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A Second Look: 'Piranha'

Joe Dante's witty 1978 'Jaws' knockoff is being reissued on DVD as part of the Roger Corman's Cult Classics series.

August 01, 2010|By Dennis Lim, Special to The Times

Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," which opened 35 years ago this summer, is often credited — or blamed — for inventing the modern blockbuster: the art form, or rather economic model, that brought with it tentpole releases and long summers of big, expensive, aggressively hyped movies.

But in its immediate wake, the influence of "Jaws" could be felt on a more literal level. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a string of shockers that were designed with varying degrees of shamelessness to exploit the fear of carnivorous aquatic life: among many others, " Mako: The Jaws of Death" (1976), "Tentacles" (1977), "Orca" (1977), "Barracuda" (1978) and "Great White" (1981), not to mention the string of "Jaws" sequels that sputtered to an ignominious end with "Jaws: The Revenge" (1987).

Of all the killer-fish knockoffs, though, the wittiest was "Piranha," a deft little B-movie that rolled off the Roger Corman assembly line in summer 1978, directed by an enterprising genre-movie buff named Joe Dante. The film is being reissued on DVD by Shout! Factory this week in standard-definition and Blu-ray editions as part of its Roger Corman's Cult Classics series ("Humanoids From the Deep," a nastier "Jaws" rip-off from 1980, is also out this week, and other recent releases include "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Death Race 2000").

Like "Jaws," "Piranha" opens by equating skinny-dipping with death. Two teenagers, ignoring a "No Trespassing" sign, jump into a suspiciously murky-looking pool — and promptly end up as fish food.

The heroine (Heather Menzies) is a private investigator hired to find the missing kids. Accompanied by a gruff local recluse (Bradford Dillman), she snoops around the site of the disappearance, which turns out to be attached to a government testing facility. Over the protests of a scientist — played by Kevin McCarthy of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a genre-movie icon of the unheeded warning — our bungling heroes drain the pool, setting loose a school of genetically modified bloodthirsty piranha.

The McCarthy character survives just long enough to explain that the mutant fish were a military experiment, created to fight the North Vietnamese. The film follows the downstream progress of the piranha toward a summer camp (this is one movie with no qualms about consigning children to gory demises) and a waterfront resort whose sleazy owner (Corman regular Dick Miller) ignores all warnings with predictably bloody results.

This was Dante's first solo directorial outing after several years at Corman's New World Pictures, where he got his start editing trailers, and it establishes a distinctive tone that he has sustained throughout his career, right on the line between homage and parody. The actors — several, including Miller and McCarthy, who would go on to become frequent Dante collaborators — give performances that are once committed and tongue-in-cheek, and the effects, in contrast to the sophisticated animatronics of "Jaws," are charmingly rough and ready. The piranha attacks, accompanied by a lo-fi whir, look as if they were accomplished by shooting some rubber fish and red dye in front of a Jacuzzi jet.

Dante's fondness for intertextual references (a "Jaws" arcade game, a " Moby Dick" paperback, a mention of "The Creature From the Black Lagoon") is already evident here, as is his healthy disdain for authority. "Piranha" fits into the '70s lineage of anti-establishment horror best exemplified by George Romero, and its politics are what you might expect both from Dante (whose best recent work was done in 2005 as part of the "Masters of Horror" TV series, an anti-Iraq-war zombie-themed episode titled "Homecoming") and the film's screenwriter, John Sayles, who would become one of the more socially conscious of American independent auteurs. (Sayles and Dante worked together again on 1981's werewolf movie "The Howling.")

Universal considered an injunction against "Piranha," which was being released opposite "Jaws 2," but Spielberg reportedly called off the studio. (Dante went on to direct 1984's "Gremlins," the anti-"E.T." hit produced by Spielberg.) "Piranha" has inspired its own imitators — a 3-D version, from "Haute Tension" director Alexandre Aja, is set to open this month, with a cast that includes, of all people, "Jaws" alumnus Richard Dreyfuss. Dante stayed clear of the "Piranha" sequels, but "Piranha II: The Spawning" (1981), in which the piranha, crossed with flying fish, venture onto land, did launch an even more prominent career.

Its director was a 27-year-old newcomer named James Cameron.

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