For a genre inside a genre, it has got to be the realm of aquatic beasties that is our favorite. Whether it is the straight-up majesty of Jaws or the insanity of Leviathan, we just can’t help ourselves. We like our kills soggy. The damper, the better!
Jaws will always remain the king of this particular castle. As such it spawned a mini-genre all of its own, the Jaws rip-off. Orca, Tentacles, Blood Beach, the 1970s and 1980s were full of movies that just wanted to ride that wave.
One of these stands out as a quality entry, strangely because it has no real pretensions of quality. It’s a B-movie that knows it’s a B-movie, presented by the master of the B-Movie Roger Corman. 1978s Piranha.
Two classic 1970s B-movie teens come across an abandoned military research center in the hills around the Guadalupe River in Seguin, TX. It has a pool. The intersection point of an abandoned military research center and swimming pool = bad idea in any language.
But this is a 1970s B-movie so they decide to do some classic 1970s B-movie sexy skinny dipping. It goes about as well as expected as something in the pool attacks them and drags them beneath the surface.
A skip-tracer called Maggie is hired by the father of one of the teenagers to find them, and her search leads her first to surly backwoods drunkard Paul Grogan who she pressgangs as her guide.
Together they find the abandoned compound, which Grogan tells Maggie functioned as a fish hatchery before being militarized. Thinking the kids may have drowned in the pool they locate the drainage switch for the pool. As she begins the draining process a crazed man tries to stop her and has to be subdued by Grogan.
Later they come across the corpse of Grogan’s friend Jack, who has had the flesh stripped from below his knees and has bled to death trying to pull himself away from his dock.
The crazed man reveals himself to be Doctor Robert Hoak, lead scientist of a defunct Vietnam War project, Operation: Razorteeth, tasked with engineering a ravenous and fast breeding strain of piranha that could endure the cold water of the North Vietnamese rivers and inhibit Viet Cong movement. The project was shut down when the war ended, with Hoak tending specimens in the abandoned facilities.
Maggie’s actions have now released this shoal into the nearby river and downstream, and beyond the dam is the Lost River water park resort and the nearby summer camp where Grogan’s daughter is.
So begins a race against time as the piranha eat their way towards the resort, where an opening party is planned and some uninvited guests could appear.
Masters Of The B-Movie Universe
Even on a staggeringly tiny budget of $780,000, Corman’s New World Pictures does not disappoint. Even as a truly great movie, Jaws is, at heart, a souped-up exploitation film. It has much in common with the drive-in B-movie fodder. A Universal executive said it themselves:
“What was Jaws but an old Corman monster-from-the-deep flick?”
Corman knew this as well and wanted to revisit the aquatic killer genre again while the topic was hot. A former producer’s assistant named Jeff Schechtman had already worked with an ex-Japanese movie star called Chako Van Leeuwen on a script about piranha attacking people. They took it to Corman and he agreed to put up half the budget.
The New World chief asked Joe Dante to direct. Dante was a favorite of Corman from the New World trailer department, due to his routine trick of inserting the same footage of an exploding helicopter into his trailers to spike audience interest, even if the movie featured no helicopters at all. As Corman admits:
“Our trailers were often better than our movies!”
The first thing Dante did was work on the script, as he felt it was lacking.
“The script was frankly a little underwhelming. The author hadn’t figured out exactly what to do after people found out there were piranhas in the water.
So a bear chased them back in the water, to get eaten by piranhas. And then, once they got rid of the bear, there was a forest fire that chased people into the water to get eaten by piranha. I thought we should rewrite this.”
He turned to a little-known novelist who really wanted to get into movies and wanted, even more, the $10,000 cheque to take the bears and fires out of the story – John Sayles.
Sayles switched the tone entirely and made it less po-faced and completely tongue in cheek.
“The thing I tried to bring was a little bit of self-consciousness. Some of the fun is admitting that, okay, this is a dollar ninety-eight version of Jaws.”
Another story is that Sayles wrote a “shadow” script in which the military were the heroes. As you know from the finished version this is very much not the case. This script was sent to the appropriate authorities at the National Guard who agreed to lend soldiers and equipment to the production. Sayles simply says:
“I think what happened is they showed a different version of the script to the military. Certain things may have disappeared.”
With the script and the director in place, the usual Corman suspects were assembled such as Dick Miller and Paul Bartell, augmented by cheap but familiar-from-TV actors, including Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies, and horror icon Barbara Steele. Shooting began, challenges were overcome regarding how to make the piranha work, how to shoot above and below the water, and how to create the gore effects.
Eventually, Dante had a two-plus hour rough cut and was ready to show Corman. In a classic Corman moment, after only 20 minutes Corman got up and said:
“OK, let’s do this!”
He then went to leave the screening room. Dante tried to stop him by asking:
“Roger, don’t you want to see the prosthetic breasts getting eaten?”
Corman simply responded:
“Do I have to?”
With All This Blood You Are Really Spoiling Us
It just bounces along from attack to attack, as, after all, this is what we are here for and includes not one, but two big massacre scenes, all the way up to a wonderfully ambiguous ending.
According to Piranha legend, after viewing the dailies Corman would routinely call Dante and deliver a two-word order:
This is evident on screen as it gushes up wherever required and partially devoured victims are not hidden. Scuba divers, water skiers, boaters, swimmers, and fishermen all fall foul of the relentless fish in a selection of surprisingly inventive ways, given the fairly limited scenarios this kind of movie presents.
Yet Piranha never takes itself too seriously. The characters are straight out of the Corman playbook, they react exactly as they should be expected to and somehow this doesn’t hurt the movie at all.
Dick Millar as Buck Gardner, the owner of Lost River Lake Resort, is a highlight, as is Paul Bartell as an overbearing summer camp administrator. Both of these play the role of the standard official who downplays the risk and ignores the warnings. Glamour is provided by Melody Thomas and Corman stalwart Belinda Balaski.
At its heart, it is an exploitation flick that knows exactly what it is, as all good exploitation flicks should. Piranha is simply non-pretentious and entertaining. It is this honesty that means Piranha holds up well.
It doesn’t possess the sullen drama of Orca or the lack of self-awareness of Tentacles. It looks you square in the eye and dares you to even try and take it seriously, despite all the while playing it completely straight, and yet it never becomes camp. It’s a hard thing to achieve. Dante, of course, would go on to The Howling, Gremlins, Inner Space, and The Explorers among other movies. That’s actually one hell of a resume.
It hasn’t really aged, and it is easily among the best Jaws rip-offs. It may actually be the best. What do you think?
If you haven’t seen Piranha yet, or it’s been a while since you saw it, it’s worth catching up with, in all its 70s B-movie glory. Here is your opportunity.
Read the Last Movie Outpost’s view of why Jaws just works, here.