Of course, the “artistic” success of Piranha as a whole cannot be put purely upon Dante’s shoulder, for the film was as much a labour of love for him as it was for the movie’s scriptwriter John Sayles. A true Renaissance Man, Sayles has long found true critical success as an independent filmmaker with a vision, the maker of such little people movies as Passion Fish (1992) and Lone Star (1996). Prior to his advance to critical respectability, however, Sayles helped pen some of the true favourites of New World Pictures trash, including The Lady in Red (1979), Alligator (1980), The Howling (1981) and Battle beyond the Stars (1980). (My hope is that one day Sayles might decide to return to his trash roots, if only for one more movie.)
Piranha opens with a typical horror movie conceit: two brainless teenagers go somewhere they shouldn’t, do something they shouldn’t and then die from it. In this case, two young Kiwi backpackers slip into a closed governmental compound and then go skinny dipping in the swimming pools they find there. Some nice boobs are briefly shown, but the pleasantly natural love pillows (like the unseen wiener) quickly become fish food. Reporter Maggie McKeown (former Playmate Heather Menzies and widow of TV macho-man Robert Ulrich) is soon on the scene in search of a story. Bulldozing the alcoholic and unwilling semi-hermit Paul Grogan (Bradford “I-never-said-no-to-a-script” Dillman) to help her, they make their way to the compound where, as little mutant lizards scurry around unnoticed in the background (a fun if somewhat out-of-place homage to Ray Harryhausen), they: 1) discover that the teens were there; 2) empty the big pools into the nearby river; and 3) knock out the resident mad scientist Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy, who starred in the original The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)). Hoak ends up wrecking the jeep while attempting to escape, and in no time flat all three are floating downriver aboard a homemade raft. Hoak eventually explains that the pools contained deadly piranhas, the hybrid results of a nasty governmental war experiment. (Oddly enough, though his guilt in the creation of the fish is often referred to, McKeown’s culpability in releasing the creatures onto the world as a whole is brushed aside in seconds and never mentioned again.) The race is on to reach the damn further downriver before the regular release of the run-off. Along the way the dead, half-eaten body of Grogan’s nearest neighbour and pal Jack (character actor Keenan Wynn) is discovered and a young boy is saved even as his father disappears in a rage of red, bubbling water. Though Grogan is indeed able to stop the damn from being opened, the military and government sent mad-scientist Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) not only refuse to take the needed additional action to stop the fish from escaping down a subsidiary creek, but also put McKeown and Grogan under “tent arrest.” With the help of McKeown’s glandular pulchritude the two are soon on the run, trying to get to Grogan’s child at the kiddy summer camp even further downriver before the camp holds its summer swimming competition. Atypical of these types of films, though Grogan’s kid remains unharmed, a lot of prepubescent innocents actually become fish food. The run is now on to get to the new water park opening even further down the river, but all to no avail, for as one employee tells his boss soon enough, “Sir, the piranhas are eating the guests.” (Unlike on television, the movie version of this scene is a long one with a lot of red-coloured water, ripped flesh and naked, if mostly unexceptional, bitten tits.) Though an alcoholic, Grogan’s brain cells are obviously not pickled for somewhere along the way he realises that if the genetically altered fish make it to the ocean the world is lost (amongst other abilities the fish share is that they can survive in both fresh and salt water). Now the race continues yet again, this time to reach the closed factory downstream, in hope of releasing gallons of deadly chemicals into the river—major environmental pollution as the saviour of mankind as we know it....
Needless to say Piranha, like the less entertaining Alligator, is an unabashed rip-off (inspiration?) of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). But in as much that Spielberg’s film is also simply a well-made version of untold other creature-in-the-water/nature- turns-against-man films, one cannot really accuse Dante and Sayles of unoriginality. Besides, not only do the two hold their inspiration up proudly—they even make a few sight gags, such as a video game, to bring the source home—but the film is done with its tongue planted so knowingly in its cheek that Piranha seems less an imitation than a lampoon, all the while still supplying the necessary exploitive aspects needed, wanted and loved in truly fun cinema trash.
Artless filmgoers out there, you know who you are! Do yourself a favour and catch Dante’s version of Piranha—the original, the best, the most entertaining. (Then, if you want to go up on the sleaze and down on the “artistic” claims, follow-up Dante’s movie with the original 1980 Corman production of Humanoids of the Deep.)