Thursday, 31 March 2011

Piranha (1978)

Full of fish but smelling of roses.

Image: New World Pictures

A film such as Jaws – a massive success in every way and oft-regarded as the first true blockbuster – is always going to have imitators. Of course, most of these clones and illegitimate offspring are not worth the celluloid they are printed on. Stand up Tentacles, Barracuda, L’ultimo squalo, and all your similarly stinky cohorts. However, sometimes films attempting to mirror a classic do manage to reflect some of the magic of the original. In the case of Jaws, this list of rip offs that succeed includes creature features such as Alligator, Deep Blue Sea (oh lighten up, it’s fun!) and the recently remade Piranha.
The silly but engaging plot sees a shoal of genetically modified piranha escape from the tank in which they have been held into a nearby river. Our heroes (those responsible for releasing the fish, albeit unintentionally) desperately try to stop their rampage, running from one gory set piece to another to halt the fish before they reach the lake of the summer camp where the hero’s daughter has been sent. Meanwhile, government operatives seem desperate to stop them revealing the truth to the wider public…
Unlike so many other sub-aquatic horrors (the double entendre is so very apt) Piranha has a lot going for it, as both behind and in front of the camera we find some serious class. The director is Joe Dante, who would later direct the classic Gremlins and the underappreciated but brilliant The ‘Burbs. The writer was John Sayles, who would go on to write the equally good Alligator and jokey werewolf flick The Howling, as well as both writing and directing the rather classier Matewan, Lone Star andSilver City.
The acting talent is similarly high calibre. Recognisable but not A-list, Heather Menzies and Bradford Dillman as the leads both come across as likeable and, crucially in a film like this, realistic. Barbara Steele, star of so many fifties horror films as well as the 90s Dark Shadows remake, manages to bring extra dimensions to her slim role as a shady government scientist, while Kevin McCarthy appears as the man responsible for the toothy critters, again giving the film a nice sci-fi pedigree. McCarthy is probably best known as the star of the original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (he also has a cracking cameo in the remake). In smaller parts we get Paul Bartel and (of course, this being Dante) Dick Miller.
Dillman’s desperation to save his daughter adds emotion and drive to the film, rather than being used to provide some last minute thrills (as it was in the recent remake). As we might expect from Dante, the film also has a neat line in humour. Aside from the insane plot of the film, the debts to Jaws are acknowledge from the off when we see Menzies playing a slot machine Jaws game. The witty repartee between the leads is well played, and eases audience acceptance of the more leftfield plot twists.
The film earns extra points in its description of the reason for the piranhas’ existence – they were bred for use in the canal systems of Vietnam, and remain as a reminder of America’s unethical actions in the conflict. The fact that they are allowed to escape and massacre the youth of America is a deliciously ironic twist that highlights Dante’s anti-establishment irreverence. He would later return to this stance with his well received episode of Masters of Horror, ‘Homecoming’, wherein soldiers killed in Iraq return as zombies. In Piranha the indictment of the government and military adds a nice depth but does not get in the way of the fun.
The overall impression one takes from the film is one of healthy respect. While no homage is off limits (the film begins with night-time skinny-dipping going seriously wrong, nobody believes that the threat is real until it’s too late), it is all done with a tongue firmly lodged in a cheek, and I can’t help but think that Spielberg was secretly immensely proud of the effort put in to this riff on his greatest work (note that he worked with Dante on Gremlins six years later).
Verdict: Cheap and cheerful it may be, but Piranha also has a heart and a brain, and is well worth a watch. Double bill with Alligator for maximum creature-feature fun.

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