Today in 1978, Joe Dante’s Piranha was released in the states. Today in 2021, it remains an understated, low-budget mild masterpiece of a creature feature.
A film like Piranha always lies somewhere between getting a bad wrap and not receiving adequate love. Admittedly it runs roughly on the Jaws plot formula – a quaint resort town is met with aquatic monster disaster on the weekend of the town’s biggest event, which could have been preventable if those in power prioritized their people’s safety over money. However, Piranha isn’t a ripoff of Jaws– at its most uninspired it’s a clever homage, even featuring a scene with Jaws memorabilia like a watch and pinball machine.
Dante’s Piranha, with the help of an excellently witty script from John Sayles, balances tongue-in-cheek humor with legitimate horror in a way where neither the laughs nor terror fall short. It demonstrates an effective use of a low-budget, never steeping to silly cheeseball antics. The shlock factor is inevitable when rubber fish are at play, but the film’s bright but hazy doomsday atmosphere is strong enough to keep matters atmospherically unsettling. On top of everything good Piranha has going for it, the characters are thought out, compelling, and responsible for their own interesting drama. Put simply, Joe Dante got right what every water monster imitator got wrong, and Piranha wades confidently in a murky water all its own.
A plot summary for those unfamiliar: Two young backpackers find an abandoned military post in the woods, where a man-made reservoir sits out back. They decide to skinny-dip, and are quickly killed by an unseen force underwater.
Maggie (Heather Menzies) is an investigator hired by the mother of one of the missing backpackers to find her daughter. Maggie travels to the wooded mountains where the backpackers were last seen, and she finds the cabin of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman.)
Paul is a backwoods drunk who lives in this remote cabin with his young daughter, who is away at summer camp.
After convincing Paul to visit the military facility, they investigate and conclude the backpackers’ disappearance couldn’t be a drowning. It’s there they meet a crazed scientist (Kevin McCarthy,) who tries to stop them from flipping a switch that connects the military base’s pond to the area river, but is too late.
The scientist, who introduces himself as Dr. Hoak, reveals that dangerous government experiments have been taking place. He helped develop a mutant breed of piranha for the Vietnam war, but the government cancelled that operation, leaving Hoak to store the killer fish at the abandoned facility.
Soon after the piranha make their way into the river, they begin taking victims. Paul grows concerned about them swimming downstream to the summer camp where his daughter is staying. Also downstream is a brand new resort town that is readying for opening day.
Once the military catch wind of the piranha, they send Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) with a crew of soldiers to investigate. Unfortunately, Dr. Mengers is in cahoots with the military and attempting to keep information about the piranha under wraps, putting everyone at the brand new resort town in danger on opening day. It’s up to Paul and Maggie to stop the incoming disaster.
Piranha, above all else, is shocking and fun, but it’s smart, stylish, inventive fun with just a bit of cutting social commentary. The bad guys are the government and military, and that’s a fight us common folk can get behind no matter the decade. While vicious piranha may be causing the bloodshed, they’re merely a product of the government’s desire to wage war.
The piranha are a thrill to watch at work. Dante gets crafty with the kills, as he’s forced to with a budget of just over half a million dollars. Instead of over-expensive animatronics or flashy CGI (this was ’78,) he plays with shots, sounds, and creative editing. The rubbery little monsters attack in big groups, swarming and shrieking. Shots cut quickly between victims shouting and piranha squeaking and squiggling. Buckets of blood fill the water. The piranha noises can be comical, with their screeching and swishing sounds, but due to quick transitions and copious amounts of blood, along with a dreadfully dark score, it all works effectively. You’ll find yourself scrunching your face with engrossed grit more than groaning.
More credit to Dante and his imaginative vision, Piranha is pretty, picturesque, and palpable in feel. With earthy yellows, a pale green water, and bright but overcast skies, it has the perfect look of a hazy summer day that’s too quaint to not be met with disaster. You’re taken to ominous woods where a secret, evil government operation was left stagnant. You’re shown rushing, gorgeous waters where lives are being taken. You’re brought to a dreamy 70s resort town where peace and excitement is met with violence and gore. There’s even a sweet sunny summer camp that will make you nostalgic for an experience you may have never lived. Piranha finds surrealness in its setting, and Dante paints a place you fear but would love to be.
Aside from Dante’s magic, the actors are spectacular. Paul Grogan is a strong but pitiful hero – He’s a single father with a dark past and alcoholic struggles, yet a man who can find heroic motivation with the help of a good woman. Bradford Dillman brings a range to Paul that wasn’t initially scripted. Screenwriter John Sayles kept characters two-dimensional in homage to Roger Corman classics, which Dillman took issue with. Given the freedom to toy with his character, Dillman makes Paul Grogan a tragic but forceful leading man; one who shows it all, fighting through hell and cracking jokes along the way. Heather Menzies especially shines as Maggie, a leading woman who isn’t as traumatized as Paul but has more to prove. Menzies is funny and empathetic. One has to be when they’re helping a drunk see light. She radiates a sweetness and unwavering desire to take what she wants. Maggie might be kind, but she has zero tolerance for bullshit. Together she and Paul are a formidable pair, and Menzies and Dillman simply gel.
The remaining cast is also delightful. Barbara Steele, a staple in 70s and 80s horror B-flicks, is more conniving than in many of her other roles and enthralling for it. Kevin McCarthy, who plays the nutty and difficult-to-read Dr. Hoak, breathes a mad scientist’s zaniness and a well-meaning man’s heart. The lot of extras, from riverside locals to hot-bodied tourists make the environment all the more authentic.
Where Piranha flounders, but only slightly, is in its budget and age. The fishy kills may not do it for those accustomed to modern blockbuster monsters grubbing on gore. The story’s clever and funny, but not the most inspired, and keep in mind this was 1978; thus there’s no mind boggling twists to be had. Joe Dante works with what he has – technical skill, wit, wild imagination, and enough talented cast and crew to put together a great creature feature that’s entertaining, lightly scary, and pretty damn smart. Those who love Joe Dante’s films can cherish his humble and promising beginnings through Piranha. Those who don’t know Joe Dante ought to, but even they can have a good time with this Jaws-inspired comedy/horror. Today, August 3rd, is a fine summer day to fix a horror classic blindspot or revisit a supposed “knockoff” that has a charm all its own.
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