Piranha (1978)

Lost River Lake was a Thriving Resort Until They Discovered…Piranha!

Theatrical poster image for 1978's Piranha

Skip tracer Maggie McKeown has been dispatched to a rural town to search for a pair of missing teenagers. Teaming up with local drunken recluse Paul Grogan, they track the kids to an abandoned military facility and inadvertently release a school of hungry, genetically-engineered piranha into the river. Instinctually, the fish are headed downriver for the ocean, devouring everyone who gets in their way. This could (and does) include fishermen, swimmers, all of the children at the camp where Paul’s young daughter is spending the summer, and the brand-new resort (run by Dick Miller) that is teeming with people who simply can’t wait to get in the water. All of these lives aside, the more serious threat is what happens if the fish traverse the river and make their way to the ocean. From there, they will be free to mate like mad and infiltrate all of America’s waterways.

Menzies and Dillman as seen in 1978's Piranha

PIRANHA is goofy, campy, and actually quite good-natured B-movie fun, unlike that other Roger Corman produced sea monster flick HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, which is enjoyable on a much baser—and much nastier—level. As much fun as this movie is, I can’t help but feel that it could have been a better horror movie than it turned out to be. Campiness and cheeky humor aside, there were some dramatic scenes that could have and should have been much more tense than they actually were. This may be chalked up to director Joe Dante’s inexperience at the time.

It’s easy to write Roger Corman off as misogynistic, with titles like WOMEN IN CAGES (1971), THE WOMAN HUNT (1973), CANDY STRIPE NURSES (1974), and ILSA THE TIGRESS OF SIBERIA (1977) on his résumé. Some, though, actually view him as something of a feminist, and he has often employed a lot of women behind the camera. While his movies are not exactly odes to female empowerment, he’s never been afraid to utilize strong female characters. If he has to show a few breasts on film to convince the American public to part with their hard-earned dollars, then that’s exactly what he does. He is a businessman before he is a feminist (or a misogynist), and it is the profits from one film that allow him to make the next.

Maggie is one of Corman’s strong female characters. She makes a pretty good heroine, and is very bright and good at her job. She’s out of her element in the country, and she is occasionally rather flighty, but it is imperfections that make a hero interesting. And any weaknesses or imperfections that Maggie has are drastically overshadowed by Paul’s own. He is cantankerous, argumentative, withdrawn from society, and a floundering alcoholic. He is not only an unlikely hero, but he is also an unlikely single father. If an unemployed, angry drunk who lives in the wilderness is given custody of a child, one can’t help but wonder what kind of a hot mess his wife must have been.

The bridge between hero and villain is filled by Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), the scientist hired by the military to create the piranha. He occupies the moral grey area that is nearly always reserved for men of science in these films—as the middleman between manhood and godhood. By breeding these bastards, he was only doing his job, and beyond that, he was only following his passion of understanding the universe by cracking open its secrets. Without people like Hoak, we wouldn’t have any of the scientific and medical advancements that we do today. Of course, we wouldn’t have the nuclear threat, either… To his credit, Hoak did try his damnedest to prevent Maggie and Paul from releasing the piranha, and he did get some degree of redemption by the end, but that was all too little, too late.

Occupying the opposite side of the spectrum are Colonel Waxman and his dark doctor, Dr. Mengers (Bruce Gordon and Barbara Steele, respectively), who are more concerned with hiding the mess and covering their own asses than actually saving any lives. They crop up here and there to provide a human element to the menace, but really the film is about Paul, Maggie and the fish.  At the end of the film, when Mengers says that the piranha are all dead or dying and “There’s nothing left to fear,” there is a smirk on her lips and a twinkle in her eye. She’s not just incorrect, she’s actually lying. As military, she’s concerned with containing the disaster, but as a scientist, she’s really quite interested in seeing what these critters can do.

Scene of the water slaughter from 1978's Piranha

The piranha themselves don’t get an awful lot of free-and-clear camera time. They’re fast little buggers, and they’re small, so mostly we just catch brief glimpses of them. Much of the time we can’t even see them at all, and they are represented through POV shots beneath the surface while they track their prey, and bubbling bloody water once they have them. I’m not quite sure where the air bubbles are supposed to be coming from—it’s not as if the piranha have been holding their breath—but I’m also not quite sure that Paul would be able to squeal his tires on a dirt road…so maybe it’s best not to think too hard about the science of it all.

