Along with DEATH RACE 2000, this fun-filled exploitation horror film from 1978 is one of the great achievements to emerge from New World Pictures, a low-budget company that Roger Corman created after giving up hands-on directing to become an executive. New World churned out enjoyable exploitation fare for drive-in theatres and multiplexes in the 1970s, in the process serving as an apprenticeship for future Oscar-winners like Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme. Among the budding young talent at New World were director Joe Dante, screenwriter Jonathan Sayles, and producer Jon Davison, whose combined talents turned PIRANHA into that rarest of rarities: a rip-off that surpasses its inspiration. Conceived as a way to cash in on JAWS 2 (which was released the same year), the independently produced PIRANHA bested its big-budget studio rival in entertainment value if not production value. PIRANHA is fas-paced, scary, and witty – with a pleasant awareness of its own subsidiary position that invites us to sit back and enjoy it for what it is: a low-budget, jokey variation on a blockbuster hit.
PIRANHA begins with a back-packing coule trespassing onto an old military research center, where they are killed by something in a tank/pool. Skip tracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) traces the missing persons with the help of local drunk Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman). Searching for the bodies, Maggie drains the tank, inadvertently unleashing the piranha of the title. Unfortunately, these fish have been scientifically engineered to survive in environments (such as cold water and salt water) that are unlike their natural tropical climate; also, they are smart enough to find their way through the winding tributaries that lead down river to the ocean. The rest of the film becomes a race as Maggie and Paul try to head off the piranha before they reach open water; along the way, there is a children’s summer camp and a new resort, financed by an insider (a general privy to the military project), who is eager to protect his investment by keeping the news of the piranha quiet.
Structuring the story as a race down stream is a clever touch that lends an energetic forward momentum totally missing from the miserable 3-D remake. With only occasional pauses when our heroes are captured or incarcerated, the original PIRANHA seems to rush breathlessly to each new set-piece, including the summer camp sequence (which borders on bad taste by putting children in jeopardy) and culminating in the attack on the resort, which serves up the requisite R-rated carnage, including gallons of gore.
In retrospect, what startles the most about PIRANHA is the unexpected humanity. Sayles’ script defies genre expectations by loading the film with clever dialogue and likable characters. Time is spent setting up the victims in such a way that the correct buttons are pushed to make you laugh, cry, or cheer when the fateful moment arrives. Particularly memorable is a doomed camp counselor who vaguely senses an ill-wind blowing her direction: the underwater shot of her sinking into darkness almost leaps off the screen in its effectiveness; it’s all the more startling because, in a slasher movie, this quiet introspective character would be the “final girl” who survives to see the closing credits role.
There is a nice variety to the approach. Mr. Dumont, the head of the camp (played by Paul Bartel, who directed DEATH RACE 2000), is a jerk but he is not painted as a complete asshole. When this comic relief character is presented with the results of ignoring a warning that could have prevented disaster, the effect is tragic rather than smug in an “I told you so” kind of way, and the film shows admirable restraint in allowing the character to suffer his moment of guilt in silence instead of having the hero punch him out.
Of course, Sayles knows the satisfaction value of setting up someone who deserves what he gets, and also of having someone who pays for his sins but goes out on a note of redemption. SPOILER. In the former case, a general figuratively goes down with the ship, his hat sinking to the riverbed as we cheer. In the later case, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pays big time for being the scientist responsible for the piranha program, suffering one of cinema’s great melodramatic deaths. It’s a moment both expected and unexpected: you know the guy has got to go, but you are surprised to care when it happens. (I stand in a small minority, possibly of one, in finding this moment more convincing and touching than Alec Guiness’s last-minute change of heart in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.) END SPOILER.
Joe Dante serves the action up with a knowing wink. He expects us to recognize McCarthy and Barbara Steele (as another scientist) for their genre associations, inviting us to see PIRANHA a a movie-movie. He introduces Maggie playing a Jaws arcade game and has an anonymous woman reading Moby Dick on the beach – reminding us that, although PIRANHA may be a rip-off of JAWS, JAWS itself was hardy a complete original.
