Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: 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
1/2 (out of 4)
Warning: Some spoilers ahead.
Piranha doesn’t hide its influence. Following an opening sequence where two idiot backpackers break into an abandoned installation and start swimming in a dark, murky pond filled with a very-hungry and angry group of fish, professional skip-tracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is seen playing a Jaws video game before she is shipped off to find them. But Piranha is much more of a parody than a rip-off of Jaws, as director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles are fond of injecting comedy throughout and seem just as interested in making anti-war statements and whipping up summer camp nostalgia as they are in delivering the carnage. My biggest complaint is that some of the comedy falls flat, while the attack scenes linger on until they approach tedium, but I will admit that after 30 years they are still generally effective. Piranha is no B-cinema masterpiece, but still worthy of a viewing – if you’re looking for a rainy day “Jaws-inspired” monster fish story, you’ve found it.
Maggie drives her rented jeep into the mountains and makes a stop by the cabin of mountain-man/drunk Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who reluctantly guides her to the abandoned military installation from the beginning, which used to be a fish hatchery. They soon discover that it’s far from abandoned, as crazy scientist Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy, still doing the Body Snatchers thing) shows up just in time to watch Maggie hit the pond-drain switch. Bad move, as Dr. Hoak reveals the pond harbored nasty, genetically-altered killer piranha, as part of a secret project called Operation Razorteeth. The idea was to introduce them into the North Vietnamese rivers during the war. At the end of the Vietnam war, the military shut the thing down, but somebody forgot to tell Dr. Hoak, who has all sorts of interesting genetic mutations in his lab (nice stop-motion work). The problem now, of course, is that the piranha have gotten into the river, which hints that we’ll soon see some bloodshed at the local summer camp (where Paul’s daughter is) and the new resort/park headed by asshole Texan Buck Gardner (Dick Miller, a Roger Corman/Joe Dante favorite).
The script is completely tongue-in-cheek but blatant in its anti-government stance, demonstrated when the army shows up and the evil Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and scientist Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) do everything possible to keep Paul and Maggie under quarantine (with the help of the local police who gladly fall in line instead of being concerned about killer fish in their local river), while Waxman occasionally lets loose with lines like “sometimes it’s necessary to destroy in order to save” and Mengers says “some things are more important than a few people’s lives.” Oh, you bastards! Piranha depicts all authority as either willfully naive, incompetent, greedy, or downright evil. Well, this was the 70s, post-Nam and post-Watergate. Just to make sure you get it, Dante even makes the Colonel an investor in Buck Gardner’s Aquarena Resort. (this part of the film was shot at the actual Aquarena Springs and Resort in San Marcos, Texas). Some blame is assigned to McCarthy’s mad scientist, of course, but the film quickly forgets that it was our rash heroine who should have known better than to poke around in secret facilities and start pushing buttons.
In the meantime, we have fun at camp where Paul’s cute daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins) has aquaphobia, which after a piranha attack later on the poor kiddie campers seems like it was a good move for her. Hounded by head camp counselor Dumont (an amusing Paul Bartel), she is badgered about her refusal to swim and her need to find intestinal fortitude (which she does later in an act of heroism, natch). I should note here that the film doesn’t play it safe in two ways – one is the willingness to have the mutant piranha attack kids, the other is to have Bartel’s character engage in rescuing the swimmers despite his injuries – another movie might have chosen to make him a coward. The little touches that show up elsewhere in the film also help – Gardner’s assistant telling him matter-of-factly that the piranhas “are eating the guests, sir,” Paul’s line to Maggie during a prison escape (“I’d-a thought you could get a man’s pants off quicker than that!”), a woman’s surprise that the Colonel hasn’t yet been promoted to General, or Dick Miller’s little monologue about how his theme park attractions are all stolen from other theme parks.
Dante’s film is an exercise in how to achieve the most on a low budget. You’ll be hard pressed to find a decent second-long shot of a piranha; even though there are a few gory bits, like poor Keenan Wynn’s legs nibbled down to the bone, or the sight of one victim’s half-eaten face, most of the attacks consist of arms and legs flailing about, fast edits of piranha nibbling on something, and blood filling up the water. Some of it becomes comical, as the attack scenes tend to linger on without noticeable progression (you’d think people would be encouraged to leave the water faster), which threatened to leave me bored a few times. Face it – it’s tough to portray fast moving fish as a threat, even if they are enhanced killers made in a lab. However, watching the film again after many years I was struck with the notion that history can cause old work to be seen in a new light, and Piranha makes references to pollution of rivers and the possible escape of the piranha into the oceans that made me feel uneasy knowing what has happened recently in the Gulf of Mexico. A scene where Paul accesses an old smelting plant and releases industrial waste into the water is eerily similar to the live cameras of the Deepwater Horizon spill. A parting shot of Barbara Steele exclaiming “there’s nothing left to fear” followed by an evil smile made me think she’d be a good BP rep. Piranha has a little bit of everything – eco-horror, summer camp nightmare (some of the lake shots look like they heavily influenced Friday the 13th), conspiracy theory, and comedy. It’s flawed but fun viewing probably one of the better selections in the Roger Corman/Joe Dante catalogue.
- Bill Gordon
Piranha has just been re-released as part of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” collection. Released through Shout! Factory, Bonus Features include
- New Anamorphic Widescreen Version
- Audio Commentary With Director Joe Dante and Producer Jon Davison
- Behind-the-Scenes Footage
- Making of Piranha Featurette With New Interviews From Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski
- Trailer, Radio Spots, TV Spots
- Stills Gallery
- Additional Scenes From the Network Television Version