Speaking of the science, when Paul and Maggie infiltrate Hoak’s laboratory in search of the missing teens, the viewer catches sight of a stop-motion creature creeping around in the background. The characters never see it, it never crops up again, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot or story. Its inclusion has been the source of much confusion, but it reportedly was supposed to appear multiple times throughout the film, growing larger each time until it was of monstrous proportions, but budget restraints prevented that from happening. It now exists merely as an artifact of what could have been.

One can’t help but notice the inconsistencies in the strength and ferocity of the piranha. At one point, Jack (Keenan Wynn), a crusty old fisherman, has his legs picked clean to the bone in a matter of seconds, while later they can’t even manage to do more than give a defenseless child the equivalent of a few love bites. It is conceivable that during the larger attacks, their forces were too divided to do as much damage, but more than likely the fish were only as strong as the plot required them to be at any given moment.

PIRANHA is often referred to as a JAWS rip-off, but that’s not quite a fair assessment. Far from modern day’s Asylum mockbusters, this is more of a loving homage with enough of a quirky sense of humor and heart to make it stand on its own. Still, the filmmakers are quick to acknowledge the wells from which they drew their inspiration, with a number of references to other films sprinkled throughout. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is referenced by name, the low-budget THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD is seen on TV, and Maggie plays the Shark Jaws arcade game—itself an unauthorized JAWS knockoff from Atari.

Prior to taking on this project, Joe Dante had only directed two films. In the first, an epic clip show called THE MOVIE ORGY (1968), he was actually more of a creative editor, illegally stringing together seven hours of pre-existing film and television footage which he then took out as an outlaw roadshow. His second film, Corman’s HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976), was a comedy, so when PIRANHA rolled around two years later, the horror angle of the film was new territory for him. He got another shot at the horror genre with THE HOWLING (1981), and did it quite well. With GREMLINS (1984), he successfully merged the comedy and horror together, kicking off a string of fan favorite films like EXPLORERS (1985), INNERSPACE (1987), THE ‘BURBS (1989), GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990), and MATINEE (1993). He slipped beneath the radar for a few years before reemerging with two episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR (Homecoming, 2005; The Screwfly Solution, 2006), the family-friendly supernatural fantasy THE HOLE and the Netflix miniseries SPLATTER (both 2009).

The script was written by John Sayles, an independent filmmaker in every sense of the word, as well as an author. It is the script work that he has done for other filmmakers—THE LADY IN RED (1979), ALLIGATOR (1980), THE HOWLING (1981), THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (1986), and THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (2008) among them—that allows him to pay for his own more personal films, beginning with THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7 (1980) and continuing through 18 pictures (so far) to 2013’s GO FOR SISTERS, and allows him the time to write his books.

Bradford Dillman, who had a screen career spanning forty years, portrayed Paul. His filmography is too expansive to cover even just those movies that may be of interest to genre fans, but some highlights include: the narrator of the horror sci-fi flick THE ATOMIC BRAIN [also known as MONSTROSITY] (1963); the soapy nymphomaniac drama A RAGE TO LIVE (1965) with Suzanne Pleshette; the LSD-tinged amnesia murder mystery JIGSAW (1968); the supernatural soul swap film THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971), with Alan Alda and Jacqueline Bisset; ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971); the man-in-a-cage thriller REVENGE (1971); and the Jim Jones biographical drama GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED (1979). If he seemed at home battling nature in PIRANHA, that might because he had some previous experience: he had already taken on vampire bats in CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1972), cockroaches in BUG (1975), and bees in THE SWARM (1978). Gaia simply does not like the guy.

Menzies as seen in 1978's Piranha

Heather Menzies, who played Maggie, has a much more manageable résumé. She showed up in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965); Disney’s THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1969); the biographical drama JAMES DEAN (1976); the short-lived television version of LOGAN’S RUN (1977-1978), in which she offered scantily-clad sex appeal in a program which was otherwise intended for children; the original poorly received CAPTAIN AMERICA movie (1979); and the sci-fi thriller ENDANGERED SPECIES (1982), in which she appeared alongside her husband Robert Urich. She may not have had the same experience of battling nature as her costar, but she did get to take on snakes in the absurdly titled SSSSSSS (1973).

The piranhas returned (with wings!) in 1981’s PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, and received the remake treatment from Corman in 1995, this time starring William Katt. Alexandre Aja remade it again as PIRANHA 3D in 2010, and his remake received a sequel two years later—bringing the total entries in the franchise to five (six if you pretend that the ludicrous Corman production PIRANHACONDA from 2012 is part of the lineup), which, amusingly, is more than the JAWS series had.

Longevity has to count for something in this business. Just ask Roger Corman.


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