Piranha (1978)recommended viewing

A little responsibility, perhaps?
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
Joe Dante
Starring: 
Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn
The Setup: 
Mutant piranha munch people along a rural river.
Discussion: 

The original Pirhana! Which I had managed not to see til now. It does provide the silly fun aspect, with fun, goofy characters, lots of gory fish attacks, some silliness and comedy, along with more than its fair share of child trauma papering over the fact that, as a narrative, it's a total mess. Features two of the most hateful main characters of all time, who cause the entire mess through their idiocy, and spend the rest of the film refusing to take responsibility.

This famed little Jaws-ripoff horror film has enjoyed a nice lingering reputation for being super-fun and showing viewers a good time, so when it was there on Netflix instant, the time was right to finally see it. This is directed by Joe Dante, who always knows how to make a movie fun, and has a screenplay by John Sayles, who went on to become a writer/director of serious dramas like Passion Fish and Sunshine State. It stars Bradford Dillman, of Bug and The Swarm, and Heather Menzies, of The Sound of Music[!!!], the Logan's Run TV series, and one of my B-movie favorites, Sssssss. We also have Kevin McCarthy, of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, horror legend Barbara Steele, and even Paul Bartel, who went on to direct Eating Raoul and Death Race 2000. And it has a nice score by Pino Dinaggio. It is a star-studded creative team!

We open with two college kids backpacking by night and entering a fenced-off chemical plant with large iron barrels largely about. They find a large industrial pool, which looks 100% terrifying and in no way inviting, which the girl pronounces as "far out!" The water is great and they decide it might be a great place for a moonlight dip. Kids really were more naive during the 70s. They enter, are soon being bitten, and within a few moments are little more than pools of blood.

After the titles, the first thing we see is the Jaws video game, acknowledging this film's rip-off status right up front. It is being played by Menzies as Maggie, who is being sent to determine the whereabouts of those two backpackers. She is presented as a can-do ditz who is determined to find those kids, even if she can't find her airline ticket. Meanwhile, we meet Dillman as Paul, a divorced dude living in a cabin along the river in Indian Springs, site of the impending massacre, as he is visited by his pal Keenan Wynn, who brings him booze and groceries. Wynn is always a delight, but unfortunately doesn't get much to do here before he's reduced to gnawed bones.

Maggie arrives and goes straight to Paul's cabin, which seems like a rather out-of-the-way place to begin one's investigation, but no matter. She is sunny, arrogant and annoying from the get-go, and demands that Paul escort her around to investigate, despite the fact that none of this has anything to do with him. He complies. Soon they also are breaking into the seemingly abandoned chemical station, where there are numerous genetic fish anomalies, including one that has legs and is wandering around, rendered in delightful stop-motion animation. They want to see if the kids bodies are in the pool, so Maggie pulls a lever to drain it. Rather presumptuous, wouldn't you say? A man appears from nowhere screaming "What are you doing?" and trying to close the gate, but our hateful heroes attack him and beat him unconscious. They go outside, and the man, this is McCarthy, wakes and takes off in Paul's jeep, driving rather erratically and ending up in a fairly vivid crash. Soon they pick him up and take off down the river on a flat raft.

Maggie, aggressive and total idiot, has emptied all of the mutant killer fish into the river. This is soon realized by Wynn, sitting with his feet dangling in the water, which are soon reduced to bones stripped of flesh. Bye, Keenan! We love you! We then cut to a little girl at a camp downstream, who is nervous about earning her swimming badge because she's afraid of what's in the water, and soon she is being scolded by a belittling bear counselor. We find out later that this is actually Paul's daughter. Soon after, a son is on a canoe when he sees his dad be partially devoured and killed four feet from him. This poor boy is actually in for a lot of trauma, coming soon.

So Paul, Maggie and McCarthy are on a raft heading downstream when McCarthy details the circumstances that led to him creating the mutant fish. It would seem that the government was, once again, developing them as a superweapon (seriously, when does the government have time to get anything done when all they do is develop superweapons?) for use in Vietnam. But when the war ended, McCarthy just stayed there, continuing his work for fun and as a creative outlet. Our smug heroes are holding him in contempt, and Maggie accusingly says "And you let them out into the river!" which seemed like an excellent time for McCarthy to respond "No, YOU let them out into the river," but he doesn't. He does address the matter by wondering that he hold him responsible, when they drained the pool, but his response is a physical threat by Paul. This became an issue for me because while I pretty much hated Maggie for running onto private property and pulling whatever lever she felt like, I started to REALLY hate her for not taking the slightest shred of responsibility. Paul too. So, from now until the end of our film, I truly hated the guts of our protagonists.

