Piranha (1978)

Joe Dante had cut together trailers for Roger Corman before he made his feature directorial debut with the in-joke film biz farce Hollywood Boulevard (1976). Piranha, one of the glut of Jaws imitations that flooded cinema screens in the late ‘70s, was produced under Corman’s aegis in the glory years of his New World studio. The underappreciated Dante’s antic wit was partnered with slumming young novelist cum trash movie scribe John Sayles for the first time. The result was a surprise semi-classic that made, and presaged, both men’s careers. Piranha is driven along not only by Dante’s refreshingly ruthless, hard-paced direction, but also by Sayles’ deft characterisation and satiric bite. When a pair of young backpackers stumbles upon a deserted army testing station in the leafier climes of rural Texas, their illicit skinny-dipping under the full moon’s glow, in a seemingly benign pool, sees them both consumed by something gluttonous lurking in the water. Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is a locator of missing persons sent to find them, who, baffled as a city slicker by the problems presented by rural locales, enlists the help of embittered local Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) to direct her to the testing site. There, they drain the aforementioned pool in the belief they may find the bodies of the young couple, only to be assaulted by the desperate-seeming Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy).

Turns out the pool was filled with the Doc’s experimental strain of fast-breeding, flesh-feasting, specially bred piranha, designed as a biological weapon by Hoak’s military sponsors to release in the rivers of North Vietnam. And now the fish are swimming downstream towards the summer camp where Paul’s daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins) is staying, and the just-opened holiday resort of entrepreneur Buck Gardner (Dick Miller). Piranha becomes a kind of Huckleberry Finn with man-eating fish, as Paul and Maggie try to transport the injured Hoak downstream on a raft and encounter signs of the advancing monstrosity: Paul’s retiree friend Jack (Keenan Wynn) lying dead on his lawn, legs gnawn to the bone, and a young boy (Jack Pauleson) whose father (Eric Henshaw) was killed whilst fishing, clinging to the back of their upturned canoe. Hoak gives his life to help save the boy, and Paul manages to make it to the next dam before the spillways are opened. The military are called in, but Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and Hoak’s former lover and supervisor Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) each have motives for ignoring Paul’s warnings about the alternative route the piranha can take to reach downstream. Paul and Maggie are imprisoned, muzzled, and ignored when they try to spread the word.

Coming in the same year as John Carpenter’s Halloween and John Landis’ National Lampoon’s Animal House, Piranha helped announce the sub-strata of a jauntier, less prestigious wave of ‘70s Movie Brats. Dante signals his status as an arch film buff with the casting, top-heavy with horror movie heroes like Steele, Miller and McCarthy, the latter two of whom would constantly reappear in Dante’s films. Piranha, recently remade by Alejandro Aja, is all the more engaging for the way it both closely follows the templates of Jaws and other ‘70s disaster movies, but also lets the audience in on the joke. There is powerful individuality in Dante and Sayles’ sheer bloodthirsty gall, self-aware humour, and ready acknowledgement of monster movie tradition. Where Spielberg’s stylisation for Jaws kept its references firmly diagetic (eg the famous Hitchcock-derived zoom-in pull-back shot and Creature from the Black Lagoon visual quotes), Piranha offers the regulation Movie Brat flourish of explicitly nudging the audience with a glimpse of an inspiration on television, specifically, a fragment of The Monster That Challenged the World (1958), the plot of which Piranha essentially rehashes. Dante’s cunning filmmaking, with plentiful gore yet judicious, mostly suggestive sense of the physical mayhem spread by the killer fish, which, apart from some unfortunate shots of them swimming in schools, are mostly glimpsed in quick flashes of wicked teeth and darting, nipping blurs, is shot and edited with the kind of zest that truly marks out talented filmmakers even in low-budget fare. Dante and Sayles make few distinctions amongst the potential fish-food. Good guys, bad guys, young, old, hotties and the stocky: all get chewed on.