Fortunately, the tongue-in-cheek approach never diminishes the thrills;l the requisite car chases and explosions are delivered with a gusto that belies the modest budget. There is even some genuine suspense when the film leaves the pyrotechnics behind for the finale, with Grogan descending underwater to open a valve that will hopefully poison the fish – a scene that almost literally invites you to hold your breath as you wonder whether the character (attached to a boat by a tow line) will be pulled to safety before he drowns, or before the piranha get to him.
The carnage consists mostly of Karo syrup, with a minimum of prosthetics, although there is a brief gruesome cut of a severed head-and-torso floating in the water. Instead, Dante builds tension through editing, carefully building to his shock effects. This style of montage is in the best tradition of Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian filmmaker and theorist who literally wrote the book on the subject, and it is fun to see this meticulous craftsmanship lavished on a little horror movie.
The special effects are relatively primitive: some models, puppets, a brief bit of ell animation. There is even a cute stop-motion creature glimpsed lurking in Hoak’s laboratory – a throw-away included just for the fun of it. The approach works, because physical models are better suited to simulating the inexpressive scaliness of live fish (as opposed to the hyperactive CGI creations of the remake). Also, the live, underwater photography creates a believable ambiance missing from pristine CGI: real water is murky when stirred up, especially when laced with blood. The blurry shots of multiple fish – quickly intercut as they attack – are, more often than not, convincing in their abruptness.
Menzies and Dillman make a good on-screen couple, and it’s good to see that the film never reduces her character to a damsel in distress. Dick Miller is a hoot as Buck Gardner, the corrupt businessman in league with the general; Buck’s exasperated reaction to unwanted news about the piranha leads to the film’s best line, as his assistant uncomfortably informs him: “The piranha…they’re eating the guests.”
There is a nice post-Watergate, post-Vietnam vibe to the back story. Sure, we need an excuse for the Piranha, but this element does not feel like an arbitrary explanation; it carries weight as the kind of heavy-handed, melodramatic statement that an exploitation film can pull off, because who expects subtlety in a movie titled PIRANHA?
TELEVISION & SPIN-OFFS
On network television, PIRANHA took a slightly different form. Most of the R-rated gore was removed, and several dialogue scenes were reinstated. The changes are not improvements, but there is one interesting comic bit that allows Paul Bartel and Dick Miller to share a scene together, as the camp counselor wanders into the background of a commercial that Buck Gardner is filming to promote the opening of his resort.
PIRANHA spawned a sequel, PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING, which marked James Cameron’s feature-film directing debut. There was also a remake for Showtime television, which omitted the humor but recycled the effects footage. And of course now there is a remake, PIRANHA 3D, directed by Alexandre Aja, about which the less said the better.
DVD AND BLU-RAY DETAILS
PIRANHA was issued in a special edition DVD by new Concorde in 1999. This disc included a full-frame transfer (which looks reasonably good when expanded to fill a widescreen television). Extras included a trailer, a blooper real, behind-the-scenes home movies (with audio commentary), and a feature-length commentary track from director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison.
On August 3, 2010, Shout Factory re-issued PIRANHA on DVD and Blu-ray. The discs featured a new widescreen transfer. The old bonus features were ported over, and new ones were added: a making-of featurette, stills and poster galleries, radio and television spots, and footage from the Network Television version.
PIRANHA proves that low-budget does not have to mean low-ambition or low-quality. It is not just a good exploitation movie or a good camp movie or a good schlock movie. It’s a good movie, period, thanks to a clever script, lively performances, and solid craftsmanship. As crazy as it may sound, I actually prefer this upstart little film to its more famous progenitor: the rest of the world can sing hymns of praise to JAWS; I’ll stick to PIRANHA.
PIRANHA (1978). Directed by Joe Dante. Written by John Sayles, story by Sayles and Richard Robinson. Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce Gordon, Barry Brown, Paul Bartel, Shannon Collins.