Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1978)

2. Piranha

“Jaws” is one of the defining films of the seventies. The seventies, being a decade populated with cheaply run drive-ins and grindhouses, was also defined by low-budget rip-offs of famous hits. “Jaws,” being so successful, spawned an especially high number of imitators and would-be successors. Some – like “Grizzly,” “Claws,” and “The Car” – transposed the same formula to new locations. More common were movies that simply traded a great white shark for some other aquatic threat, like “Orca,” “Barracuda,” “Tentacles,” “Tintorera,” and countless others. Roger Cormon’s New World Pictures, never missing an opportunity to capitalize on a cinematic trend, naturally produced their own variation on “Jaws.” “Piranha” was directed by a young Joe Dante, his first solo feature as a young filmmaker. Dante would put his own distinctive stamp on the material. Steven Spielberg himself would call it the best of the “Jaws” rip-offs.

The mysterious death of two teenagers around Lost River Lake attracts the attention of insurance investigator Maggie McKeown. Soon, she teams up with local drunkard Paul Grogan. The two quickly discover a mysterious laboratory, where experiments on fish have taken place. There, government scientists were creating super-intelligent, vicious piranha that can survive in either fresh or salt water. Without realizing it, the two release the killer fish into the near-by river. Now it’s a race against time to stop the voracious piranha before they reach the heavily populated swim camps and beaches.

Despite being so early in his career, Joe Dante was a filmmaker with an already strongly defined style. “Piranha” rolls along at a zippy pace, keeping its tone relatively light. The film also benefits from a blackly humorous streak. The movie may be cheap or cheesy at times but that’s okay. The film laughs at itself before the audience can. Yet that self-aware streak is never grating or obnoxious. Dante knows to play the material just serious enough to keep things effective. Moreover, he peppers the movie with references to cheesy creature features of years past. This acknowledges the film as just the latest in a long line of cinematic monster flicks.

As a comedy, “Piranha” is frequently goofy and amusing. Most of its humor comes at the expense of local authority figures. A tiny subplot concerns the kids at the summer camp. The youngsters are lorded over by tyrannical head camp counselor, who bans comic books and forces a hydrophobic little girl to swim in the lake. However, the younger counselors do their best to undermine his authority, such as tricking him into wandering off when they want to skinny-dip. Another minor subplot revolves around the local government’s attempt to push up tourist attendance at the beach. The schemer’s entire plan involves retro-fitting old sea-side attractions, a ploy most people see through. There’s some more subtle humor around, such as the direct but clever way Maggie escapes from jail. Or an extended scene where the heroes rush to the beach, in hopes of preventing a crowd from being piranha chow. There are so many shots of the police car speeding over the hills, cut back to so regularly, that it has to be an intentional joke.

However, “Piranha” is still a horror movie. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dante was contractually obligated to deliver a gory movie. The film opens with that old chestnut of two lovers going for a naked swim in a forbidden body of water together. The man screams, pulled under by something, a huge torrent of blood flooding to the surface. Paul’s older best friend has his legs gnawed off by the piranhas, the aftermath being discovered on the shore. Probably the goriest scene in the movie’s early half has the suddenly heroic Dr. Hoak passing a child overhead to safety. Below, the killer fish tear him apart, chewing at his flesh, and turning the water red.

Dante also has a strong understanding of escalation. Though peppered with blood throughout the first half, “Piranha” really starts to get going about half-way through. The movie is edgier than you’d expect. When a bunch of little campers go out into the river, they don’t escape the piranhas unscathed. Their skin is nibbled raw. Camp councilors are pulled from the lake, bloody, huge holes torn through their skin. As in “Jaws 2,” a water-skier is attacked by the water-bound monsters. However, “Piranha” actually tops the shark sequel when two boats collide, leading to an explosion and a mid-air jump. This leads up to a surprisingly horrific climax, where a crowded beach is attacked. The movie lingers on the piranha gnashing at people’s legs and arms. Bodies quickly disappear through clouds of blood-logged water. The frenzied cutting emphasizes the panic of the situation. The gore effects, the torn-up skin and flesh, is nasty enough to make the audience squirm.

