Amid the mad flurry of killer animal films that came out in the late ‘70s hoping to feed off any of that leftover Jaws success (Grizzly, Orca, Monster, Tentacles, Nightwing, Alligator, etc.), the Roger Corman-produced Piranha was, well, definitely one of them.
Okay, so that’s not exactly fair, though the film’s poster, which featured a bikini-clad woman on an inflatable raft about to be gobbled up by what appears to be a 30-foot piranha, made little effort to disguise where they were coming from. Unless some dumbasses actually bought their tickets expecting to see a gigantic piranha swallowing hot babes whole, nobody was going to be much surprised by what the film was about. What did surprise a lot of people when the film came out, though, was how sharp, smart and intentionally funny it was, especially considering:
1. That it was just another low-budget Jaws knockoff (a genre never particularly known for its high quality or sense of humor);
2. That it came out of Corman’s New World Pictures;
3. That it was made by a virtually unknown director and an untested screenwriter;
And 4. That it starred Bradford Dillman.
Piranha was Joe Dante’s second film for Corman and in terms of its scope, effects and cast it was a huge leap from Hollywood Boulevard, his homage to low-budget filmmaking. And as for screenwriter John Sayles, well, this was his first picture so who the hell knew?
Given what the film was, what kind of budget it had and the fact that a no-name director was making it, Dante was still able to round up a hell of a cast (even after both Peter Fonda and Eric Braeden passed, worried the effects would be awful): Dillman (Escape from The Planet of The Apes), Heather Menzies (The Sound of Music, Sssss), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove) and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday). As far as Jaws knockoffs are concerned, the only one that potentially tops it cast-wise is Tentacles, which boasts John Huston, Shelley Winters, Bo Hopkins, and Henry Fonda (who wasn’t nearly as concerned as his snooty son about the quality of the effects, a fact confirmed when he went on to appear in Meteor and The Swarm).
Okay, so a teenage couple on a hiking trip in the mountains stumbles across a swimming pool at an abandoned military research facility and immediately go for a dip. Now, before anyone says anything, Dante was way ahead of you. He knew what kind of picture he was making, what the conventions were and who he was making it for. All that allowed him to play up the humor and sheer ridiculousness of it all. So anyway yes, they promptly get eaten.
A few days later skip tracer Maggie McKeown (Menzies) is sent to find them and happens upon the secluded cabin of ornery drunken recluse Paul Grogan (Dillman, whom I never liked, but is pretty good here). The meeting allows for some standard romantic comedy friction before they team up to head over to the research facility to continue looking.
After finding the pool and some evidence that the kids had been there they begin exploring the supposedly abandoned buildings. As they start to realize the place may not be quite as abandoned as everybody figured, Dante drops in a neat little touch that drove a lot of viewers mad, but I’ve always loved. While they’re exploring a cluttered lab, a small two-legged humanoid lizard creature skitters across a countertop without their noticing. The stop motion monster was an homage to Ray Harryhausen (specifically 20 Million Miles to Earth) and it was Dante’s hope to bring the creature back a few times throughout the film, growing bigger each time. Originally, he even hoped to end the film with a giant version of the creature attacking a pier. Unfortunately they didn’t have near the budget they would have needed to pull that off, so this remains its one and only cameo as Dante had to focus on the rubber fish. But you know, even that one quick shot adds a touch of the comically bizarre to the film and helps establish its general attitude.
So anyway, thinking the kids may have drowned, Maggie decides (in another consciously dumb move required by the genre) to drain the pool. This is where we meet the screaming, raving Dr. Hoke (McCarthy), the mad scientist who explains that he’d genetically engineered a new strain of voracious, killer piranhas to be used in Vietnam. Well, then the war ended and there he was up in the mountains stuck with that damn school of killer fish. Oh and by the way, he mentions, by draining the pool Maggie released the fish into the wild, where they will breed like mad and devour anything they encounter.
For the rest of the film that’s pretty much what happens. The piranhas encounter Keenan Wynn (in a wonderful improvised scene with his dog) and eat him. Then the piranhas encounter a day camp run by the hardnosed Mr. Dumont (Corman regular Paul Bartel, who’d also starred in Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard) and break one of Hollywood’s oldest taboos by eating a lake full of children. Then they move on down the river and encounter a resort owned by the sleazy Buck Gardner (the always great Dick Miller) and eat a bunch of tourists. The military gets involved but can’t do much so it’s up to that cranky Paul Grogan in his beard and faded flannel shirt to save the day.
For being essentially a bunch of rubber fish attached to sticks, the effects aren’t that bad (so long as you’re not looking that close). The attacks themselves, in fact (and why else did most people go to see these pictures?), are pretty savage. Unlike most of the killer animal pictures of the time, in the midst of all the splashing and screaming and dentist drill sound effects we actually see the piranhas ripping flesh off arms and legs (and in one sequence, boobs).
The reason the film works so well, though, is not so much the requisite gore but the characters around it who, thanks to Sayles’ script, are developed enough, real enough and in some cases plain goofy enough to hold our interest. It also works because as a whole the film never takes itself very seriously. That was the problem with the Corman-produced remake from a few years back. They kept the story, even re-used the same effects shots, but neatly excised all the humor, which left the remake on a par with, Christ, Monster or Day of the Animals.
While he was frantically editing it at the end of his 20-day schedule, Dante said he was convinced it was the worst film ever made. Upon seeing a rough cut, Sayles all but decided to leave the movie business behind forever and go back to writing novels. Then, shortly before the picture was set to hit theaters, Universal, which was set to release Jaws 2 at the same time, filed suit to force New World to pull the film completely. They cited some cockamamie nonsense about mockery or copyright infringement, but the general feeling is Universal knew that Piranha was a much better picture than Jaws 2. In fact Spielberg went to a screening of Piranha and liked it enough that he made Universal drop the suit. That should’ve been some comfort to Dante at the time and may well have been a stepping stone toward his making Gremlins later. Sayles, meanwhile, horrified by the whole experience, went off and made Return of the Secaucus Seven.
There are a number of elements that set Piranha apart from its mostly drab competition, from the humor to its anti-war subtext to its decidedly pro-Barbara Steele stance. But one of the most interesting, for anyone who cared to study it much too closely, is that while other killer animals were dispatched with explosives, flamethrowers and electrical cables, Piranha is the first Jaws knockoff I’m aware of in which the threat is stopped by intentionally polluting a river.