1978/ 1.85:1 / 92 min.
Starring Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy
Cinematography by Jamie Anderson
Directed by Joe Dante
In 1968 Joe Dante and Jon Davison teamed up to make The Movie Orgy, a counter-culture take on 1941’s comic blitzkrieg, Hellzapoppin’. Running two hours longer than Ben-Hur, the Dante/Davison opus was an epic mash up of monster movies, kids’ shows, A-Bomb tests and toothpaste commercials – the cinematic equivalent of a Will Elder cartoon.
If it had an agenda, it was pure fun – a seven-hour blow out aimed at altered college kids weened on Mad Magazine and Famous Monsters. These days Bigfoot makes more appearances than The Movie Orgy but when one of those infrequent screenings materializes audiences are galvanized by the onslaught – and surprised by what was hiding in plain sight all the time – the supposedly buttoned-down Eisenhower era was not just deeply subversive but more than a little weird.
In his 2011 essay on the Museum of Modern Art festival, “To Save and Project”, J. Hoberman wrote that Dante and Davison “reinforced the sense of a shared, cathode-ray collective unconscious in the first generation to grow up with TV.” That generation also grew up to be the young stoners in the audience for The Movie Orgy – what they probably didn’t notice was the inception of the one of the most distinctive directorial styles in American movies.
After a stint as a film critic and a couple of years as editor at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Dante joined office mate Allan Arkush in 1976 to co-direct a low-budget parody of low-budget movies, Hollywood Boulevard. In 1978 he made his solo debut with the horror-comedy Piranha.
Few directors nail down their auteur cred right out of the gate but that sophomore effort – framed with the bold strokes of a Looney Tunes cartoon and shot through a wind tunnel of film history – bears all the hallmarks of what is now accepted as The Dante Style. In some respect, all his films could be subtitled The Movie Orgy.
Written by first-time screenwriter John Sayles, Piranha begins with an adventurous young couple braving the night air for a moonlit skinny dip when, in the words of Richard Dreyfuss, they end up as “hot lunch” for the sharp-teethed monsters circling below the surface – the first hint that the Corman-produced exploitation item was conceived with one eye on the box office and the other on Jaws.
Heather Menzies plays Maggie McKeown, An investigator arrived in San Marcos, Texas to find the missing teens (she’s introduced furiously cranking the levers of a Jaws video game).
Maggie seeks out the help of Paul Grogan, an ornery recluse played by Bradford Dillman who’s more interested in the gin he’s serving up for breakfast than joining a search party. They settle into an uneasy alliance and light out for the sticks, bumping into a parade of deep-fried eccentrics lead by Hollywood vets Keenan Wynn and Kevin McCarthy.
Still cultivating the alarmist zeal that electrified the climax of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, McCarthy reveals the reason for the teens’ deaths – they were sliced and diced by a mutant strain of piranha (one particularly loathsome little devil, the work of animator Phil Tippet, makes a quick appearance only to disappear from the movie).
The vicious critters were bred as a secret weapon to be used in Vietnam – just another cog in the military-industrial machine. That cheeky but dead-serious worldview – the monsters are due on Maple Street and they’re Nixon fans – became an ongoing subtext in Dante’s work.
The hungry little monsters take a two-pronged approach to their reign of terror – advancing quickly on a nearby children’s camp (lorded over by an effetely villainous camp counselor played by Paul Bartel) while sending a separate unit toward a water park run by outrageous land developer and sometime cowpoke Buck Gardner (dressed in Grand Ole Opry drag, Dick Miller channels a lifetime of TV car salesmen).
Dante’s movie-mad casting method reaches lift-off with the odd couple pairing of Bruce Gordon and Barbara Steele. Gordon, the quintessential Frank Nitti in TV’s The Untouchables, plays the double-dealing Colonel Waxman. Steele, the villainous two-timer of Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum, brings a distinctively European flavor to San Marcos as a beautifully gloomy scientist who knows more about the piranha than she cares to admit.
Despite (or because of) everyone’s best efforts the piranha finally crash the party – swimmers of all shapes and sizes are dragged from their inflatable rafts and pool floats, resulting in fountains of blood and floating body parts (Corman’s mantra during the dailies? “More blood!”). The finale is a backwoods Bedlam, a non-stop feeding frenzy set in motion by Dante and co-editor Mark Goldblatt’s fast and furious editing and an unstoppable camera crew lead by Jamie Anderson that seems to be everywhere at once.
The plot wasn’t the only thing reminiscent of Jaws – Dante underwent Spielbergian agita when confronted with a run and gun schedule that spent much of its time in or around the water. Daunting enough if you’re buoyed by Universal’s nine million dollar budget – near impossible with New World funding (though the cash-crunch was alleviated by a co-funding deal between New World and United Artists).
Still, Corman’s frugal presence is felt – Belinda Balaski had a spectacular death scene that needed re-shooting – she swapped out her extra work day for higher billing.
Roger Corman would most likely agree with Godard – “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” Piranha was a smash – New World’s highest earning picture since the company’s inception. Its release in August of 1978, fast on the fins of Jaws 2, caused Universal lawyers to reach for their briefcases but Spielberg stepped in (he later called Piranha “the best of the Jaws ripoffs.”)
Shout! Factory’s new Blu ray Steelbook release does Piranha proud, starting with the evocative cover illustration by Nat Marsh and the superb transfer of Anderson’s cinematography, which seems pixel-perfect.
Shout has ported over several existing supplements but have gone the distance with a brand new commentary from Roger Corman himself.
The complete list of extras –
A new 4K Scan Of The Original Camera Negative Approved By Director Joe Dante
A new Audio Commentary With Executive Producer Roger Corman
Audio Commentary With Director Joe Dante And Producer Jon Davison
“The Making Of Piranha” – Interviews With Executive Producer Roger Corman, Director Joe Dante, And Actors Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski and more
Bloopers And Outtakes
Behind-The-Scenes Photo Gallery Featuring Photos From Creature Designer/Animator Phil Tippett’s Archives
Additional Scenes From The TV Version
Here’s Jon Davison on Piranha –