Skip to main content

The water’s filled with carnivorous fish.

Piranha
(1978)

(SPOILERS) Joe Dante’s first movie-proper, complete with a singularly solo directorial credit, in which he’s armed with John Sayles first screenplay (rewriting Richard Robinson’s effort), Piranha has considerable fun riffing on Jaws (from the very start; a character plays a delightfully basic Jaws arcade game over the opening credits). It was a little late to the party, admittedly, surfacing a very un-cash-in-like three years down the line (so much so that Universal’s own cash-in Jaws 2, from which Spielberg demurred involvement, was released two months earlier). You  can see a huge step up aesthetically between this and Dante’s next film, The Howling, but Piranha’s tongue-in-cheek scares effectively establish the director’s approach to both horror and humour; the DNA of the maker of Gremlins is all over Piranha.


Reputedly, Universal were all set to sue over Piranha copying Jaws, but Spielberg intervened when he saw and liked the film (he considered it the best of the Jaws rip-offs). For a studio known for its quickies, it took New World a long time to bring it all together. Peter Fonda turned the movie down because he didn’t think the effects would work (Bradford Dilman took the role). To his credit, Corman didn’t think it was worth doing if the effects didn’t work, and to be fair, they still look pretty good, thanks to sped up footage and an aural accompaniment that resembles a hive of subaqua bees. Rob Bottin and Phil Tippet provided the effects, both of whom went on to great acclaim in their fields over the next decade.


For his part, Dante was convinced the movie was terrible (he had wanted to direct Rock and Roll High School, on which he filled in for his Hollywood Boulevard co-director Allan Arkush for a couple of days), despite the cutting and recutting he did, so its success came as a surprise. Hollywood being prone to thinking out of the box, he would subsequently be offered the watery likes of Orca 2 and Jaws 3 People 0 (the latter might have been the Jaws sequel equivalent of his later Gremlins 2, a decade early). The plot is replete with the usual essentials of such horror fare, mostly involving people doing really dumb things, but there’s a knowingness swimming through Piranha that complements the daftness. This is, after all, the sea (river) menace as a full-blown science fiction beastie.


Dr Hoak: Of course they paid. There’s germ warfare, the bomb, chemical warfare. There’s plenty of money, special agencies. They pay. They pay a lot better than they do in private research.

The piranhas have been bred in “some kind of army test site up the mountain”, through messing with genetics and radiation as part of Operation Razorteeth, overseen by Kevin McCarthy’s morally wayard scientist Dr Robert Hoak. Courtesy of Sayles, there’s a witty commentary on politics and the environment. The project was designed to produce a creature that would destroy the river systems of the North Vietnamese, but alas, operations ended and the project was put into turn around. However, a mutant strain (of mutants) resisted the poisin and Hoak nurtured them.


While Hoak is ethically compromised, so representing the stereotypically self-deluding figure who denies culpability (“I’m a scientist. I never killed anybody. If you want to talk about killing, talk to your politicians, and the military people”), he redeems himself in a wash of frothing river blood to save a small child.


McCathy, most famously a veteran of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, would go on to work with Dante another half dozen times over the next quarter of a century, and it’s those 1950s B-trappings that most inform Piranha, rather than the ‘70s “realism” of Spielberg’s Jaws. They’re there in the monster feeding frenzies, and the oblivious holiday makers. The military even show up, although they are completely useless and it’s down to Dilman’s Grogan to save the day.


Amusingly, both our heroes are responsible for the same kind of destruction the army blithely profess is in our best interests (“Sometimes it’s necessary to destroy in order to save”). It’s insurance investigator Maggie (Heather Menzies) who lets the piranhas out (Hoak has a point when he accuses her “You pulled the plug and your holding me responsible? You’re actually blaming me?”), while Grogan’s plan to rid the river of these carnivorous terrors is “We’ll pollute the bastards to death”, through releasing industrial waste from the smelting plant tanks. Eco-disaster is thus heralded as the salvation of humanity.


Dumont: People eat fish, Grogan. Fish don’t eat people.

You can frequently feel the langoruousness pace of Piranha. At 90 minutes, it could probably have shaved 15 off and been more effective. It’s a leisurely, mostly unatmospheric ride. While there are incidental pleasures involving Dick Miller’s Lost River water park, and Paul Bartel is, yet again (following Hollywood Boulevard), a scene stealer as summer camp officiator Mr Dumont (reacting to kids throwing darts at his picture; telling Grogan – whose daughter is in attendance –  to sober up during a phone call where the latter is warning of the fishy threat; having a piranha bite his nose), too often the pace dips to a crawl.


Dante throws in occasional pleasures and distractions, from references to aquatic literature, old movies and their assorted clichés (the skinny dippers – this is still a Corman film - at the start reference the Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s a full moon, and someone is reading Moby Dick), to crass gags (a fat chap’s deck chair collapses beneath him), good ones (“Lost River Lake. Terror. Horror. Death. Film at Eleven” announces a TV reporter) to little bits of weirdness (the stop-motion mutant in Hoak’s lab, as well as the puppet one) and the occasional eye for a memorable shot (Grogan’s hand rising out of the water). There is also a fair share of nasty deaths, Keenan Wynn’s particularly, and Pino Donaggio, who was slumming it, relatively speaking, provides an effective score.


Buck Gardner: What about the goddam piranhas?
Assistant: They’re eating the guests, sir.

Piranha naturaly provides a set up for a sequel, with scream queen Barbara Steele (as military employee Dr Mengers) assuring us “There’s nothing left to fear”. Some bloke with no future called James Cameron would handle Piranha II: The Flying Killers, as Dante would be off directing werewolves accompanied by a portion of the cast (McCarthy, Miller, Belinda Balaski). The movie’s reputation as a little gem is a bit overstated, to be honest. It’s too fitfully paced to exhibit the consistent wit and unbridled flair of the director’s ‘80s efforts, poised at is between the cheap-and-cheerful Corman approach and the sensibility Dante was developing, but it’s undoubtedly been influential. And remade. Twice.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.