Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Piranha (1978)

When Roger Corman saw Jaws, he knew he was in trouble. As New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote at the time, “What is Jaws but a big-budget Roger Corman film?” Corman – who produced countless micro-budget genre pictures for AIP in the 50s and 60s before launching his own company, New World Pictures, in 1970 – agreed, but it was even worse than Canby let on. “But what Canby didn’t say,” Corman later explained, “was Jaws wasn’t only bigger than mine, it was better than mine.”

Hollywood, at long last, had finally thrown some real money at a B-picture and came away with not only a heck of a film but also a cultural phenomenon at the box office. This represented a clear and present threat to the workaday producers and glorified snake oil salesmen of the B-movie world. As Jonathan Kaplan, a Corman employee at the time and later a mainstream director, put it, “It was like, ‘I can’t compete with this. Their big fish is a lot more impressive than my guy in a fish suit.’”

Still, the spirit of exploitation filmmaking endured. If Hollywood could make Jaws, the Roger Corman’s of the world could produce knock-offs, some of them with “a guy in a fish suit” (like 1980’s Humanoids from the Deep), others with early creature effects from the eventual giants of their field (like Rob Bottin, Phil Tippett), but all of them with more violence and nudity than Universal would ever let Spielberg get away with.

One such film was 1978’s Piranha, which began its life simply as a title Corman test-marketed while searching for some Jaws knockoff projects. The film was ultimately made for around a tenth of the cost of Jaws and directed by a young guy, Joe Dante, who had mostly been cutting movie trailers for Corman. The result is an obvious Jaws riff, but a damn good one, arguably one of Corman’s crowning achievements. Of course, the franchise has since been sequalized, remade, and turned into mindless 3D fun. However, the original Piranha is a better movie than you’d guess.


What’s It About?

Jaws but with a school of genetically engineered, perpetually repopulating piranha instead of a great white shark

Really? It’s That Straight Forward of a Rip Off? Did They Name Their Sheriff Character Brady Instead of Brody? Or Call the Salty Old Codger Quinn Instead of Quint?

Ok. It’s not quite the one-to-one comparison you might be expecting. The exact plot revolves around Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), a people finder contracted to fly down to Texas and search for two missing campers. Once there, she enlists the help of Paul (Bradford Dillman), a local unemployed drunk, and together they track the campers to a private fishery owned but mostly abandoned by the U.S. government. A crazy old scientist (Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Kevin McCarthy) fails to stop them from draining the tank in time. There were genetically altered, highly adaptable piranha in there! By draining the tank, Maggie and Paul have released the piranha into the local rivers.

Ruh-roh.

Wouldn’t you know it, there just happens to be a summer camp for kids nearby and a little further down from there an aquatic water park is about to launch its opening weekend. Surely the people in charge will sue for caution if they get a frantic call from the town drunk ranting about flesh-eating piranha coming right for them. Right?

Underwater pov carnage ensues.

What Joe Dante Said About Making the Movie

It’s a bit of a fluke that Joe Dante directed Piranha. For the better part of the 70s, he toiled away in New World’s trailer department, and as a bit of a dare and for a salary of just $500 he took a bunch of unused footage shot from other New World films and turned it into Hollywood Boulevard, officially his (co-)directorial debut. It was pulled from theaters after just a couple of days.

By 1978, Dante was back in the New World editing suite. Corman was pushing the company to cut up some of its old movies to make them playable on TV, but for some of the films taking away the sex and violence left you asking, “What’s left?” Dante was gearing up with actor Dick Miller to shoot fifteen new minutes of footage for the film Big Bad Mama, ultimately to replace all the R-Rated footage they were taking out for TV. That fell through, though, and suddenly New World had two projects which needed a director: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Piranha. Dante really wanted the former; Corman gave him the latter.

I’ll let Dante take it from here, quoting from his interview in Maitland McDonagh’s book Filmmaking on the Fringe:

“So I inherited Piranha, which was a bad idea and a rotten script. I mean, we were remaking Jaws three years after it had come out, and Jaws II, a multimillion-dollar production, was going to open the very same summer. The first script was so bad that I convinced Roger to get rid of it, and we hired John Sayles, who had never done a script before. John solved the main script problem, which was how to get people back into the water once the piranhas had been discovered. Roger insisted on a piranha attack at regular intervals; so we wound up with two climaxes. One, [spoiler] where they attack a summer camp and kill enough kids for five pictures, and two, a big attack on a resort, which we had to have because they had one in Jaws and it meant the piranhas could attack girls in bathing suits.

