Piranha (1978) ***½
Among the earliest (and quite possibly the earliest, now that I think about it a little harder) of the Jaws rip-offs with a sense of humor, Piranha has probably aged better than any killer-marine-life movie except for Jaws itself. The main reason why, I believe, is that unlike the vast majority of its competitors, Piranha possesses a personality of its own. Whereas the makers of most movies of its time and type were content to throw together a big rubber fish, a wantonly unscrupulous businessman, and an occasion that would put lots of unsuspecting nitwits in the water and then call it a day, director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles spiced up the standard man-eating fish template with the twisted wit that so often informed the output of New World Pictures during its mid-to-late-70’s glory days, and selected a monster whose nature was diametrically opposed to that of the succession of ever-larger sharks and crocodilians which stalked the likes of Great White and Crocodile. They even had a bit of creative energy left over to pepper the film with copious inside jokes poking fun not just at the conventions of the deadly fish flick, but at the 50’s monster-rampage films which the spawn of Jaws were coming increasingly to resemble. And as the finishing touch, Dante brought in a colorful and capable cast with impeccable B-horror credentials.
Naturally, we have to start with a couple of kids blundering into a sticky situation. Barbara Randall (Janie Squire, from Cheerleaders’ Wild Weekend) and her boyfriend, David (Roger Richman, of Switchblade Sisters), are on a camping trip in the mountains when they stumble upon an apparently disused complex surrounded by a wire-mesh fence and festooned with “no trespassing” signs identifying it as some sort of US Army proving ground. Inevitably, it takes Barbara and David about five seconds after discovering a hole in the fence to decide that their evening just won’t be complete until they’ve had a look around the place. Most of the area within the fence is devoted to a big concrete pool, and Barbara gets it into her head that a moonlight swim is exactly what she and her boyfriend need. Very soon after jumping into the murky water, however, both youths are attacked by something below the surface and killed. A light switches on in one of the adjacent buildings right about when Barbara finally stops screaming.
Some time passes, and the missing kids’ families become extremely worried about them. Barbara’s parents hire skip-tracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies, of Sssssss) to investigate the disappearance, and thus it is that McKeown ends up nursing a battered Jeep with a faulty radiator over the hills in the vicinity of a cabin belonging to Paul Grogan (Monstrosity narrator Bradford Dillman, who was also in Moon of the Wolf). Paul has little desire to talk to Maggie about missing teenagers or anything else. All he really wants to do is hang out on his mountain drinking up the last of his severance pay from the defunct foundry where he used to work, wait for his daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins) to return from her summer camp beside the nearby Lost River Lake, and maybe do a little fishing upstream from the dam that created said lake with his old buddy Jack (Keenan Wynn, from The Devil’s Rain and The Monitors). McKeown is extremely persistent, however, and when Grogan makes the mistake of mentioning the abandoned military testing center further up the mountain, she somehow manages to brow-beat him into leading her to it. Like the kids she’s tracking, Maggie doesn’t scruple to let herself into the complex, and she quickly finds the pool where Barbara met her fate. She also uncovers a gold locket bearing Barbara’s initials on the pool’s concrete banks. That gets Maggie into gear, and she leads Paul into the nearest building, which is evidently some sort of biology lab. There are preserved specimens in glass jars all over the place, along with aquariums full of strange and unnatural-looking creatures and all manner of odd machinery and testing equipment. Not everything in the lab bears any visible relation to scientific pursuits, however; there’s also a heap of camping equipment hidden under some garbage in one of the corners, confirming not only that Barbara and David came to the abandoned facility, but that they probably never left it. McKeown gets to thinking about that pool again, and starts looking for the control system that might empty it out into the river. But no sooner has she found and activated said device than she and Grogan are attacked by the building’s one occupant, an old man (Kevin McCarthy, from The Howling and The Sleeping Car) in a white lab coat, who seems just as interested in re-closing the drainage valves as he is in smiting the interlopers with that gaff he’s carrying. Maggie and Paul manage to overcome the old man, though, and they head out to have a look at the now-empty pool after cold-cocking their assailant. There’s no further sign of Barbara or David, although there is what appears to be the skeleton of a large dog tangled up in the cage surrounding the main drainage port. Just as Maggie and Paul are processing the meaning of this discovery, they hear McKeown’s Jeep start up— the old guy from the lab is stealing their wheels! Luckily for them, he doesn’t get very far; he’s still reeling from that thump on the head Maggie gave him, and he drifts out of consciousness long enough to roll the Jeep over on its side after driving just a few hundred yards. Understandably figuring him for a suspect in the disappearance and perhaps even murder of Barbara and David, Maggie and Paul haul the old guy back to Grogan’s cabin once they catch up to him.
