Recognised by Steven Spielberg as the best of the Jaws copyists – the good natured director famously blocked a lawsuit from Universal – Joe Dante’s 1978 schlocker Piranaha is perhaps less ripping off Spielberg’s 1975 shark-attack thriller, and more pre-empting the deeply daft Jaws 3 for the sheer spectacle of rubber bity things attacking the patrons of a cheap looking water park.
Cheery private detective with a compulsion to whip her top off Maggie McKeown (The Sound Of Music‘s Heather Menzies) arrives at Lost River Lake on the trail of two missing teenagers. With the reluctant help of surly recluse Paul Grogan (The Swarm‘s Bradford Dillman) she discovers an abandoned military facility through of strange dead critters in jars and eye-rolling caretaker Doctor Robert Hoak (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers‘ Kevin McCarthy), who tries and fails to stop them draining a mysterious pond into the local Lost River through the medium of gurning and attempted murder. The good news is they find a skeleton at the bottom of the pool, but the bad news is they’ve released a clutch of mutant mega-piranhas into the local waterways where further downstream Grogan’s fey daughter endures summer camp and a Texan entrepreneurial is about to open a waterpark. UH-OH.
Producer Roger Corman may have his hands all over the concept, but its his protégé, future Gremlins director Joe Dante whose influence is most keenly felt in the watachable and rewatchable mixture of satire, slapstick comedy and grotesques physical horror. Piranha is filled with talent – Heather Menzies (The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Innerspace, Looney Tunes: Back In Action), Dick Miller (Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Howling, Small Soldiers), and Belinda Balaski (Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Howling, Small Soldiers) – who Dante would later employ repeatedly, and tropes that would become the master of suburban unease’s calling card – prescient young people, clownish authority figures, government stooges with vested interests, cantankerous old buggers, mad scientists, and idyllic, everyday locations subverted – in this case a kids summer camp.
Amazingly hammy performances, Dillman as the drunk hero and McCarthy as our mad scientist caretaker in particular are a gold standard in surly bad-assery and pantomime villainy respectively, game physical effects as piranha’s on sticks jostle for a mouthful of corn syrup, and an odd mix of Dante’s dark comedy and Corman’s bawdy concessions to lonely masturbators grinding in their seats at the drive-thru, it’s no secret why it became a cult classic and set future filmmakers off on the joyless path to last year’s Piranha 3DD.
Extra-wise there’s some contemporary behind the scenes footage of people larking about over rubber piranhas in a workshop, and a series of serviceable making-of interviews, which is pretty standard in terms of Blu-ray buyer expectations, but the HD transfer really allows Dante’s cinematography to sparkle. Even so early in his career you can see the real exceptionalism of Joe Dante’s filmmaking talent – his instinctual relationship with storytelling and his ability to construct a world where the deeply horrific and the darkly humerous co-exist so effortlessly.