At the risk of oversimplification, there are two ways of looking at rip-off exploitation cinema – the very specific subset of movies that are clear imitations of popular hits of their day. The first is to sneer at it and say, Wow, what a comically transparent attempt to piggyback off the success of [popular film]. The second is to say all those same things, and then to say, in true improv comedy form, Yes, and? Because any schmuck can connect the dots. What’s more interesting is to then dig for what else is interesting, to see how the imitator is commenting upon the original work, and sometimes even subverting it.
Which brings us to Piranha, the 1978 aquatic horror adventure from New World Pictures, the home of the king of exploitation cinema, Roger Corman. And yes, it was a rather obvious attempt to replicate the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the biggest movie in the land three summers before; Mr. Corman was not unique in this endeavor, as theaters (mostly drive-ins) were flooded with similar rip-offs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Orca, Great White, Up from the Depths, Tentacles, Mako: The Jaws of Death, The Last Shark, Tintorera, Grizzly, Claws, and Alligator. And Corman was also cashing in on the presumed success of Jaws 2, which was hitting theaters the same summer of 1978 – so much so that Universal Pictures, which distributed the Jaws pictures, threatened to sue Corman and prevent the proximate release.
But Corman had an unexpected ally – Jaws director Steven Spielberg, who got an early look at Piranha, liked it, and told Universal to stand down. It was a huge financial success for New World, grossing $16 million on a budget of less than a million, launching the career of its director Joe Dante; it was his first solo directing credit, after cutting trailers for Corman and co-directing the New World meta-textual satire Hollywood Boulevard with Allan Arkush. And Dante so impressed Spielberg that he ended up drafting Dante to direct a segment in the omnibus film Twilight Zone: The Movie, and to direct the Spielberg-produced Gremlins. (The franchise didn’t just kick off Dante’s career; its 1982 sequel Piranha II: The Spawning was the feature directorial debut of one of Corman’s special effects artists, James Cameron.)
So what impressed Spielberg so much? Well, what’s most striking about Piranha are the qualities that would reappear throughout Dante’s filmography: his unwavering energy, and his giddy sense of humor. The screenplay is by John Sayles, the great indie filmmaker behind such classics as Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Brother from Another Planet – who famously financed those personal, idiosyncratic works by taking on less esteemed for-hire gigs like this one. (He also penned the aforementioned Alligator, as well as Dante’s next horror/comedy mash-up, The Howling.)
Sayles’s script, and Dante’s execution of it, are winkingly self-aware; they know exactly what kind of movie they’re making, and what movies they’re quoting when they’re making it. The opening sequence apes the skinny-dipping opening of Jaws, albeit with a lot more skin and a lot more gore (a good rip-off filmmaker knows exactly what they can and can’t duplicate, and more importantly, what they can crank up); not long after, the actor Kevin McCarthy is trotted out in what amounts to an extended riff on the ending of his Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or, if you prefer, on his cameo in its remake).
The broad types of Jaws are present and accounted for: the outsider, this time Maggie McKeown, a resourceful skip tracer (played by Heather Menzies); a jaded local, mountain man Paul Grogan; a local expert (McCarthy’s scientist); and a money-grubbing opportunist, this time in the form of Dick Miller’s water park impresario. The plot is nonsense, with Maggie tracing a lost couple to an off-the-map “Army test site” that houses killer piranha, genetically engineered by the U.S. government for deployment in the Vietnam War (yes, really). But Dante and Sayles know it’s nonsense, so they fill the film with broad bits (“I wonder why this place wasn’t on your map?” asks the first victim) and ironic dialogue (“People eat fish… fish don’t eat people!” insists Paul Bartel’s camp counselor).
As with many a Corman production, the special effects are not good, but Dante figures out how to sell these little monsters anyway, via choppy first-person close-ups in red water, accompanied by furious chomping sound effects. (They’re frantic little beasts, enthusiastic too – the path from them to the Gremlins is a straight line.) Ultimately, the quality of the effects doesn’t really matter anyway; craft is free, and Dante gets plenty of opportunities to show what he can do, most notably in a sharp, well-executed action sequence on the log raft, which comes apart bit by bit as the fish go at its rope ties.
And he also knows that he can go places a major studio production can’t, so the stakes are strangely higher. When he teases the notion of a piranha feeding frenzy at a kids’ summer camp, we’re nervous because it could happen in a Corman movie – and then it does, and they go all the way with it, filling the frame with screaming kids and bloodshed and fish point-of-view shots of little kicking legs. Yet even those moments don’t sour the good time, or cause anyone to take anything too seriously; in the last scene, a television reporter teases his carnage coverage with this memorable line: “Lost River Lake: terror, horror, death. Film at 11.”
“Piranha” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.