As we celebrate the release of Joe Dante’s THE HOLE at DE, Phil takes a look at one of his favorite Dante flicks, his first solo directorial effort PIRANHA. Phil notes that the titular fish act just like Stripe and the other Gremlins. The flick’s plenty fun, and subversive in a way that only Joe could bring.
My original review of PIRANHA started off quoting the first line of my Icons of Fright review of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: “Sometimes a horror movie is more than just a horror movie.” My intended point was that though horror can be high minded, it was okay for a film to have no higher aspirations than to rip off JAWS in the service of Roger Corman. What I didn’t realize then was that I had missed a major point of comparison between the two films, and in turn their directors. Joe Dante and George Romero are two of film’s great subversive forces, and although PIRANHA has none of the political undertones of Romero’s first film, it certainly does turn the nature gone awry concept on its ear. That it does so with Dante’s particular sense of humor makes it a fun film, which its recent remake was not.
The movie starts off with two campers stopping for a midnight skinny dip in the pool area of an abandoned military research base. One look at the film’s title, and it’s not hard to guess what comes next. Enter Heather Menzies playing private detective Maggie, dispatched to find the couple. She comes across Bradford Dillman’s character Paul at home in his cabin and hooks him into driving her to the base. Once there, she accidentally hits a switch and releases the title characters into a river. Blood, carnage and madness ensue as the piranhas eat everyone who crosses their path. It’s up to Dillman and Menzies to stop the carnivorous fish, all the while eluding the military who put the project in motion.
The genius in PIRANHA lies in its anarchic view of a world gone mad. A bearded, disheveled Kevin McCarthy perfectly embodies the shambles that are science; a madman creating bizarre hybrids in his lab, he’s the 1970s incarnation of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein, playing with things he shouldn’t be. The military behind the project, represented by Barbara Steele, is cold and calculating, but otherwise a failure in leaving the doctor to conceal things. Hell, it can’t even contain Maggie and Paul, once it has them behind bars. Both branches of authority have failed, and let thousands of sharp-teethed fish out to consume everything they come across.
Casting a negative glance on authority symbols, the film asks us to sympathize with Paul, the outsider who’s a lot brighter than the people running the show. Paul bucks the system, acting as a symbol for both the film and its director. It’s a perfect starting point for Dante’s solo directing career, as he’s spent the last 35 years as the outsider, subverting the Hollywood system even when working within it. Don’t believe me? Check out GREMLINS 2, and then try to argue me.
Fortunately, Dante brings his anarchic sense of humor to the proceedings. Played straight, this would’ve been a silly 1950s programmer, or even worse, GRIZZLY. Audiences would have laughed at it for the wrong reasons. But Dante and screenwriter John Sayles are well aware this is a JAWS rip off, and do everything not to take themselves or their serious subject matter too seriously.
Just look at the dialogue of Dick Miller’s variation of Amityville’s mayor. He’s more used car shyster than elected official, as only old pro Miller could play him. Once those fish get free and start swimming downstream toward his big event, all Hell is soon to break loose in the zaniest fashion. Miller’s reactions are priceless, and exemplify the whole humor of the film. And when Dante heads the piranha straight toward a summer camp of kids, he plays it like one of his favorite Looney Tunes cartoons down to the last, crazy bite.
As for the fish themselves, they’re indiscriminant and nasty. An uncredited Phil Tippett, famous for his creature effects on George Lucas’ STAR WARS trilogy and other blockbusters, designed them; and there’s some solid early work from Rob Bottin, who would go on to helm the werewolf effects in Dante’s next feature, THE HOWLING. The violent attacks proves this qualifies as a horror flick.
If I have one minor quibble, it’s that all the attacks are basically the same. But there’s only so much any director can do with a school of small, man eating flesh, and Dante jazzes things up elsewhere, with a massive explosion and Dillman’s attempts to save the world from the piranha as they head for the open seas.
Of course some humans are on the screen too. Menzies’ spunk balances off Dillman’s grumpy performance. Paul Bartel is funny as the worst camp counselor in film history. And it’s nice to see Belinda Balaski in her first Joe Dante film. She’s one of Joe’s regulars, and an especially nice actress to meet. All in all, a nice mix of veterans and youth.
There’s also a solid score from Pino Donaggio, which is… well, just like any other Pino Donaggio score: intense and driving, but it could also be the same work he did on THE HOWLING or DRESSED TO KILL. Not a bad thing, mind you.
The disc for PIRANHA boasts a few special features, the gem of which is a commentary track with Dante and producer Jon Davidson. I love Dante’s commentary tracks. The man knows his stuff about the genre, and is genuinely likable in a frenetic sort of way. He relays some great stories about the movie, and also some of the quirks of working for the legendary Corman. Some other minor extras round things out. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the menu layout. The options appear on screen underwater, with our titular fish swimming in the background. Choose an option, and there’s a nifty surprise in store.
So sometimes a horror flick is actually more than it appears. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, and Dante is just subversive enough to make an audience enjoy something that’s a little deeper that it looks.