We horror fans have been subjected to more than our fair share of remakes, reimaginings, and rip-off over the years (The Asylum has made a whole cottage industry of it!), but when is a “rip-off” really more of an homage? When is using an idea done so well by another to create a similar story of your own not merely for a cash-in, but also an effort to build upon what has gone before?
The raging success of Jaws kicked off a deluge of “nature-gone-nuts” films in the late seventies, with everything under the sun thrown at humanity: ants, killer bees, grizzly bears, rats, dogs, spiders, snakes, bats, alligators, earthworms, you name it. Not to let Spielberg’s beast be the only seafaring monster, we also had flicks like Tentacles, Barracuda, and a smattering of lesser “killer shark” films (Tintorera or Jaws Of Death, anyone?) riding the crest of the craze. Some of these were decent enough films, many were shamelessly opportunistic pieces o’ shit…
…there was one, however, that rose above the rest to become a favorite of mine.
1978’s Roger Corman produced, Joe Dante directed feature Piranha was able to break away from that aforementioned pack and distinguish itself as something more than a mere rip-off. Though it obviously (and consciously) rides the coattails of Jaws, it still manages to bring something to the table that, while perhaps not entirely original, is nonetheless different and entertaining.
Maggie McKeown is an investigator hired to locate a pair of missing backpackers, a young man and woman. After researching the last known whereabouts of the couple, she enlists the aide of local woodsman (and hopeless alcoholic) Paul Grogan to assist her with his knowledge of the area and its residents. While searching a long-abandoned military research facility, Maggie finds a locket that she had been told belonged to the missing girl next to a large resevoir of water, and she and Grogan suspect that perhaps the missing duo might have drowned. Breaking into the old outbuildings to search for a means to drain the murky pool, they discover a strange lab, full of odd specimens and research materials; not the sorts of things they were expecting. Undaunted, Maggie finds the drain controls and flips the switch…only to find that the place isn’t so deserted after all; Dr. Hoak comes out of nowhere to attack the pair, screaming for them to stop. The raving scientist is subdued by Grogan, and left unconscious while he and Maggie go to search the now empty pool.
They’re not that surprised at finding the bodies of the backpackers, but are quite surprised that they’ve been stripped to skeletons; not an ounce of flesh remains on the bones. While pondering the cause of such a gruesome fate, they notice that their jeep is being stolen; Dr. Hoak has awakened, and has commandeered their vehicle. Still addled from his beating by Grogan, however, all he manages to do is wreck the vehicle. Restrained by Maggie and Grogan, Hoak tells them of the horrendous mistake they’ve made; the pool was full of genetically-altered piranha, engineered originally as a military weapon, Operation Razorteeth; by draining the resevoir, they’ve unwittingly released them all into the nearby river. Grogan is particularly alarmed by this, as his young daughter is present at a summer camp a few miles down river from where they are; the only chance he sees to save the children is to ensure that the dam a short distance away doesn’t perform it’s daily opening to allow fresh water downstream. The trio board his home-made raft, racing against time to prevent the deadly fish from making it to the camp and the new resort just below it, but will blocking the most direct route stop a school of killers bred to be weapons?
Though obviously attaching itself to Spielberg’s star, this film is a lot of fun. It varies between shameless self-awareness (Maggie is seen playing a Jaws arcade game early in the film) to delicious tongue-in-cheek humor (a televison reporter at the scene of a piranha attack utters the deadpan line “Terror. Horror. Death. Film at eleven.”).
Going beyond being an entertaining “homage” however, the witty script by John Sayles happily breaks a common B-flick rule and actually develops his characters to a fair extent, to the point where you actually find yourself investing in them and giving a damn about what happens to them; this is a nice contrast to the staple bland, throwaway characters usually found in films of this type. Bradford Dillman brings some class to the role of Grogan, giving us a sympathetic, somehwat humorous, and genuinely real character that’s more than a mere drunken outdoorsman. Heather Menzies takes the garden-variety ditzy-but-also-bright B-movie pseudo-heroine and makes her into a character that you root for and laugh with (the jailbreak scene is priceless). Couple these two together, and you have a relatable yet entertaining duo to cheer on as the film progresses. The supporting cast is a who’s who of B-flick royalty and familiar faces; Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce Gordon, Belinda Balaski, Paul Bartel…it even has Dick Miller in a suitably grimy yet funny role as the owner of the new “river resort” , and horror film favorite Kevin McCarthy in the sympathetic and somewhat emotionally-charged role of Dr. Hoak.
Dante’s direction was solid; his clever shot composition and creative use of underwater footage was all quite impressive considering his budget and shooting time. He was also able to pull off the wry humor and winks to the audience without the film becoming a parody; a nice achievement all on its own. Topping all of this off were very fun-to-watch special effects; the piranha attacks were vicious, using rapid-fire editing and murky waters to hide any imperfections caused due to budgetary constraints; blood flows freely, and no one, not even children (which was a pretty big thing in 1978) is safe. A very young Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett both conspired on this film, showing even then the stylistic flair and skill that would mark their ongoing careers; considering the amount of money they had to work with and the challenges of underwater shooting, their FX accomplishments are made all the more impressive.
I love this flick, peeps; I’m a huge fan of Jaws as well, and although the subtle (and not-so-subtle) nods to that original classic are pretty apparent, Joe Dante’s film was done with enough skill and class to still be able to stand on its own. Spielberg himself loved Piranha, and I can’t think of a better seal of approval or indication of the film’s quality and integrity as entertainment.
If you haven’t already, give it a shot.
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