Water Foul: “Piranha”



Next up in “Water Foul” is perhaps the most famous and beloved of the “Jaws” knock-offs: Joe Dante’s “Piranha.”

“Piranha” was directed and co-edited by Joe Dante, who has also been behind “Small Soldiers,” “Gremlins,” “The ‘Burbs,” and “The Howling.” He also runs the popular website “Trailers From Hell,” in which he has filmmakers and effects gurus talk about b-movies while narrating classic trailers.

The writers on “Piranha” were Richard Robinson (“Kingdom of the Spiders”) and John Sayles, who has since received two Academy Award nominations for his screen writing (“Passion Fish” and “Lone Star”). He also wrote a number of other notable horror and sci-fi movies, including “Battle Beyond The Stars,” “Alligator,” and “The Howling,” the last of which was also directed by Joe Dante.

The cinematographer on “Piranha” was Jamie Anderson, who has also shot films like “Small Soldiers,” “Bad Santa,” and “The Girl Next Door.”

The effects team for “Piranha” was headlined by creature designer Phil Tippett, who later worked on “RoboCop,” “RoboCop 2,” “RoboCop 3,” “Howard the Duck,” “Willow,” “Jurassic Park,” “Star Wars: A New Hope,” and “The Golden Child,” and Rob Bottin, who later did special effects on “The Thing,” “Total Recall,” “RoboCop,” “Se7en,” “RoboCop 3,” “Fight Club,” and “The Howling.” The rest of the team included Vincent Prentice (“Roar,” “Heartbeeps,” “Toys”), Jon Berg (“Gremlins,” “Laserblast”), Robert Short (“Chopping Mall,” “Splash,” “1941”), Chris Walas (“Humanoids From The Deep,” “The Fly”), Bill Hedge (“It’s Alive 3,” “Species”), and Peter Kuran (“League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “Lake Placid,” “Q”).

piranha2The producers for “Piranha” were led, of course, by b-movie king Roger Corman. The others were John Davison (“Grand Theft Auto,” “White Dog,” “RoboCop”), Japanese actress Chako van Leeuwen, and Jeff Schechtman (“Killing Zoe,” “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning”).

“Piranha” was co-edited by Mark Goldblatt, who has since become a proficient editor, cutting such films as “Super Mario Bros.,” “Enter The Ninja,” “Predator 2,” and “Humanoids From The Deep.” He also directed a couple of cult classics in the late 1980s: “Dead Heat” and 1989’s “The Punisher.”

The score for “Piranha” was provided by Pino Donaggio, who also wrote the music for “Carrie” and “The Howling.” He is best known, however, for writing the 1966 hit “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.”

The cast for “Piranha” included Bradford Dillman (“The Iceman Cometh”), Heather Menzies (“The Sound of Music”), Kevin McCarthy (“Slipstream,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), Keenan Wynn (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Twilight Zone”), Dick Miller (“Chopping Mall,” “A Bucket Of Blood”), Barbara Steele (“Black Sunday”), Belinda Balaski (“The Howling”), and Paul Bartel (“Eating Raoul,” “Chopping Mall”).

piranha4The story of “Piranha” takes place at mysterious, shut down government facility on the edge of a river. After two teenagers disappear in the area, the facility’s water tank is drained into the river in an effort to find the bodies, unknowingly releasing a genetically enhanced species of piranha created by the government into the water system. The rest of the film follows a desperate attempt to kill the murderous fish, and rescue the unknowing townspeople down-river.

“Piranha” was reportedly made for under $700,000, with only $50,000 of it spent on special effects. considering that the piranhas were portrayed by fish puppets on sticks, I suppose that is a pretty believable number.

Peter Fonda was apparently offered the lead role in “Piranha” due to his long-standing relationship with Roger Corman, but he ultimately turned the part down because of the low special effects budget.

Reportedly, the production of “Piranha” was plagued with issues, such as technical problems with the cameras, constant threats to shut down the production for going over budget, and the second unit making amateur mistakes that rendered much of the footage useless.

Universal Studios attempted a lawsuit against the production due to its extreme similarities to “Jaws,” but Steven Spielberg ultimately liked the movie, and apparently convinced the studio to drop it before it went anywhere.

An earlier, unrelated “Piranha” movie was made in 1972 starring William Smith (“Hell Comes To Frogtown”), which apparently doesn’t feature a whole lot of killer piranha action. It’s available on YouTube, but be warned that it has an abysmal 2.7 on IMDb.

The success of “Piranha” led to a number of sequels and remakes, including “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning,” “Piranha (1995),” “Piranha 3D,” and “Piranha 3DD.” The remakes were successful enough to even inspire a 2010 ‘mockbuster’ made by The Asylum: “Mega Piranha,” which, for those keeping track, is a knockoff of a remake of a knockoff of “Jaws.”

Piranhas, much like sharks, have a lot of myths that surround them, which were perpetuated by the “Piranha” film. The popular perception of piranhas as ravenous killing machines in North America apparently traces back to Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote about a school of piranha eating a cow while he was traveling in the Amazon. While piranha are certainly carnivorous, they aren’t a particular danger to humans, and attacks are rare: usually contained to specific conditions where food is scarce for the fish.

The reception of “Piranha” was mixed, though it is certainly regarded as a cult classic today. It currently holds an IMDb rating of 5.9, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 72% (critics) and 42% (audience).

It is estimated that “Piranha” managed to gross $16 million in its theatrical run, with a particularly high portion of it ($10 million) coming from international markets.

“Piranha” is undoubtedly a shameless “Jaws” clone, but it is probably the best of the lot of them. Watching it side by side with, say, “Devil Fish,” you can’t help but appreciate the quality of the work here.

A lot of people consider “Piranha” to be a bit of a “Jaws” parody, and I just don’t see it. It has some funny moments, but it is a pretty straight horror/monster movie, and the content is never played for laughs as far as I could tell. Particularly when compared to later Dante films like “Gremlins” and “Gremlins 2,” “Piranha” is about the most true and pure horror movie that the man ever made.

piranha3I can’t help but be a bit forgiving about the piranha effects, which are undoubtedly cheesy. That said, they look astounding for the budget, and the shots are similarly constructed and designed after “Jaws,” meaning that the audience doesn’t actually have to see much of them. Considering that, they serve their purposes just fine.

“Piranha” interestingly capitalizes on anti-government sentiments that had grown over the course of the Vietnam era, and makes specific references to biological and chemical warfare that was intended to be used in the conflict. Concerns about nerve gas, agent orange, and other ethically dubious tools of war were (and still are) a serious concern that sits in the back of many minds, and Dante uses that fact as part of the plot. Joe Dante has described the film as working with the concept of “the war comes home,” which may sound a little ridiculous for a movie about killer piranha, but the parallel actually works pretty well for the film.

“Piranha” bogs down a little bit in sections in order to just kill random people and throw extra gore into the mix, which was apparently an edict from Roger Corman, who felt that the film needed as much gore as possible to sell it.

Overall, “Piranha” is not an awful watch. It is fun to see where Joe Dante and the now-prominent effects workers came from, and the quality is pretty excellent for such a low budget flick. Clearly there was lots of crafty work done to make the feature what it is. For fans of b-movies, “Piranha” is absolutely essential. As good-bad watch, there are better options out there for sure. I hear an awful lot of bad things about the sequel, so your eyes peeled for a feature on that one soon.


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