Homage in film can be a tricky proposition. Hew too close to the original, and you’re just making copies with no new toner; veer too far away and folks will wonder why you bothered. Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978) is that perfect beast then - a Jaws “rip-off” that bows to its source while winking at the audience, and yet still manages to be a wholly separate, wildly entertaining ride.
Released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in North America in early August (capitalizing on Jaws’ still undulating waves), Piranha was that rare New World phenomenon: It made some good coin ($16 million worldwide against a $600,000 budget) AND was well received by critics. Steven Spielberg himself was so won over by Dante’s take and talent that it led to collaborations on Twilight Zone: The Movie, Gremlins, and other projects. Piranha proves that you can hug someone, slap a “Kick Me” sign on their back, and they’ll still take you out to dinner – as long as you mean well.
Our story opens on a pair of backpackers who decide to take a moonlit skinny dip in (what they think) is an abandoned swimming pool. Before you can say “Where’s the buoy?” both are sucked under as the music swells and the credits roll. We then meet skip tracer Maggie (Heather Menzies – The Sound of Music), who heads up the mountain to locate one of the aforementioned missing hikers. She turns to alcoholic mountain man Paul (Bradford Dillman – Bug) for help, which leads them to a closed government treatment plant (not a public swimming pool then? Oops) and a paranoid government scientist played by sci-fi totem Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Believing the missing teens to be in the pool, Maggie drains it, leading our titular creatures right into the river, and very hungry.
Of course, the fishies were being bred with salt water as well, meaning they could eventually hit the open ocean and…find themselves, I guess? Regardless, our heroes have to head downstream and warn everyone at: A) the Grand Opening of Buck Gardner (Dick Miller – The Howling)’s aquatic amusement park, and B) the local summer camp which naturally houses Paul’s daughter. Will he and the gang be able to thwart the toothy menace?
To call Piranha a cheap knockoff of Jaws is frankly, insane. If anything, it’s a celebration of a type of film that Dante and screenwriter John Sayles (Alligator, The Howling) grew up adoring: The aquatic monster movie. Make no mistake, clips on TV from The Monster That Challenged the World and The Creature from the Black Lagoon are very pointed references to the Nature Gone Wrong creature features of the ‘50s. And really, the only differences between Jaws and these other films is its oversized but natural predator, the occasional government meddling, and $8 million dollars. (Yes, I realize I’m grading on a talent curve as well. Jaws is pretty much flawless.) The opening scenes between Jaws and Piranha are almost identical, and that’s intentional; the very first image seen after the opening credits is someone playing the Jaws video game. Piranha definitely knows the water in which it swims.
Sayles and Dante mount a love letter to these films; not only with direct links but overriding themes as well. Naturally the government is involved in the development of the vicious species, and therefore mankind must pay for its transgressions. Of course our troupe has to race against time to stop the menace after their warnings fall on deaf ears. But this is merely a skeleton for hanging a series of gags, grossouts, and gleeful in-jokes shelled out for the B crowd. Dante’s films are filled with plenty of good will and cheer, but it’s all couched in a cartoonish, heightened atmosphere; it’s even more pronounced in the second Sayles/Dante collaboration, The Howling (1981), but then again werewolves offer a bigger playground and a wider seesaw. So with fish, they choose to go mean.
Enter effects wunderkind Rob Bottin. He would later join the duo on the lupine bladder bonanza, and wow the world with his work on The Thing (’82), but here he revels in ripped flesh, gratuitous Keenan Wynn leg lacerations, and pools of bubbling blood accompanied by the high pitched nibble noise. What I’m saying is this movie is nasty, and no more so than when Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) and his campers hold a day of watersports just as the piranhas are passing through. (Surprisingly, rubber dinghies are not the greatest safeguard against razor sharp teeth. But it’s probably not in the manual anyway.) Not that Miller’s water park fairs any better – in fact, things get much worse – but flayed kiddie kibble certainly exceeds the Spielberg barometer of good taste.
And when you don’t have Steven bucks, you don’t get a Scheider, Dreyfuss, or Shaw; you get a Dillman, Menzies, Wynn, and Miller. I’m fine with that, and you should be too; because you also get a Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) thrown in for good measure as a sinister government expert. And they’re all pretty great; I’m especially fond of Dillman, who comes across like Charleton Heston with a much smaller stick up his caboose, and New World regulars Bartel and Miller provoke nothing but smiles.
But you don’t need the money when you have the talent. Dante rose through the ranks at the Corman ranch editing trailers, so the filler quota is very low; Editor Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator) cuts this thing within an inch of its life - even when the movie slows for sharp character beats it still moves.
Look, I saw both Jaws 2 and Piranha in the summer of ’78, and there’s no question which one earned my parents’ hard won money; the former reeks of desperation while the latter bathes in un-ironic, nostalgic inspiration. It’s pretty easy to see why Stevie thought Piranha was the better Catch of the Day.
Piranha is available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory! as part of the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics collection.