Piranha

1978/ USA

Director: Joe Dante

Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies-Urich, Kevin McCarthy

Words: O. Innocent

The runaway success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) changed a lot of things; the way movies are marketed, the summer blockbuster formula, public perceptions on sharks and swimming in the sea. It also popularised animal horror, inspiring a spate of clones scrambling to make their titular beasts the next big thing. When Jaws blew the floodgates open, all manner of creatures both great and small were awarded their own starring roles. Of course, there were a lot more sharks to be found with the likes of Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976), Tintorera: Tiger Shark (1977) and The Last Shark (1981) openly aping Spielberg’s killer shark formula. Taking to the land to dissuade us from making comparisons to Jaws were Grizzly (1976), Day of the Animals (1977) and Prophecy (1979). Not convinced that sharks were the scariest things swimming about in the ocean, other filmmakers brought us such self-explanatory sea creature titles as Orca: The Killer Whale (1977), Tentacles (1977) and Barracuda (1978). While the aforementioned films can no doubt provide hours of schlocky entertainment, perhaps the best of the bunch is Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), where the eponymous fish, mutated as a military experiment, are accidentally let loose to ravage a rural riverside community.

The perfect coalescence of producer Roger Corman’s fast-paced bang for your buck exploitation entertainment and director Joe Dante’s witty referential humour, Piranha stands as a shining example of low-budget B-Movie filmmaking done right. Corman and Dante know they can’t top Jaws so they each address this problem in their own inimitable way. Knowing that a film like Piranha can never match a highly regarded quality film like Jaws, Corman simply ups the exploitation quota, providing blood, nudity and high-octane action aplenty. Indeed, while the film doesn’t have the sheen or money of Jaws, what it does have is action, and lots of it; there are car chases, boat stunts, explosions, and scenes of mass fish-related hysteria and the ensuing bloody feeding frenzies to distract from the low-budget. Dante, on the other hand, solves the problem by embracing the fact that his film is a Jaws rip-off, and not taking the admittedly ridiculous premise too seriously. Letting us in on the joke from the offset, Dante has one of the characters play a Jaws arcade game, showing us that, yes, we do know we’re copying Spielberg’s film, but we’re going to have a lot of fun doing so. There’s also a scene towards the end of the film where a sunbather is reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, further cementing its position as a first-rate pastiche of fish and water-related popular culture.

Talking of riffs on pop culture, Piranha is also an unashamed throwback to the creature feature B-Movies of the ‘50s. Paying ample homage to the monster movies he grew up with, Dante infuses Piranha with the same kind of outlandish exuberance and cheap ‘n’ cheerful excess that made black and white big bug movies like Them! (1954) so enjoyable. With its overblown score, over-the-top characterisations, questionable science and mutated monsters, it is easy to see where Piranha’s influences lie. In turn, Dante’s film has itself proved highly influential, its influence being felt in everything from teen slashers like Friday the 13th (1980) (the lakeside camp setting, teens in peril, copious amounts of bare flesh and bloody wounds, etc.) to later animal horrors like Deep Blue Sea (1999). What’s most interesting about Piranha, however, is how its blending of horror and humour served as a blueprint for much of Dante’s later work, arguably reaching its zenith in Gremlins (1984) and The ‘Burbs (1989).

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