Tuesday, October 06, 2015

'70s Horror Poll: Piranha

#18 (tie) - 4 Votes

Of the many Jaws ripoffs released in the years following Steven Spielberg's original classic, Piranha is by far the best. It's good enough, in fact, that Spielberg is a fan - Universal was attempting to block the movie's release the same summer as Jaws 2 until Spielberg saw the movie and persuaded them not to, later hiring Joe Dante to direct a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie and the Amblin production Gremlins. I suspect that Spielberg enjoyed Piranha because, rather than overtly parodying Jaws, it's a genuinely witty horror-comedy that works better as a thematic sibling to Jaws than that movie's own sequels.

With the movie's genetically engineered fish serving as a smaller-scale version of the Great White, much of Piranha feels like a knowingly miniaturized distillation of Jaws. The profit-minded business owners and politicians who allowed character, the owner of a kitschy water park, and screenwriter John Sayles (who'd soon go onto writing and directing more serious-minded fare) sneaks in some social commentary with the military scientists responsible for creating the weaponized fish and letting them escape. Producer Roger Corman famously let his directors do pretty much whatever they wanted provided the movie ran about ninety minutes and met his quota for bare breasts and gory death scenes, and Dante made the most of the opportunity - what could have been a generic knockoff has as much personality, dry wit and affection for B-movie stars like Miller and Kevin McCarthy as Dante's subsequent work.

Besides being quite funny, Piranha also works very well as a monster movie, making the most of its modest budget thanks to the early work of future effects legends like Rob Bottin, Chris Walas and Phil Tippett. While the movie's schools of tiny, razor-tooth villains aren't entirely convincing, the old-school practical effects work remains charming. Piranha delivers plenty of gross-out gags while still remaining safe for horror-loving kids to enjoy - it was one of the first movies I showed my son when he first started expressing an interest in the genre, and it's still one of his favorites. It also features a lot of welcome familiar faces from Corman's '70s repertory company (I especially enjoy Paul Bartel's performance as a prissy camp director). And the movie became something of a franchise in its own right, spawning a James Cameron-directed sequel and '90s TV remake (I've never seen either), an Alexandre Aja-directed remake that is the best 3D theatrical experience I've ever had, and a sequel to Aja's movie that should be avoided at all costs.

U.S. Release Date: August 3, 1978 (Also released that week: Eyes of Laura Mars, Interiors)

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