Piranha (Joe Dante, 1978)

Was looking at Piranha and it was good fun. If Jaws is a diminution of Moby Dick, and Piranha a diminution of Jaws, maybe the smaller film's advantage is in knowing its place in the food chain, and actually scoring a joke or two off of it (an early shot shows a (remarkably primitive) Jaws video game; at one point a vacationer reads Moby Dick).

Dante gets extra points for operating at a budget several levels lower than Spielberg, and for using a script (an early effort by John Sayles) that actually seems wittier and more literate than Peter Benchley's source novel.

I love the little stop motion creature--Dante's tribute to Ray Harryhausen--wandering cautiously through the corners of Kevin McCarthy's lab; I love the lines "They're eating the guests, sir," and "Terror, horror, death--film at eleven;" I love Heather Menzies flashing her breasts (insert shot, pity) at John Sayles, after asking him "are you gay?" (who says writers don't enjoy any benefits?). I love the piranha footage, the little devils nibbling furiously away, whipping up so much blood and chaos you can't see them clearly (which makes them more effective; more, when you look at real footage from the National Geographic channel, the shots look amazingly similar); I love the brief breast shots, all creamy soft with erect nipples, and the creamy young faces above 'em (for some reason, I never liked the girl in the opening of Spielberg's film, I don't know why--was it the frizzy hair?).

I love it that Dante's smaller film picks more ambitious targets (water resorts, aquafarming, scientists ("some things are more important than a few people's lives"), the military, and the news media) than Spielberg's, and skewers them more thoroughly (not only is the military here callous and sinister, it's involved in shady land deals with water resort developers). The film's prophetic, too, in saying that the United States' weapons development programs and numerous military adventures are going to come home and bite it in the ass, literally.

DVD commentary's fun too, especially when Dante notes that 300 gallons of Karo syrup and a thousand dollars' worth of marine plants managed to create a new life form in the swimming pool they were filming in--the USC had to drain the pool and scour the walls before they could use it again.

And Dick Miller, as Buck Gardner, the resort owner--for most of the film he comes off as all sleazy and avaricious, but there's a moment near the end where he shoves aside a TV reporter filming the bloody victims and suddenly becomes human for us. Certainly it's in his interest that they stop filming, but no one in his right mind could think they would really stop, or that the news won't come out; the act seems more like a sense of disgust at the cameraman's predatory instincts, instincts he recognizes in himself as well. It's a sign of remorse, I think, and it actually comes off as moving, in the light of the catastrophe visited on his resort (ironically, the actual Aquarena resort bragged for years about being a major location site for the picture), that he's started to care about his guests.

All in all, it's a worthy no-budget alternative to Jaws--even its superior, possibly, in some aspects.


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