“Terror, horror, death. Film at eleven.”
Continuing my mini “Jaws rip-offs” festival with what I’ve usually said is my favorite of the bunch. With the success of Jaws in 1975 we got an explosion of ‘animal attack’ movies ranging from almost direct inspirations like William Girdler’s Grizzly and Tentacles down through slightly more off-brand efforts like Night of the Lepus and Frogs. There are even non-animal related films that steal Jaws’ structure – like The Car (which manages to rip-off Stephen Spielberg twice, as it also contains elements of Duel.)
If we expanded the net wide enough, we get films like Empire of the Ants, Swarm and Kingdom of the Spiders. In that group Kingdom takes my top spot – even if it’s more of a Birds rip-off.
I saw Piranha a handful of times in my youth and liked it but didn’t appreciate it as much as I would when I was older. In fact, for a long time I just wrote it off as a semi-funny movie from guys who would go on to make better, funnier movies like The Howling. Then, a few years back, I started an “animals attack” binge and bought a copy of Piranha for $5 thinking “it’s got to be better than Frogs.”
And I had a blast watching it! It WAS better than Frogs, and certainly worth the $5 I paid for it. It was gloriously funny, bloody and exciting in equal measure and a TON better than I remembered it being. Not to say that it isn’t a cheesy b-movie – this is a Roger Corman production after all – but it embraces its cheese and by doing so, transcends it. Piranha quickly moved to the top of my “Jaws rip-off” list and remains one of my favorite creature features of the 1970’s.
I have the 2010 Shout Factory DVD of Piranha, which was timed to coincide with the release of the remake (which I also enjoyed, FYI). I had the option of buying the Blu-ray, but at the time all I could imagine was being able to see the sticks the rubber fish were glued to. Not something I thought I needed. It’s serviceable enough – and comes with some extras, like a commentary track with director Joe Dante and Producer Jon Davison – but I’m seriously considering the 2019 remaster, also from Shout Factory. Maybe I do need those glued-on fish.
Piranha is available for subs on Hoopla and any of the HBO options (Now, Max, GO). You can also rent it from the usual places.
Piranha is Scream for 1970’s creature features. Seriously. It takes the tropes of movies like Jaws and Willard and Orca, and makes fun of them while also being a decent example of the same kind of movie it parodies. (If this founds familiar, I said the same thing about Alligator last week.) This was part of the revelation I had when I saw the movie again as an adult. I knew it was funny, but I hadn’t realized how intentional all the gags are. You could almost release this movie as-is today and it would get called a masterpiece of post-modern commentary. You know – if it wasn’t already a famous ‘Jaws rip-off’ and didn’t have a couple of remakes and a bunch of sequels and rip-offs of its own.
Piranha starts with a couple out camping/hiking who stumble across what appears to be an abandoned military installation. Well, there’s nothing for it but to break in and go swimming in the murky pool! At this point we’r not really getting a ton of humor – though supposedly the No Trespassing sign is a nod to Citizen Kane. It’s an excuse to get young people naked and then have them killed by the menace – you know, just like the opening scene in Jaws.
And the movie is just chock-full of standard characters and plot points. We’ve got the misanthropic loner who’s also a loving family man. The cocky young insurance investigator (who’ll be forced, in b-movie tradition, to use her boobs to distract a guard). The scientist responsible, played by a veteran genre actor, devoted to SCIENCE!, who learns to care for others and sacrifices himself. The incompetent military who are in bed with the local corporate interests. Those corporate folks – real estate people – who ignore all the warnings, putting innocent, beach-loving teens in harm’s way. We’ve even got a plucky kid and a dog!
Luckily these are all just familiar chords that screenwriter John Sayles (him again) and director Joe Dante use to craft a catchy, entertaining tune. Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman, Escape From Planet of the Apes and Swarm) is actually more a useless drunk than action hero, spending the week his daughter is at camp working his way through your basic smorgasbord of alcohol. Skiptracer Maggie (Heather Menzies, Ssssss) is actually the more action-oriented character, at least at first, pushing Grogan to accompany her on her search for the two missing hikers. And our scientist “messing with things man is not meant to know” character, Dr. Hoak, is played by Kevin McCarthy, all mad, rolling eyeballs and dire “they’ll kill us all!” pronouncements as if his character from Invasion of the Body Snatchers had stumbled out of the road at the end of that film and into this one.
There are just a ton of genre stalwarts in this movie. In addition to the main actors we’ve got Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller and even Barbara Steele. It’s like a low-rent version of an Irwin Allen disaster movie. It contributes to the general sense that the filmmakers are having fun with the conventions – adding to a Jaws video game, a copy of Moby Dick and a clip from the classic b-movie The Monster That Challenged the World.
Once the killer fish are released into the river the film becomes a chase movie punctuated with a bunch of piranha attacks. Even though the fish are low-budget rubber creations attached to sticks the attacks are pretty effective – with quick edits, murky water and a ton of fake blood giving us the impression of gore and letting our minds fill in the gaps. . I actually think I prefer them to the CGI fish in the 2010 remake. There ARE some gory bits – including skeletonized feet and a half-chewed torso provided by a 17-year-old Rob Botin – but most of the attacks are suggestive rather than descriptive.
Everybody fails in this movie. The drunk and the investigator are the ones that set the piranha free and then they show up too late to almost every attack. The scientist finally grows a conscience, goes to save a kid and gets eaten – but if he’d waited another 30 seconds or so they’d both have been safe. Even Grogan’s kid – who manages to overcome her fear of the water – only saves one of her camp counselors. You expect the bad guys to fail, but the good-guys are just as fallible in Piranha.
And pretty much no-one is safe from the marauding fish. Just like in Alligator, even the kids get savagely eaten. Generally in monster movies like this the kids are always plot-immune, but not in Piranha, baby! Innocence is no defense. It makes you wonder what Sayles has against kids in these kinds of movies. I will note that the dog DOES survive, but it’s not stupid enough to get in the water, unlike seemingly every biped.
That finale – with the piranha attack on all the beach-goers – is a great set-piece. It’s both frightening and funny in equal measure, with a bunch of great lines and individual scenes. I particularly like the General… er, excuse me, Colonel (‘Still?’) kicking teenagers off the party boat before falling in and being devoured. One of my favorite exchanges (between Dick Miller’s real-estate developer and his right-hand man:
“What about the goddamn piranhas?”
“They’re eating the guests, sir.”
And how do they finally stop the menace? By polluting the hell out of the lake! As Dante points out in the commentary, it’s probably the only “animal attack” movie where the solution is actually to make the environment WORSE.
The Bottom Line
Piranha is just good, gory fun. The dialogue is sharp and witty and the plot ticks along at a good clip – everything you’d expect from John Sayles. Joe Dante does an amazing job with a Roger Corman budget, and maybe even got him working with Stephen Spielberg on Gremlins. (Supposedly the Jaws 2 people wanted an injunction against Piranha, but Spielberg nixed it, having enjoyed Dante’s film.) It remains one of my favorite Jaws rip-offs – though I gotta actually give the top spot to Alligator, this time around!
And we didn’t even get into the stop-motion creatures in the lab and how Dante had hoped to use it over the course of the film, ending with a giant version attacking the Santa Monica pier! Maybe if they’d gotten their full budget, instead of Corman pocketing about a quarter of it…