The style of shooting is effective enough to obscure the sometimes shaky special effects. Taking a page from Spielberg, Dante holds off on showing the titular threats for as long as possible. We frequently only see the aftermath of the attacks. Slowly, the movie reveals more of the piranha, usually in quick bursts. We see a school rocketing through the water or close-ups on their jaws as they bite at swimmers. The rubber fish effects are hardly convincing, despite being the work of future effects legends Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett. However, Dante is smart enough to use what he has as best as he can. The combination of direction, editing, music, and lots of fake blood actually makes “Piranha” surprisingly intense at times.

This being an exploitation movie, you get a little sex with your violence. The opening skinny-dipping sequence shows off some nudity. While sneaking through the military barricade, Maggie distracts a soldier by flashing her breasts, which obviously belong to a body double. There’s plenty of attractive young actresses in skimpy, low-cut bikinis. My favorite is the one behind the wheel of the speed boat, wearing red and white stripped swimsuit. Even during the piranha attack, a girl’s top slips loose, exposing a nipple. How’s that for combining the T&A with the blood and gore?

Another aspect adding to the fun is Joe Dante’s obvious love for classic monster movies of old. “Piranha” slips in numerous references to classic horror flicks. “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” an obvious influence, is name-dropped within the opening minutes. The movie declares its debt to “Jaws” with a “Jaws”-labeled arcade machine, that Maggie plays in her first scene. Probably my favorite throw-back is a random insertion of a stop-motion fish monster, looking and walking a lot like the Ymir from “20 Million Miles to Earth.” The little monster has no plot purpose and seems to have been thrown in just because Dante likes that kind of stuff. The best part is that Dante successfully captures the fun, loose tone of fifties B-flicks, where anything can happen.

Another element elevating “Piranha” is its leading actors. Heather Menzies, of “Sound of Music” and “Sssssss” fame,” plays Maggie. Menzies brings far more energy to the role than it demands. She always has a feather-light spring in her step. Her girlish attitude and plucky energy makes the character fun to watch. She also has solid chemistry with Bradford Dillman as Paul. At the film’s beginning, Paul is an old drunk with some obvious hang-ups concerning his ex-wife. Dillman is an undemanding and likable leading man. His character arc, of learning to care about the world again, is illustrated decently with the film’s intense conclusion. Moreover, he has fun bouncing off Menzies. A scene where the two share a blanket is funny while evolving naturally out of the characters’ personalities.

Another Joe Dante trademark is first established here. That’s his habit of packing the supporting cast with familiar faces, from cult movies past and present. The best addition to the cast is Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Hoak. McCarthy employs his great ability to yell in a sweaty, panicked frenzy. Few actors were as convincingly crazed as McCarthy. His ability as an actor makes the route role, that of a redemptive mad scientist, far more entertaining than it otherwise would have been. Barbara Steele plays one of the military scientists also involved with the project. Though older than she was in her sixties glory days, Steele has lost none of her other-worldly aura, her eyes still starring right into the viewer’s soul. She too makes a standard part more interesting just by being herself. Soon-to-be-Dante-regular Dick Miller plays Buck Gardner, the shyster selling the public on the lackluster beach. Miller’s usual greasy charms as an actor are well employed here. Also notable is Paul Bartel as the mean camp counselor. The director/sometimes-actor camps it up as the bitchy man, who is far too old to be doing this job.

Lastly, another unexpected aspect of “Piranha” that is way better than you’d expect is Pino Donaggio’s score. Any time the piranhas attack, a tense, electronic droning is added to the soundtrack. This is an easy thing that ups the tension during the attack sequences. Yet Donaggio’s score is not characterized by electronic throbbing. Instead, it’s a surprisingly lush, full score. There’s monster movie-style yelling strings throughout. But what really stands out is the soft, piano-driven, lyrical main theme that plays during many of the softer scenes and over the end credits. Like the movie itself, the music is far stronger than it ever needed to be. “Piranha” could've had a standard monster movie score and that would've been fine. Instead, Donaggio composed a beautiful piece of music to accompany this killer fish flick.

For such a small, silly movie, “Piranha” has had an unexpected legacy. A ridiculous sequel would follow, that is relevant only because it was James Cameron’s first movie. In 1995, when Showtime was remaking a bunch of New World movies for some reason, “Piranha” got a cheap remake that actually recycled many scenes from the original. Another, very loose remake would follow in 2010, which was joyously gory and very silly. That remake also got a ridiculous, awful sequel. Funny how that worked. As for Joe Dante’s original, “Piranha” is not exactly a classic. It is a highly entertaining B-movie and a good example of how the filmmaker’s skill and love of the genre could improve even the most routine of material. [Grade: B]

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