flailing about while the ‘feeding’ soundtrack plays. The humour is knowing (Maggie playing a Jaws video game, a guest at the water park reading Moby Dick) but still works, and the piranha effects are a little at the ‘rubber shark’ end of the spectrum. But despite (or perhaps because) of these things Piranha is a fun little film with a good atmosphere, beautiful scenery, a sense of humour and a few suspenseful chills.

By contrast Piranha 3D erupts into a welter of CGI blood and gore. A sort of remake, Piranha 3D features the killer fish being released into Lake Victoria, Arizona, by means of a subterranean earthquake. The prehistoric little buggers have been trapped for thousands of years and are tired of gnawing on each other. Well good news, spring break is upon them and with it comes several hundred tasty college students just itching to get topless and wet (ooer). The piranha start by snacking on local fisherman Matt Boyd (Richard Dreyfus), whose bloodied remains are found by Sheriff Julie Forester (Elizabeth Shue). Despite this disturbing find the town doesn’t want to turn away the income it receives from the tourists and soon enough the killer fish are eating everything in sight, and as messily as they possibly can. Now I have no aversion to gore. Lucio Fulci is one of my favourite directors, which should tell you something of how I feel about the red stuff. However in Piranha 3D the gore is the film. Well about 50% of it. The other half is taken up with boobs, lots of them, to the point where Piranha 3D feels like an episode of Girls Gone Wild with lots of CGI gore. Ah, the CGI gore. This is another bugbear, though there are other films as guilty of pixelating their effects. It’s sad when genuine artistry, as shown by folks like Screaming Mad George and Tom Savini, have been put aside in favour of a twelve year old with a laptop. Piranha 3D tends to divide viewers between “zomg this movie has loads of tits and blood, it’s AWESOME” and “ARGH! fucking hell! tear out my eyes and lobotomise me!”

Really the main difference between Piranha and Piranha 3D is the fun. Piranha feels as though it was made by people who love films and enjoyed the filming process. It’s well acted and gives us characters we can care about. It’s difficult to care about the fates of any of the characters in Piranha 3D, most of them are so detestable. Even the two children, who I assume were added as sympathetic characters, don’t seem to be too troubled by the death and destruction about them.

So, I would suggest going to the chippy for a battered cod and getting a copy of Piranha (1978), maybe in a double bill with Ebirah Horror of the Deep (1966), for a night of fishy fun.

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Video Nasties

Protect the children! Typical moral outrage from the tabloid press.   See boobs on page 3.

Protect the children! Typical moral outrage from the tabloid press. See boobs on page 3.

After my previous entry about Zombie Flesh Eaters I thought I’d write a little about Video Nasties in general. As I mentioned ‘Video Nasty’ was a British term used to describe a number of schlock horror movies that were coming out on video in the early 1980s. Video recorders for home use started to become popular in the 1970s when European and Japanese technology enabled greater video capacity in a smaller, more sophisticated machine. At the time there was no legislation governing video content, except for the updated Obscene Publications Act (OPA) of 1959, which had been amended in 1977 to include pornographic videos.

While at the time many major distributors were reluctant to distribute their films through video the market became flooded with low-budget films, many of them continental, a lot of them horror films. Some of these films had received a certificate for theatrical release by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) but many hadn’t, and at the time videos didn’t require the same kind of legislation at theatrical releases. This allowed films with all manner of dodgy material being bought and rented out all over the UK. The trouble really began in 1982 when video distributors VIPCO (Video Instant Picture Company) and GO Video took out full page colour adverts for films like Driller Killer, SS Experiment Camp and Cannibal Holocaust in video magazines. The graphic imagery in the video boxes resulted in a number of complaints being issued to the Advertising Standards Agency and the magazines that had printed the adverts. This attracted the attention of the press and in May 1982 the Daily Star ran a story claiming that children were being exposed to these terrible films. The Sunday Times featured a story a few weeks later which used the term ‘nasties’ to describe the films.

If the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) felt that a film had breached the OPA then he or she could call to have a prosecution brought against the film’s producers, distributors and retailers. The police became empowered to seize videos if they believed the films contained material that breached the OPA and in the early 1980s raids on video shops increased, especially in Greater Manchester where the Chief Constable was devoutly Christian.

The apparently random seizures of various titles caused alarm in video retailers and they petitioned the DPP for a guideline so they could know what material may be seized. The DDP recognised the random elements in the raids and supplied a list of films that had been successfully prosecuted or that the DPP had filed charges against. This became known as the DPP List or the Video Nasties List.

