Even as a kid perusing the boxes at the video store, I knew that Piranha (1978) only existed because of Jaws (1975). It was easy to tell: the cover art was almost identical, and only the deadly fish was swapped out. The public of the late 70’s may have been just as cynical – if they were savvy enough, they might have noted that exploitation maestro Roger Corman was involved, which would surely justify the film’s existence – but those who caught it in the theater would have quickly discovered that this was something very unexpected after all. And a lot of people caught it at the theater (or, more appropriately, the drive-in); it was a substantial hit for Corman’s New World Pictures, and helped launch the career of Corman prodigy Joe Dante, who had previously co-directed Hollywood Boulevard (1976), but would tackle the higher-profile werewolf movie The Howling (1981) next. Dante was the key to the film’s success. You discovered, when you actually saw the film, that Piranha was much better than it had any right to be. Sure, it had killer piranha and massacres at the beach, but it was also very, very funny, in what can be seen in retrospect as Dante’s trademark style.
Maggie (Heather Menzies, of the Logan’s Run TV series) works for a missing persons agency, searching for two teenagers – whom we know were killed by piranha during a midnight swim in a pool at an army test site (since we saw it all unfold in the pre-credits sequence). To track them down, she teams with Paul (Bradford Dillman, The Swarm), a bearded, flannel-wearing, alcoholic outdoorsman. When they discover the military facility, they find evidence of strange experiments: there’s even – in a Ray Harryhausen homage – a little stop-motion creature created by Phil Tippett. The experiments were conducted by a scientist, Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who is too late to stop the hapless Maggie from flipping a “Drain Pool” switch which immediately dumps his school of savage mutated piranha from the fish hatchery into the nearby river. While the trio race downstream to warn the locals, the piranha unleash havoc at a summer camp, slaughtering both camp counselors and children indiscriminately. Corman company player Dick Miller, who would reappear in so many Dante films, has one of his most memorable roles here as Buck Gardner, a sleazy businessman opening a resort in the path of the deadly piranha – think Mayor Vaughn in Jaws, but ratcheted up a few satirical notches. Also present: Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove), Paul Bartel (director of Death Race 2000), and Belinda Balaski (Gremlins).
That pre-credits sequence may lead you to believe this will be a standard-issue Jaws rip-off: teens go skinny dipping, then screams are heard, and the water turns red. But the credits proper transition straight to the Jaws stand-up arcade game, being played by our heroine in an airport. It’s as though Dante’s speaking to the audience directly: “You can relax. We’re on the same page here, and we’re going to have fun.” What follows expresses the B-movie love that Dante has always demonstrated in his films, going all the way back to his college roadshow mash-up The Movie Orgy. Here he’s working from a screenplay by another Corman prodigy, one who would move on to an entirely different kind of directorial career: John Sayles, who also wrote the campy Corman epic Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), is now best known for his thoughtful independent dramas like Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), Baby It’s You (1983), Eight Men Out (1988), and Lone Star (1996), among many others. Given that he’s now a respected novelist as well, it’s strangely comforting to know that Sayles still wrote Piranha, dammit. But it’s a clever script, and Dante makes the most of it, happy to build a horror movie that’s equally weighted toward its characters as its monsters. About those monsters: they’re handheld puppets which don’t look half-bad, but are more cute than terrifying – an element that only adds to the film’s perennial charm.
Dante doesn’t look back too fondly upon the learning experience that was Piranha; on the commentary track to the DVD (and more recent Shout! Factory Blu-Ray) he recounts a weary, unpleasant shoot, followed by countless hours alone in the editing suite trying to fix the footage he had. But the end result is a breezy 92 minutes of monster-movie fun, something not quite captured by the inevitable remake. That 2010 film at least understood that it shouldn’t take the concept seriously, but the boobs-and-booze Spring Break approach is about as far from Dante’s retro-oriented aesthetic as possible. The sequel, which makes its intentions known with its title – Piranha 3DD – arrives in a few weeks. And, yes, I’ll go. But lest any of us complain too much, we must remember that Roger Corman’s factory was only focused upon producing commercial, pure-exploitation movies. Quality was an accidental byproduct; it’s just that he tended to hire very talented people, and let them do what they did best. The original Piranha wasn’t left alone for very long; it was a big enough success that a cash-in sequel quickly arrived, called Piranha II: The Spawning (1981). When the original director was fired, another of Corman’s ridiculously talented crew took his place: James Cameron.