Now, John and I thought this was all pretty stupid, so we contrived to make it as funny as possible.

What John Sayles Said About Making the Movie

In classic B-movie fashion, they gave the writer a small part in the movie, seen above, just so he could be on set to perform rewrites

Sayles recollection is generally but not exactly the same. In Chris Nashawaty’s coffee table book about Roger Corman’s career, Sayles recalls that when Piranha came around he’d already written several screenplays, and one of them, Eight Men Out, turned some heads in Hollywood.

By the time Eight Men Out finally became a film in 1988, Sayles had transitioned into directing and got to direct his own script.

Sayles moved to LA to make it as a screenwriter, but most still knew him for his short stories in the Atlantic Monthly. Corman’s script supervisor, Frances Doel, loved those stories and contacted Sayles’ agent about rewriting Piranha. His first draft was very serious and political, leading to a phone call from Corman about what a B-movie should really look like. Luckily, his second draft knew to mix its Cold War/Vietnam commentary with T&A and carnage.

“We were very conscious of Jaws. We knew we were dealing with fear of something under the water, and Jaws had done such a good job of that, and so we have to find ways to make characters. And a lot of what I was trying to do was make a through-line so there were characters you kept following who you didn’t want to see be eaten.”

What The Critics Said At the Time

For a period of time starting in 1978, Siskel & Ebert’s Sneak Previews – the precursor show to At the Movies – ended every episode with a “Dog of the Week” segment where the critics made their picks for the absolute worst new movie. The very first film mentioned in the very first “Dog of the Week” segment was, of course, Piranha. For that reason, enjoy the following 56 seconds of Roger Ebert trashing Piranha’s nonsensical plot points while holding a dog:

What I’ll Say Now

Of all the Jaws knock-offs, Spielberg said this was his favorite. That’s why he hired Joe Dante to come work with him on Twilight Zone: The Movie and Gremlins, a Christmas horror classic that mixes the scares with the laughs and has a surprising knack for going super dark. That’s exactly the kind of balance Dante brought to Piranha, a film that finds some fresh jokes in standard scenarios, like a girl flirting with a guard as a distraction. (“What if he’s gay?” Maggie worries beforehand. “Then I’ll distract him, and you hit him,” Paul replies after pausing a beat to realize he hadn’t actually considered that possibility.) It’s also a film where little kids die horrifically, relentless pecked by the razor-sharp teeth of killer fish.

Dante was convinced he had a turkey on his hands. He went back and cut it himself. When everyone was at the wrap party, he was in the editing bay trying to fix what he regarded as “the worst movie in history.”

It’s far from that. Piranha is the unmistakable work of a director who loves B-movies and pop culture. Dante put notable genre regulars like Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller (as the Murray Hamilton of the piece), and Barbara Steele (as an especially icy government scientist) in the cast. One of the kids at the summer camp would rather read comic books than go in the water, and the camp’s head counselor is portrayed by fellow Roger Corman employee/director Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000). Beyond that, even though the script ultimately adheres to the “kill, kill, kill” structure Corman demanded, Dante and Sayles quite successfully subvert the expected and throw in little comedy moments that catch the audience off guard.

For example, the opening with the campers directly rips off Jaws’ famous opening, but in their version rather than passing out on the beach the guy goes in the water with the girl and he’s the one who gets attacked first. Later, when Maggie and Paul race across town to warn everyone there’s a completely random moment where their attempt to pass a “Sunday driver” almost ends with them going off-road and tipping over. Afterward, they share a “maybe we should slow down just a little bit” glance.

Little moments like those abound throughout Piranha. When you pair that with stellar lead turns from Menzies and Dillman and some quality tension-building about when exactly the piranhas will attack, you end up with a wildly entertaining creature feature.

One Last Thing

They filmed all of the underwater killer fish scenes in the USC swimming pool. There were some unexpected consequences. Dante, take it away: “Unfortunately, we put so much Karo Syrup and weeds in it that it formed a fungus. They had to have experts from Sacramento come down to kill it.”

One of the film’s producers, Jon Davison, added, “The chemists that were flown down from Sacramento were quite amazed. I think USC stopped renting the pool to film companies after that.”

Where to Stream

According to JustWatch: Currently, you are able to watch “Piranha” streaming on Hoopla, Cinemax Amazon Channel, Max Go. It is also possible to buy “Piranha” on Amazon Video, Vudu, Redbox, Apple iTunes as download or rent it on Amazon Video, Vudu, Redbox, Apple iTunes online.

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Surprise

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