I talk a lot about the independent producer-writer-director Roger Corman, who was one of the major forces at American International Pictures back in ’60s before branching out and creating his own New World Pictures, purveyors of fine schlock and exploitation cinema of all types. I find him particularly interesting because, as a director he has achieved some very artful and compelling films on a shoestring, but as a producer, he’s intensely shrewd and will do anything to make a buck. The latter category is what spawned (pun tended) the 1978 Jaws rip-off Piranha, a movie that’s way better than it should be.
In much the same way he did with Bogdanovich and Targets, Corman told young filmmaker Joe Dante to make a movie to capitalize on the Jaws phenomenon, and Dante and screenwriter John Sayles being who they are, they infused it with references to classic B sci-fi movies, populated it with genre favorites, and added a thread of oddball humor. They created something Corman–notoriously against humor in his horror movies–wouldn’t like but would make a lot of money. That Piranha actually performed well is a testament to the world’s desire to see people get eaten by fish.
If Jaws is about a massive fish (shark), then for the low-budget version, how about a bunch of little fish? And if the blockbuster took place on an idyllic summer beach, the smaller version could take place on and around a river. And if only one little kid is attacked in the Spielberg movie, then by God let’s have a whole summer camp get attacked in this movie. And then at a river resort, because why not? The set-up is just as simple as that: take a number of memorable scenes and ideas from Jaws and make them take place along a river and lake. Oh, and with scientifically enhanced fish, because it’s a Corman movie after all. The little tiny nibblers actually manage to be scary!
The story’s a bit convoluted in that very enjoyable John Sayles way. A couple of campers happen upon a disused research facility in the mountains and decide to dive into their condemned pool (like ya do), only to be attacked and killed by…something. The hikers are reported missing and an insurance company dispatches a plucky-quirky P.I. (Heather Menzies) to go find out what happened to them. Meanwhile, a hapless drunk (Bradford Dillman) whose young daughter is at summer camp down the river spends all day in a cabin getting wasted. When the P.I. comes asking questions, she eventually hires him to be her guide. That takes them to the research facility where they come across the mad scientist (Kevin McCarthy) who had experimented on piranha for the government to make them exist in colder fresh water and up their killing ability. Without realizing it, his small stockpile of piranha gets released by the two searchers.
From here, the movie becomes the P.I. and the drunk attempting to get down river as quickly as possible to warn someone about the piranha, the military interceding–they knew what was going on the whole time–and trying to discredit them, and us waiting for the inevitable to hit the summer camp. The camp stuff is especially harrowing; the drunk’s daughter is afraid of the water, but the militaristic camp director (Paul Bartel) tries to force her to swim. Two nice, pretty counselors (Dante staple Belinda Balaski and future soap opera staple Melody Thomas) help the daughter out, and do their best to save the campers once the piranha do show up, but you know one of them won’t make it, and it gives the film one of its true tragic deaths.
The most impressive thing about the movie is the consistent tone that manages to balance the goofy humor and the genuine scares. Dante and Sayles would go on to collaborate on 1981’s The Howling, which tries to strike the same kind of tone, and the bulk of Dante’s films later took this further, like Gremlins, Gremlins II: The New Batch, The ‘Burbs, and Matinee. There’s subtle jokes in there that make it especially funny, like how every ten seconds Dillman’s character takes a sip of some alcoholic beverage, or how every single police officer or security guard is as stupid as any Keystone Cop. Really offsets the intense carnage of meat-eating, ravenous fish.
Joe Dante began his penchant for casting people from movies he grew up with bright and early on this film. On top of McCarthy (who was in the original and remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the film also features Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove and Once Upon a Time in the West, among many others), Barbara Steele (Black Sunday and The Pit and the Pendulum), and his good luck charm Dick Miller who went on to be in every single Joe Dante movie henceforth.
Piranha is an immeasurably enjoyable film-watching experience. It’s got the requisite gore and creature effects–even a real weird and unexplained stop-motion fish creature created by the great Phil Tippett–but has a good sense of humor about itself, the kinds of movies its aping, and the kinds of people who might succumb to such a weird outbreak. Dante would become one of the most beloved genre filmmakers of the era and a head on any cult film fan’s Mt. Rushmore. Enjoy Piranha in a living room full of friends and have a great night.
Images: New World Pictures