There’s also a telling relentlessness in the one-dimensional but coherent portrait of a deeply venal society full of profiteering, connivance, bullying blowhards and dim-witted authority figures. The likes of Paul Bartel’s hilariously pompous camp director Dumont, Waxman, Mengers, and Gardner, refuse and often actively collude to forestall any solution to the problem. This aspect of the film doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. The conspiracy between Waxman and Gardner is far too glib, and their malfeasance rather excessively stupid, but then the film isn’t trying to be a coldly convincing commentary on the military-industrial complex, but a generally scabrous portrait of cynical tendencies in the post-Watergate landscape. Rather more tart, however, is the notion of Vietnam blowback literally eating at the American body politic. Elements of the script obviously prefigure Sayles’ later, “serious” films, especially the holistic sense of social structure in the likes of City of Hope (1991) and Silver City (2004): working class depression, pollution and cover-up, ignored and suppressed voices of warning, and vested interests converging to foil the individualist heroes and wreak calamity. The anti-social, divorced, near-reclusive, semi-drunkard working stiff hero and the na├»ve yet plucky heroine find that they’re the only ones who take the duty of bottling up the horror they unwittingly unleashed seriously. The pay-off? Gardner being informed, in spite of all his protests that the piranhas not be mentioned, that they are nonetheless eating his resort patrons. Sayles repeated the motifs, more cleverly and with more detailed characterisations, in his screenplay for Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980), but Dante’s direction and sense of movement here is superior. Dante even riffs teasingly on the conventions of the exploitation movie he’s making. Breasts are bared within the first few minutes, but later, when camp counsellors Camp counsellors Betsy (Belinda Balaski) and Laura (Melody Thomas) start to strip to go swimming only to hurriedly zip up again when Dumont comes flashing his torch.

There’s a large dash of Dante’s genuinely child-like (as opposed to childish) comprehension of the absurdity of the adult world and fascination with its anarchic dissolution, which of course find a rather different yet linked fulfilment in his Gremlins films. Much as Dante and Sayles’ next film together, The Howling (1980), took aim at new-age therapy, there’s a casual energy and effervescence to the portrait of the summer camp as a microcosm of absurd foibles. Dumont insists that young Suzie display “guts” and venture into the water which she rightly senses contains unknowable threat, searches in repressive paranoia for nude bathers, and writes off Grogan as a drunk, which he is, and refuses to listen to his warnings. His own counsellors make fun of him: Betsy and Suzie toss darts at his photo. Of course it will be Suzie who, in sitting to one side, sets out to try and save her fellows with the most daring and cool. This playful anti-authoritarianism infiltrates the film’s most memorable and unsettling scene, in which Dante’s control of the tone, alternating from the comic to the grim on a dime, is crucial. The piranha attack the summer camp’s denizens, the monstrous beasties snacking on the kiddies and dragging away Betsy, the most lovely and likeable of the counsellors, in a near-operatic moment of horror. This leaves a shamed Dumont boding darkly over children’s mauled corpses, under Grogan’s silently accusatory eye. The following mayhem, when the piranhas lunch on the bathers at Gardner’s resort, is expertly staged but not as harshly climactic.

Grogan’s final heroic effort, to kill the piranha with the toxic waste still stored in the smelting plant where he used to work, is reminiscent of James Whitmore’s self-sacrificial end in Them! (1954), and also neatly closes the narrative’s arcs. That Grogan returns to his polluting former place of employment and puts his own body in the line of the fish that strip his flesh even as he wrestles with the wheel that releases the toxins exactly codifies the unresolved tension between responsibility and stability in the modern world and its decaying certainties. The last visions of Grogan, his mauled hand reaching out of the water to Maggie, and later seated in apparently catatonic mess amongst all the other mangled victims of official idiocy, whilst his efforts seem to have been unsuccessful, are memorable and mindful of the genuine aggression that lies under the humour, if a bit excessively cynical in that ‘70s fashion. Dillman’s rather abrasive, charmless lead performance hasn’t aged well, but Thomas is effervescent, and the rest of the cast positively gleeful, particularly Miller and Balaski. Steele, although not used expansively, fittingly has the film’s last line, offering bromides about the solved crisis, but her sweetly demonic smile suggests a certain revelry in the notion that the world might be about to end. The resulting film is still blissfully entertaining.

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