Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on February 21, 2003, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Question: You’re on a tropical island, participating in a fraternity/sorority scavenger hunt for exotic underwear, and you come across a large, sculpted clay demon effigy that supernaturally comes to life and bludgeons your boyfriend to death with a club. Would you—as a girl who experiences just such a situation in this film does—repeatedly call this object a piñata both before and after it transforms into a walking killer? Nothing about this creature suggests why anyone would think of it as a piñata, yet that’s how everyone in the movie refers to it, even after the thing evolves into a loping, red-eyed monster and then into a third incarnation that flies through the air.

The only reason anyone would consider this beast a piñata is because they’re in a movie called Piñata, whose creators are bound and determined to make this premise come off as legitimate. (Distributor First Look apparently wasn’t convinced, and gives the Survival Island subtitle far more prominence on the packaging.) But the fact remains that this is the silliest concept for a cinematic monster since…well, a killer leprechaun or snowman, and the unlikely successes of the Leprechaun and Jack Frost video franchises might have suggested to directing/writing/producing brothers David and Scott Hillenbrand that the evil-piñata thing was viable. Certainly they come off as committed to their project on the DVD’s audio commentary, taking the idea very seriously (even as they admit that the central inspiration for their monster stemmed from Jewish, not Latin, mythology).

They express equal enthusiasm about the CGI FX that bring the monster to life in its latter two stages—another case where it seems sadly misguided, for the digital incarnations resemble nothing so much as escapees from a PlayStation game. On a behind-the-scenes featurette included on the disc, one of the CG artisans bluntly states that his work was required because the original live-action creature “wasn’t scary enough.” Yet whatever one thinks of this Chiodo Brothers creation (at least, when one can see it through all the postproduction blurring), it at least seems to actually be there, interacting with the performers. The computer beast exists at a disconnect from everything around it, and is thus not remotely scary or believable. Its use also undercuts plausibility at the climax: After appearing unstoppable and invincible in its CGI form, the monster reverts back to its three-foot, live-action, much more vulnerable-seeming guise when it’s convenient for the protagonists to destroy it.

It’s something of a shame to dis the end result of the Hillenbrands’ efforts, since the commentary reveals them to be knowledgeable and serious about filmmaking, and they don’t come off as using the horror genre as a stepping stone (though their latest project bears the plain-white-package title A College Sex Comedy)—but they might be advised to seek out a more plausible menace next time around. They certainly have a good amount of technical facility, as the film appears quite polished in this transfer; though presented fullscreen (with little obvious cropping), the picture is sharp and largely lacking grain and artifacting, its blood reds and jungle greens bold and stable. More than once, the guys point out the directional audio effects created for the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack, and this is one case, at least, where their excitement seems justified.

The nicest touch among the supplements is to use the movie’s narration of the creature’s legend over corresponding behind-the-scenes video of the Chiodos putting together the monster outfit. There’s plenty of good stuff in this featurette (including before-and-afters of the original creature footage and the CG replacements), even as it hardly convinces that the computer work is an improvement. The minidoc is titled “Making of the Monster” or “Creation of the Creature,” depending where on the menus you look; a similar confusion in nomenclature occurs in the cast filmographies, which appear (like so many these days) to be pulled from the IMDb and refer to this film as Demon Island.

There’s also a text biography of the Hillenbrands, in type so tiny that a projection TV is probably necessary to read it. And that flaw exists twice on the disc as well; the still gallery consists of groups of postage stamp-sized photos with no option to enlarge them.

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