SPOILERS > > >
They get down the river and spot the boy atop the canoe. McCarthy swims to him to save him--and also redeem his character through martyrdom, which he receives handily as the boy then watches HIM be shredded four feet away. Somehow they get the remnants of the Dad onto the boat, forcing the boy to ride along in close proximity to his father's mangled corpse. Meanwhile, we keep cutting to the camp downriver, where nothing much interesting happens. Then dad's corpse is leaking blood into the water, and here come the fish, who seem to be everywhere at once. The fish start gnawing at the ropes that tie the raft together, which is perfectly logical, as anyone knows that ropes are piranha's natural enemy. The raft starts coming apart beneath them, which should be more suspenseful than it is. They are forced to throw off Dad's mangled corpse, which his son gets to see devoured at close range. That's three bloody maulings this child has seen up close, two of which were his father, and I suspect that some reparative therapy may be waiting down the line. The boy vanishes once they make it ashore, and perhaps still lies catatonic in the field where they left him.

Here's where logic leaves for good and the film starts flying all to shit, but in the most endearing way. First: The Camp! Yes, it's still running. Then Paul has to make a heroic sprint on land to stop the dude from opening the dam, which he does. But: The Camp! Still there. Then the military arrive along with Barbara Steele as a snide, dismissive researcher. She says everyone dreamed everything. Then there are dirty military secrets, and cruel, heartless military assholes, and Steele says "Some things are more important than a few people's lives." Then: The Camp! Paul and Maggie escape from first the military and then from prison, as you realize that this movie is just flailing hither and yon, but seeming like everyone involved had a great time. We get an extended and 2nd-grade reading level explanation of the geography of the place, a bit too late, and see that even though they've sealed the dam, the piranha can get to the lake--where the camp is, we now learn--by navigating this long bend in the river, are realize that piranha are, all in all, damn pesky motherfuckers.

But: The Camp! And now... the amusement park? Yep, we had a few mentions of it, not enough to really notice, but suddenly there's a huge amusement park, opening that day, along the lake. Or River. And the park doesn't seem to provide any amusements, except for the lake. Or river. What both provide are a bunch of rib-stickin' victims, which the pirhana, having navigated the region's complex geography, are licking their rigid little lips for. The kids get the munches first, and what follows is a surprisingly long scene of children being munched by fish. The movie has fish puppets, which we see in close proximity to bloody child limbs, and a lot of thrash and blur. But it's pretty effective. We keep cutting to these two female camp counselors on inner tubes, who one can't help but notice are doing nothing to protect their young charges. Most of the kids seem okay, although we did see a large amount of carnage. Paul's daughter finds the strength within her to get a canoe out to save one counselor, but the other is minced before her eyes, continuing the theme of children seeing adult caretakers rended to bloody shreds an arm's length away.

Meanwhile, the greedy, mean man who owns the amusement park doesn't want to hear about no killer fish, which are soon setting upon his guests. One wonders that the fish don't get full, eventually? This sequence is considerably gorier than the one the kids suffered, and inspiration for the remake occurs when we see the fish bite women's asses and women's bare breasts. The bad military guy gets it, and it's just a good round of fun, chaotic, all-round carnage.

But we have to wrap this up, don't we? So Paul steals a boat and he and Maggie drive to the old chemical plant, or something, which has partially sunk, for no logical reason that I can think of. So Paul ties himself to the boat and goes in to turn this lever, which will release such potent poison into the water that it will kill the entire river. I appreciated the apocalyptic environmental "solution" they are forced to come to, and that it doesn't let anyone off easy. Paul is trying to turn that rusty knob while the fish, who possess the ability to be everywhere at once, shred away. Maggie guns the boat, and Paul is pulled out to safety, although with serious ongoing skin care issues. Oh, and his daughter gets to see his seriously mangled state up close, but of course.

Well, that's it then, right? We don't need to see that the plan worked. We don't need to see any dead fish. No, let's just move on, shall we? We have a little epilogue, after everything seems to have been resolved--unbeknownst to us--where Barbara Steele announces confidently that the fish couldn't have reached the ocean (which would spell doom for mankind), but... she's been wrong before. We part with an ominous shot of the ocean, asked to contemplate the toothy terror that just may lie within.
< < < SPOILERS END

As a coherent work of fiction, a complete mess. It depends largely on questionable motives and inexplicable actions. It has heroes whom one may hate, as I did. It has an enemy that is everywhere at once. And by the second half, all coherence is lost and it lurches from thing to thing without much impact or effect. And yet... it all remains super fun, which trumps everything. You get a lot of colorful small-town yokel characters, a great many bloody fish attacks, numerous child traumas, and finally a big orgy of animal attack to make it all worthwhile.

Joe Dante, it must be said, has a knack for making movies that are fun, which is a considerable talent. I can't think of a single one of his movies that are great, yet they're all so fun they remain memorable. This one has a sense of throwing everything in and not being afraid to rush past taboos (like all those children in peril) and everyone involved seems to be having a blast, which is infectious. This gives you what you want from a killer fish movie without any of that troubling seriousness, and there's something to be said for that.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, if you like silly animal attack movies.