Joe Dante’s first movie-proper, complete with a singularly solo directorial credit, in which he’s armed with John Sayles first screenplay (rewriting Richard Robinson’s effort), Piranha has considerable fun riffing on Jaws (from the very start; a character plays a delightfully basic Jaws arcade game over the opening credits). It was a little late to the party, admittedly, surfacing a very un-cash-in-like three years down the line (so much so that Universal’s own cash-in Jaws 2, from which Spielberg demurred involvement, was released two months earlier). You can see a huge step up aesthetically between this and Dante’s next film, The Howling, but Piranha’s tongue-in-cheek scares effectively establish the director’s approach to both horror and humour; the DNA of the maker of Gremlins is all over Piranha.
Reputedly, Universal were all set to sue over Piranha copying Jaws, but Spielberg intervened when he saw and liked the film (he considered it the best of the Jaws rip-offs). For a studio known for its quickies, it took New World a long time to bring it all together. Peter Fonda turned the movie down because he didn’t think the effects would work (Bradford Dilman took the role). To his credit, Corman didn’t think it was worth doing if the effects didn’t work, and to be fair, they still look pretty good, thanks to sped up footage and an aural accompaniment that resembles a hive of sub-aqua bees. Rob Bottin and Phil Tippet provided the effects, both of whom went on to great acclaim in their fields over the next decade.
For his part, Dante was convinced the movie was terrible (he had wanted to direct Rock and Roll High School, on which he filled in for his Hollywood Boulevard co-director Allan Arkush for a couple of days), despite the cutting and recutting he did, so its success came as a surprise. Hollywood being prone to thinking out of the box, he would subsequently be offered the watery likes of Orca 2 and Jaws 3 People 0 (the latter might have been the Jaws sequel equivalent of his later Gremlins 2, a decade early). The plot is replete with the usual essentials of such horror fare, mostly involving people doing really dumb things, but there’s a knowingness swimming through Piranha that complements the daftness. This is, after all, the sea (river) menace as a full-blown science fiction beastie.
Dr Hoak: Of course, they paid. There’s germ warfare, the bomb, chemical warfare. There’s plenty of money, special agencies. They pay. They pay a lot better than they do in private research.
The piranhas have been bred in “some kind of army test site up the mountain”, through messing with genetics and radiation as part of Operation Razorteeth, overseen by Kevin McCarthy’s morally wayward scientist Dr Robert Hoak. Courtesy of Sayles, there’s a witty commentary on politics and the environment. The project was designed to produce a creature that would destroy the river systems of the North Vietnamese, but alas, operations ended and the project was put into turn around. However, a mutant strain (of mutants) resisted the poison and Hoak nurtured them.
While Hoak is ethically compromised, so representing the stereotypically self-deluding figure who denies culpability (“I’m a scientist. I never killed anybody. If you want to talk about killing, talk to your politicians, and the military people”), he redeems himself in a wash of frothing river blood to save a small child.
McCathy, most famously a veteran of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, would go on to work with Dante another half dozen times over the next quarter of a century, and it’s those 1950s B-trappings that most inform Piranha, rather than the ’70s “realism” of Spielberg’s Jaws. They’re there in the monster feeding frenzies, and the oblivious holiday makers. The military even show up, although they are completely useless and it’s down to Dilman’s Grogan to save the day.
Amusingly, both our heroes are responsible for the same kind of destruction the army blithely profess is in our best interests (“Sometimes it’s necessary to destroy in order to save”). It’s insurance investigator Maggie (Heather Menzies) who lets the piranhas out (Hoak has a point when he accuses her “You pulled the plug and your holding me responsible? You’re actually blaming me?”), while Grogan’s plan to rid the river of these carnivorous terrors is “We’ll pollute the bastards to death”, through releasing industrial waste from the smelting plant tanks. Eco-disaster is thus heralded as the salvation of humanity.
Dumont: People eat fish, Grogan. Fish don’t eat people.
You can frequently feel the languorous pace of Piranha. At ninety minutes, it could probably have shaved fifteen off and been more effective. It’s a leisurely, mostly unatmospheric ride. While there are incidental pleasures involving Dick Miller’s Lost River water park, and Paul Bartel is, yet again (following Hollywood Boulevard), a scene stealer as summer camp officiator Mr Dumont (reacting to kids throwing darts at his picture; telling Grogan – whose daughter is in attendance – to sober up during a phone call where the latter is warning of the fishy threat; having a piranha bite his nose), too often the pace dips to a crawl.
Dante throws in occasional pleasures and distractions, from references to aquatic literature, old movies and their assorted clichés (the skinny dippers – this is still a Corman film – at the start reference the Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s a full moon, and someone is reading Moby Dick), to crass gags (a fat chap’s deck chair collapses beneath him), good ones (“Lost River Lake. Terror. Horror. Death. Film at Eleven” announces a TV reporter) to little bits of weirdness (the stop-motion mutant in Hoak’s lab, as well as the puppet one) and the occasional eye for a memorable shot (Grogan’s hand rising out of the water). There is also a fair share of nasty deaths, Keenan Wynn’s particularly, and Pino Donaggio, who was slumming it, relatively speaking, provides an effective score.
Buck Gardner: What about the goddamn piranhas?
Assistant: They’re eating the guests, sir.
Piranha naturally provides a set up for a sequel, with scream queen Barbara Steele (as military employee Dr Mengers) assuring us “There’s nothing left to fear”. Some bloke with no future called James Cameron would handle Piranha II: The Flying Killers, as Dante would be off directing werewolves accompanied by a portion of the cast (McCarthy, Miller, Belinda Balaski). The movie’s reputation as a little gem is a bit overstated, to be honest. It’s too fitfully paced to exhibit the consistent wit and unbridled flair of the director’s ’80s efforts, poised at is between the cheap-and-cheerful Corman approach and the sensibility Dante was developing, but it’s undoubtedly been influential. And remade. Twice.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.