Piranha is one of those old movies I watched once as a kid and grew up completely misremembering. You see, I recall years of being impressed with it due to a scene embedded in my head where an entire summer camp of prepubescent children gets eaten alive by the carnivorous fish. Re-watching the film after so many, many years, imagine my shocking disappointment to learn that none of the children in that scene were devoured, but actually made it out alive with little more than sore bottoms and scraped knees. I suppose this is less a critique of the actual qualities of Joe Dante’s Piranha and more a critique of my poor memory.
When Maggie (Heather Menzies) and Paul (Bradford Dillman) accidentally release a school of genetically engineered super piranha from a government facility into the local river system, all Hell breaks loose. Working their way toward the ocean, where they’ll breed out of control and destroy Earth’s entire ecosystem, the piranha must first chew their way through a children’s summer camp and a riverside resort.
Joe Dante is a guy who has made a lot of movies I really enjoy. The Gremlins films alone earn him infinite credit with me, and that’s not even getting into The Howling or Twilight Zone: The Movie. Looking at his filmography, though, the guy has done some pretty rancid stuff, too. The hyperbole of “infinite credit” aside, how does one forgive a director for something like Looney Tunes: Back in Action? Thankfully, Piranha falls somewhere closer to the Joe Dante I love and not the Joe Dante I want to ignore.
Like most of Joe Dante’s catalog, Piranha is a horror-comedy, spoofing the onslaught of Jaws knock-offs that plagued the latter half of the ‘70s. Okay, sure, a few of those offerings were actually pretty good (such as Alligator and even Orca: The Killer Whale), but we’re better off forgetting the rest of them.
Unlike most of Joe Dante’s spoofs and comedies, Piranha doesn’t go overboard with the zany nonsense and screwball antics that tend to rub some audiences the wrong way. In fact, for a so-called comedy, it’s played remarkably straight, with most of the humor stemming from the idiocy of the main cast and the ridiculousness of the situation. And, well, let’s be frank here: most horror films suffer from ridiculous situations and idiotic protagonists. In that regard, if you’re so used to stupid leadss and stupid conflicts, you might not even recognize this as a comedy. Which is a bad thing.
The stupidity of the cast mostly has to do with their insistence on river-rafting their way to warn the locals when they damn well know there are man-eating fish in the water and if they capsize they will be immediately stripped to the bone. No matter how many extras get swarmed and devoured, no matter how many close-calls they suffer as the fish nip at their toes… they all just climb right back on that raft and continue downriver as though there were no other options whatsoever. The survival instinct in these people is rock bottom even by horror movie standards.
If there’s any genuine humor in the movie, I found it didn’t so much come from the parody angle but from the humorous dialogue between the characters; the scene where Paul and Maggie are arguing over how to distract the military guard keeping them under lockdown or a great exchange between a flunky and resort owner Buck Gardner (played by Joe Dante’s go-to-guy, Dick Miller). “What about the god damn piranha!?” “They’re eating the guests, sir.”
The piranha are brought to life by fish speared onto the ends of sticks, poking at people’s feet with the camera on an extreme close-up. There are a few instances of animation used to show swarming schools or one brief sequence where a fish swims right into the camera, but those are few and far between. It’s mostly ninety minutes of fish-on-stick action. I’ll admit to getting a kick out of all the carnage they cause, as Dante makes an effort to show tragedy in every aquatic recreational activity one can think of. There’s an extended waterskiing sequence that defies all odds by ending in an explosion.
If there’s anything else worth commenting on, I suppose it’s that I loved the completely politically incorrect method they used to destroy the piranha at the end: flood the river with pollution and kill all the wildlife in the surrounding area. After seeing this movie I felt compelled to write British Petroleum a letter, thanking them for keeping the piranha population in the Gulf of Mexico under control.
Piranha is definitely a fun movie and certainly more enjoyable than its James Cameron-directed sequel or either of its insipid remakes, though I don’t think it’s as funny as it could be, either.