However it was a publicity stunt by Go Video that really brought video nasties to public attention. In attempt to whip up controversy and therefore boost sales of Cannibal Holocaust Go Video wrote anonymously to the highly conservative social activist Mary Whitehouse a  to complain about their own film. Their plan backfired as Whitehouse sparked off a public campaign to have the films banned. With the growing media interest in video nasties parliament started taking notice and in 1983 Conservative MP Graham Bright introduced a Private Member’s Bill to the House of Commons. This was passed as the Video Recordings Act 1984 and came into effect on 1 September 1985

Under the act, the BBFC could regulate videos as well as theatrical releases. After the 1st of September 1985 all video releases, whether they had a theatrical release or not, had to be submitted for classification. Films released before then had to be re-submitted for classification. It became a criminal offence for anyone to supply videos classified as 15 or 18 to anyone under those ages.

Many of the films on the DPP list were either very heavily cut or banned outright and it seemed as if they’d never be released in their entirety. In December 1997 the BBFC stated that it had “never relaxed its guidelines on video violence”. However in response to a public consultation in 2000 the BBFC did begin to relax their guidelines and with James Ferman’s retirement as director of the BBFC many earlier films were re-appraised for classification. Many films on the DPP list have since been released uncut or with minor cuts.

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Review: Zombie Flesh Eaters


Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)
Aka: Zombi 2, Zombie and Woodoo
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Ian McCulloch, Tisa Farrow, Pier Luigi Conti, Auretta Gay, Richard Johnson and Olga Karlatos.

I came of age during the 1990s, and therefore missed most of the video nasties scandals that rocked UK video market in the early part of the 1980s. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Video Nasty” was used to describe a number of rather gory and explicit films being released into the UK, mostly through the distributor VIPCO. The tabloid press jumped on the bandwagon, and soon Video Nasties were making headlines with calls to ban these “sick” films. The Director of Public Prosecutions had a right to seize any films that seemed to breach the Obscene Publications Act, and raids on video hire shops were common, as films with even slightly dubious titles were taken. While some genuinely atrocious trash was picked up, there were a few gems in with the dross. The best known of these is probably The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi’s classic slapstick gore-fest, but Zombie Flesh Eaters also suffered under the BBFC’s knife.

Released in Europe under the title Zombi 2 in order to cash in on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which was known as Zombi on the continent), Zombie Flesh Eaters was the first supernatural based film from established Giallo and Spaghetti Western director Lucio Fulci. He went on to make City of the Living Dead, House by the Cemetery and The Beyond, a trio of Lovecraftian influenced zombie nightmares.

In Zombie Flesh Eaters an unmanned boat drifted into New York harbour, causing a danger to local shipping. While investigating the boat, a harbour patrolman is attacked by a hulking brute who kills him. The killer is shot and he falls into the sea while the dead patrolman is taken to the morgue. The police discover the boat belonged to Dr. Bowles and contact his daughter Ann (Tisa Farrow) to confirm that it is indeed his boat. It also attracts the attention of Peter West (Ian McCulloch), a journalist who is unsatisfied with the police explanation of what happened. They encounter each other on the boat and discover that Ann’s father left a note giving his location as the tropical island of Matool. Deciding to investigate together, Ann and Peter travel to the tropics and rope in a holidaying couple Bryan Hull and Susan Barrett (Pier Luigi Conti and Auretta Gay) to take them to Matool.

Once on Matool, the cast find that they won’t be drinking pina coladas by the pool or walking across peerless white sandy beaches in sarongs and flip flops. Matool is cursed by the living dead, who come back to “suck the blood of the living”. The only non-zombified inhabitants are Doctor Menard (Richard Johnson), a scientist friend of Farrow’s father trying to discover the source of the zombie infestation, Menard’s wife Paola (the beautiful Olga Karlatos), and a couple of Menard’s assistants.  There are also a large group of natives who you never see, but are referred to by the tribal drumming soundtrack which they provide.

Although the gore is intense which flesh munching aplenty, the film also has an eerie, eldritch quality about it, helped along by zombies which move very slowly, are almost completely silent and a haunting soundtrack which somehow turns them from mere shlock horror stooges into creepy ethereal phantoms with real menacing threat. Their makeup is crude, simply bits of clay stuck to their faces, but it works, making them genuinely flesh-crawling.

Fulci later returned to the ghostly supernatural zombie in his holy trinity of Lovecraft inspired films, the best of which is The Beyond, but as a Saturday night shocker or haunting visceral masterpiece, see Zombie Flesh Eaters. And remember, never lie down in a graveyard during a zombie apocalypse.


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Theatrical Origins Part Two: Grand Guignol


There have always been traces of horror in the theatre. From Greek Classical period tragedies like Oresteia where the battered and bloody remains of King Agamemnon are wheeled out for the audience to see, to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which features a scene where the Queen of the Gothi, Tamora, is tricked into eating her own children who have been baked into a pie, centuries before Mrs Lovett came along. However it was Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a former chapel and the smallest theatre in Paris that would have a lasting effect on the horror film.

