Joe Dante is the archetypal “fanboy made good.” A genre fan from childhood, he started out writing for Castle Of Frankenstein and later became a trailer editor at New World Pictures. He eventually transitioned into directing and became the rare filmmaker who could translate his passion for schlock into commercially successful flicks like The Howling, Gremlins and Innerspace. He first worked behind the camera as a co-director on the famous quickie b-movie tribute Hollywood Boulevard but the real beginning of his success story is Piranha, a low-budget riff on Jaws that compares favorably with its model thanks to Dante’s ingenuity and sheer genre-love.
Piranha apes the plot and exploitable attributes of Jaws closely but does so in a way that shows inventiveness and genre smarts. In Dante’s film, the unwitting heroes are Maggie (Heather Menzies), a skip-tracer who journeys to a rural area seeking a missing young couple, and Paul (Bradford Dillman), a reclusive cabin-dweller that she fast-talks into helping her. They stumble onto the site of the disappearance, a secret government testing facility with a large pool. They drain it to look for the bodies and earn the ire of Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy). He informs them that said pool contained genetically-mutated piranha capable of surviving in both fresh and salt-water environs – and the heroes have unknowingly released them into a large set of lakes.
From there, it’s a race against time to stop the piranha before they get to the heavily-inhabited lakeside areas. It’s particularly important for Paul because his young daughter is staying at a camp near the lake – and there’s also a new lakeside resort opening further down the lake shore. Maggie and Paul’s task is not easy but it gets even more difficult when the military show up and try to silence them before they can warn anyone else.
The above synopsis is a solid formula for aquatic mayhem – and Dante and crew deliver on everything it promises. However, Piranha rises above the pack because it goes about its task in an intelligent, lovingly crafted way. The basis of its savvy approach is a smart script by first-time screenwriter (and future indie-film icon) John Sayles that layers the storyline with quirky, well-drawn characters that charm the viewer into caring about them. Thus, when the monster-fish attacks kick in, it’s a pleasant surprise how dramatically involving it is because the audience is invested in these oddball heroes.
Piranha also boasts a well-chosen cast that fleshes out these characterizations. Menzies shows a nice screwball-comedy verve as the plucky Maggie and reliable character thesp Dillman brings an unfussy professionalism and dry wit to Paul to balances out Menzies’ approach. There’s also strong support from Paul Bartel, doing his always-amusing authoritarian schtick as a fascistic camp owner, and Dick Miller, who steals as few scenes as the perpetually-agitated sleaze who runs the new resort. Elsewhere, Melody Thomas and Belinda Balaski bring a surprising amount of heart to their roles as camp counselors and former Italian-horror queen Barbara Steele stylishly vamps it up as a sinister scientist.
However, the best element of Piranha is Dante’s skillful direction. He draws on his editing background to build a steady pace and carefully weaves in black humor that offsets the shocks without diluting them (pay attention to the newspaper headlines and what pops up on t.v.’s in the background). He shows his genre-fan roots by packing in as many types of effects as the miniscule budget will allow – stop-motion animation, prosthetics, opticals – and he thankfully had a crew of budding pros (everyone from Rob Bottin to Phil Tippett) to realize them. Best of all, he and co-editor Mark Goldblatt skillfully choreograph the big setpieces, cutting them in a jagged, impressionistic style that makes the viewer think they are see more than what is actually shown.
Simply put, Piranha is one of the all-time gems in New World Pictures filmography and its thorough, savvy craftsmanship ensures it remains engaging today. Dante would go onto bigger and sometimes better projects but this film proves that the verve he would show in later, greater works was already in place.