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Junkfood Cinema: Piranha

By  · Published on August 20th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema: if you’re calling to complain about the noise, it’s just our hearts exploding. If this internet movie column were any healthier, you’d need a chainsaw and a daytime talkshow host to get it out of its house. Each week I throw refined tastes to the wind and rip the world wide web a new schlock hole. I will dissect one terrible movie every Friday to prove scientifically that it is in fact a terrible movie. But since science is mostly boo-hockey, I also spend more time than allowed by law singing the film’s dubious praises and pinpointing exactly why it holds a special place in my almost completely clogged heart. Speaking of clogged hearts, I will also pair each film with a disgustingly delicious snack food item in the hopes that your bodies may suffer as much as your brains; both from watching the film and being forced to read my writing.

In honor of the remake being released today, that I totally did not see at midnight even though I totally did, I thought it pertinent to dive into one of my favoritest bad films of all time: Piranha. The plot? Genetically altered piranha eat people…screaming…credits.

What Makes it Bad?

Piranha’s budget is staggering in its deficiency. You know that guy you passed near the interstate with a cardboard sign letting you know that “God is in control” and asserting that “anything helps?” That guy currently has more money in his pocket than was spent on this production. Hyperbole! As a result of its impoverished bankroll, Piranha offers some truly cheap monster effects for your viewing displeasure. First of all, the wide shots consist of several plastic fish connected by a painfully conspicuous dowel rod. It looks like a vicious swarm of church camp puppet show characters coming at you! And it’s hard to call the closeups of the piranhas scary unless you are deathly afraid of wiggling which, as it is a fish’s natural state of motion, means that you are just afraid of fish in general and would be equally terrified of Finding Nemo. At least the sound effect chosen for the piranha sounds just like…a mildly irritated schnauzer and not at all a monster fish. The especially strange thing is that the most sophisticated effects in the film are used to bring to life a Harryhausen-looking mini-iguanodon that only appears once and holds no bearing over the film itself. It’s like premature vis-effects ejaculation.

Piranha features what will no doubt go down in cinematic history as the two most bastardy heroes ever. The female lead is a skip-tracer (basically a bounty hunter without the toughness) and the male lead is a drunken townie. The skip-tracer is looking for the couple that gets eaten at the beginning of the film and winds up at the cabin of the townie. She bosses him and berates him into taking him up to a research facility where she thinks the two may be. Bear in mind, he has absolutely nothing to do with her, the facility, or the two missing kids. She just bursts into his home and arbitrarily decides that he has to help her, or else! They then proceed to break into the facility and, under no authority whatsoever, start switching off vital maintenance systems (which by the way release the vicious piranha). When the lawful owner of the facility shows up and tries to stop them (i.e. defend his own property and save lives) these two bludgeon him with a rock and start interrogating him as if HE had done something wrong. If you think of these two as quintessential Americans, it becomes easy to see why the entire world hates our guts. All I know is that this is one of the few films in which I wanted to see the heroes die within the first 20 minutes.

Like so many aquatic monster movies to be released after 1975, Piranha is every bit a Jaws ripoff. Unlike other ripoffs that only steal elements of the underwater photography or overall concept, Piranha “borrows” entire plot structures. Seriously, the movie even opens with an ill-fated night swim by a nude girl. Of course, in this version the boyfriend doesn’t end up drunk on the beach but rather just as devoured as the girl. Not only that, but where Jaws killed one kid on a raft, Piranha kills a dozen kids on inner tubes. A boldly escalated stroke of murder. Finally, we have our stalwart mayor character who in this film is actually a land developer, but his ends are the same: profits. He is fully aware of the approaching threat but refuses to cancel giant aquatic shindig X for fear of losing investors. He cares more about cash than he does the safety of the people and therefore transforms them into a floating buffet. Sound familiar?

Why I Love It!

Piranha is one of the many, many films produced by the Sultan of Schlock: Roger Corman. Corman’s body of work reads like a rundown of my favorite bad films. Any doubts you may have that Piranha is a Jaws ripoff should be subdued by the knowledge of Corman’s involvement. If there is one guy plugged into the various trends and fads of Hollywood, and simultaneously willing to exploit the shit out them, it’s Roger Corman. One need only look at one of the first inductees into the JFC family, Battle Beyond the Stars, to understand this; Corman seeing no problem ripping off both Star Wars and Kurosawa therein. The film is directed by one of Corman’s many protegees Joe Dante. Dante is one of my favorite cult directors of all time. His movies have a innately geeky quality that lets you know that he is a fan of the very same genres in which he has become a god.

To that end, and to Dante’s enormous credit, Piranha is a film fully aware of its limited budget that works within it rather than trying to convince us otherwise. Dante uses camerawork and fantastic actor reaction to take what should seem entirely bogus and make it impressively effective. The shot of the fisherman getting his legs chewed off near the beginning is surprisingly frightening. Dante is also smart enough to have his monster(s) attack large masses of people so that the level of hysteria and panic obscure a few obviously fake fish. For example, the scene at the summer camp where all the little kids are getting eaten is so shocking – as a concept, not that he is explicit with the violence – that one forgets how plastic the piranha look. That, coupled with some great performances from some seasoned actors not only sell the horror but make the film endlessly entertaining.

This cinematic pond is fully stocked with some of filmdom’s greatest character actors. The first name on the list has to be Corman/Dante mainstay Dick Miller. You may not recognize the name but, true to his status as a champion character actor, you would certainly recognize his face. He is the star of Corman’s Bucket of Blood, he is the cantankerous Mr. Futterman from Gremlins/Gremlins 2, and the guy who makes an ill-advised weapon sale to a time-traveling cyborg in Terminator. He is sensational as the greedy Texan who refuses to call off the soiree (a la the mayor in Jaws). Also popping up are horror staple Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie) and the legendary Keenan Wynn who has more roles and accolades to his name as I have personality flaws (trust me, that’s oodles). Rounding out the cast is Barbara Steele as a shady government agent trying to get the creature problem under control. Sure, she was once one of the ultimate beauties of Hammer studios, but by the time this movie ended I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be containing the fish or rapidly becoming one; seriously, watch her eyes.

This movie will always hold a special place in my heart, if for no other reason, because it was filmed just 45 minutes from where I live. Piranha was filmed mostly in San Marcos, TX which is about the only thing San Marcos can boast. And while most residents are completely oblivious to their town’s place in cinematic history, the few times I have had to visit for work have filled me with a sense of unrelenting glee. It was also filmed in Seguin, TX and Wimberly, TX and that, along with a prevalence of Lone Star Beer apparel, fills this imported Texan with dastardly pride.

Junkfood Pairing: Fish Sticks

Like real fish, only frozen and stick-like. True though it may be that Piranha is a reheated Jaws, it nevertheless satisfies in ways you don’t want to admit and were it feasible to fill my freezer with copies of the film, I would.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.