With the Jeep out of action, the question becomes how to get the man from lab down the mountain and deliver him into the hands of the proper authorities. As it happens, Paul has a 19th-century-style logs-and-lashing raft which he and his daughter built the summer after she read and became enamored of Huckleberry Finn. Suzie’s fear of the water ultimately proved stronger than her desire to emulate her newest literary hero, however, and the raft has lain idle beside the Grogan pier ever since. Paul suggests that they load their prisoner onto the raft and pole their way down the river to the dam, where there will undoubtedly be some sort of security presence. There is an unexpected development on the trip to the dam, though, in that the man from the lab finally starts talking sense, rather than just raving incoherently about something called “Razorteeth,” the way he’d been doing up to then. Turns out his name is Dr. Robert Hoak, and he’s a fish geneticist in the employ of the US Army. “Razorteeth” was the name of the project to which he has devoted the last decade or so of his life, a scheme to win the Vietnam War by infesting all the major river systems of the North with unusually aggressive and intelligent, fast-breeding, cold-water piranhas with the capacity to survive in either fresh or salt water. The army officially pulled the plug on the project after the fall of Saigon, but Hoak was kept working all by himself just in case. That pool which Maggie emptied into the river was filled with Hoak’s special piranhas, and now the whole goddamned school is on the loose. Maggie and Paul are understandably skeptical at first, but then the raft reaches Jack’s pier and they stop their scoffing right quick. The pier is slathered with blood, for one thing, and for another, Jack’s normally placid dog is standing at the end of the structure, barking its fool head off; when Grogan comes ashore to investigate, he finds his old friend dead, with his legs skeletonized from the knees down. Yup— that’s a school of piranhas for you. Hoak dies soon thereafter in an effort to rescue a young boy whom they find stranded atop an overturned canoe, and then the killer fish demonstrate how much intelligence the late biologist was able to engineer into them by gnawing at the raft’s lashing in order to separate it into its constituent logs and thereby dump its passengers into the drink. It’s just a good thing for Grogan, McKeown, and the kid that the raft is so close to the riverbank when the piranhas go to work.
They’re also pretty close to the dam, and Paul is able to reach it before the next scheduled venting of excess water. Word that the river may be full of man-eating fish travels rapidly to the right ears, and before Grogan knows it, he’s explaining the situation to Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon, from Tower of London and Curse of the Undead), the former head of Project Razorteeth, and his current pet biologist, Dr. Menger (Barbara Steele, of Five Graves for a Medium and They Came from Within). Both Army honchos make a big show of not believing a word of Grogan’s tale, but it’s obvious from their behavior that they know exactly what’s going on and exactly what the stakes are. The trouble is, Waxman and Menger are also determined to cover up the escape of Hoak’s suped-up piranhas, and when all else fails, Waxman sees to it that both Grogan and McKeown wind up cooling their heels in the local lockup.
Meanwhile, further down the river, two separate all-you-can-eat buffets are setting themselves up for the piranhas in blissful ignorance of the likely consequences of their behavior. You remember how I said Grogan’s daughter was away at summer camp? Well, that camp would be right in the path of the piranhas’ advance if they somehow found a way through or around the dam that is keeping them contained for the time being, and camp director Dumont (Paul Bartel, from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Killer Party) is inflexibly committed to his scheduled watersports competition and hell-bent on the participation of every single child in his charge, no matter how hard counselors Laura (Melody Thomas, of The Car and The Fury) and Betsy (Belinda Belaski, from Food of the Gods and The Werewolf of Woodstock) may try to intervene on behalf of water-phobic campers like Suzie Grogan. Furthermore, another few miles downstream is the new Aquarena amusement park, owned by Buck Gardener (Dick Miller, also in Chopping Mall and Not of This Earth) and— that’s right— Colonel Waxman. The Aquarena’s grand opening is scheduled for that very afternoon, and what would a Jaws rip-off be without a bunch of clueless swimsuited tourists for the fish to gobble down? As an anonymous TV newscaster will put it once it’s all well and truly over, “Lost River Lake— terror, horror, death. Film at eleven.”
While arguably not quite as successful as the subsequent Dante-Sayles collaboration The Howling, Piranha is still among the best of its breed. Like that later film, it creditably combines aggressive and unapologetic horror with unobtrusively clever comedy, and its cast reads like a fan-club wish-list of respected names from the genre’s past. The ten years since The Crimson Cult have been sadly unkind to Barbara Steele, but she’s still a powerful presence on the screen, and she acquits herself admirably in what was an unusual role for her. Dick Miller is also a pleasure to watch in one of his meatier 70’s parts; I especially enjoyed the scene in which he details for his assistant all the ways in which he was able to cut costs at the Aquarena by buying up unwanted attractions from dying and defunct theme parks across the country. (One suspects that New World boss Roger Corman was not far from the filmmakers’ minds while they were working on that vignette.) And while Bradford Dillman may not be in the same league as those two when it comes to name recognition, his performance here as the prematurely curmudgeonly Paul Grogan is surpassed, so far as I’ve seen, only by his riveting turn in Bug three years earlier. Paul Bartel, meanwhile, shares with Miller the task of personifying the movie’s sense of humor, and he’s every bit as funny here as he was later in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Relative newcomers like Suzie Menzies, Melody Thomas, and Belinda Balaski bring little to the table other than enthusiasm, it’s true, but their roles in Piranha are sufficiently undemanding that enthusiasm is more than enough to get them by.
The most surprising thing about Piranha, however, is how convincing the fish themselves are. Truth be told, the model piranhas in this film look a lot more like their flesh-and-blood counterparts than do any of the incarnations of Bruce the Shark in the Jaws series. What’s more, Dante— like Spielberg in the original Jaws— is careful to compose the fish-attack scenes in such a way as to disguise whatever shortcomings the model piranhas possess. He gets a big assist here from the editing, which very effectively suggests the confusion of a mass assault by dozens if not hundreds of small, fast-moving creatures. Altogether, the result is that the scare scenes never lapse into silliness the way they do in so many other films of this sort, and Piranha manages the remarkable achievement of keeping the laughs strictly confined to the scenes where they belong. Unfortunately, Piranha has one more point of resemblance to The Howling, in that it eventually spawned a sequel which shared absolutely none of its virtues, but again as with The Howling, that’s something we’ll talk about at some later date.