Founded in 1894 by the novelist and playwright Oscar Méténier, the Grand Guignol was dedicated to naturalistic theatre, a style born out of the 19th century realism movement in the arts. Naturalistic theatre attempted to create as a perfect an illusion of real life on the stage as possible. It used detailed sets, everyday language as opposed to poetry, focused upon contemporary themes and used a style of acting that enhanced the impression of reality. Naturalistic theatre also tended to focus upon the stories of vagrants, prostitutes, urchins and included material dealing with poverty, racism, sex, disease, and destitution. Méténier was succeeded by Max Maurey who served as the theatre’s director between 1898 and 1914 and brought a new element to the theatre; horror.

Unlike the Classical and Shakespearian tragedies, Maurey’s performances showed murder and torture in grisly detail. He employed the playwright Andre de Lorde who wrote over a hundred plays for the theatre, sometimes collaborating with the psychologist Alfred Binet to write plays about mental illness, which would become one of the Grand Guignol’s frequent themes. Though the Grand Guignol showed a variety of plays, including comedy, the horror plays became the most popular due to their intense drama and use of gore. Most of the stories involved psychopathic murders, in which the motive was rarely reasoned and the perpetrators rarely caught.

In 1914 Camille Choisy became the Grand Guignol’s manager, bringing with him both his knowledge of special effects and the actress Paula Maxa, who was ‘murdered’ on stage more than ten thousand times. This earned her the title ”the most assassinated woman in the world” and her characters were frequently subjected to gruesome tortures and deaths which included strangulations, stabbings, shootings, decapitations, mutilations and decomposition, all in gory detail.

Jack Jouvin took over the Grand Guignol in 1930 and shifted the focus of the plays from horror to psychological drama. This coupled with the real life horrors of the Second World War was the beginning of the end for the theatre and its popularity waned. It limped on as a tourist attraction for several years until the Grand Guignol closed its doors to horror in 1962. The Grand Guignol building still stands  and is occupied by International Visual Theatre, a company which produces plays in sign language.

Its final horror director, Charles Nonon said in an interview after its closure:  ”We could never compete with Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone believed that what happened on stage was purely imaginary; now we know that these things–and worse–are possible.”

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Theatrical Origins Part One: Phantasmagoria


While Georges Méliès is generally considered to be the founding father of the horror film with his three minute long Le Manoir du Diable released in 1896, the origins of horror as a performance genre in its own right begin a hundred years earlier with Etienne Robertson’s introduction of fright to the magic lantern with his phantasmagoria.

Étienne-Gaspard Robert (stage name “Robertson”) was a Belgium stage magician who pioneered projection techniques. He studied physics at Leuven and specialised in optics before moving to Paris in 1791 to become an artist. While attending a magic lantern illusion show by Paul de Philipsthal in 1793, Robertson realised that through his understanding of optics, he could create more elaborate illusions and began work on a modified form of the magic lantern, which he named the Fantoscope.

Robertson developed his phantasmagoria show using his new technology which projected ghostly images and used actors and ventriloquists to add to the impression he was conjuring real phantoms. His show was shut down in 1799 due to belief that he really could bring the dead back to life and he was forced to reveal many of his tricks and techniques. He left Paris and he moved to Bordeaux, returning to Paris a few weeks later to discover that his former assistants had continued the show without him. Not one to be outdone, Robertson moved phantasmagoria to the ruined crypt of the Convent des Capucines and continued his performances. With Robertson’s techniques now made known, other theatres put on their own projection shows but none were as elaborate as Robertson’s.

In 1801 Paul de Philipsthal opened a production of phantasmagoria at the Lyceum Theatre in London where it was a great success. Previously de Philipsthal had been content to fool the audience and make them believe they were witnessing real ghostly apparitions. However during the Lyceum production he opened each performance with a statement making it clear that the phantoms were produced by optical tricks and were for entertainment only. Phantasmagoria moved to New York in 1803 and was successful in the atmosphere of the expanding frontier. Several other phantasmagoria shows opened in the United States but by the 1840s it had become antiquated.

The world of horror was ready for something else.

Coming next, Part Two: Grand Guignol

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Exploitica Has Risen from the Grave!


Welcome (back) to Exploitica!

Exploitica is an amateur blog focused on classic horror films, but occasionally dips a rotting toe into exploitation films, science fiction, fantasy and general cinema fantastique.

The aim is to bring to light some films that may be overlooked or unknown by cinema-goers looking  for thrills and chills. Exploitica promotes the eerie beauty of classic silent and early horror films, the fun of the fifties monster movies where science and horror collide and the squirming gut-crunching pleasure of the 70s and 80s splatter epics. I may cover new releases and more modern films, but the emphasis is on older pictures.

I had a short run during 2012 before abandoning Exploitica, but just like Dracula, we’re back from the dead and ready to sink into the depths of dark cinema.


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