Don’t Go in the Water: Piranha

It’s still officially the first week of spring so for this entry of our Re-Animated section we’ll continue with our trip through the EcoHorror subgenre. When Steven Spielberg introduced the world to Jaws he inadvertently spawned a series of rip-offs inspired by his “nature goes wild” theme. From a giant octopus in Tentacles to a man-eating bear in Grizzly, filmmakers rushed to cast in on audience interest in killer animals. Celebrated actors seemed to think they were all going to get roles in Jaw-quality films; John Huston and Shelly Winters both showed up for the awful Tentacles.

Fortunately, director Joe Dante and writer John Sayles had a sense of humour and saw some potential to riff on these B-movie ‘creature features’. Their horror satire, Piranha (1978), ingested a little fun into EcoHorror genre with their low-budget, bloody killer fish film. Three decades later French filmmaker Alexandre Aja tapped into the same spirit of Dante and Sayles with his own remake.

Piranha (1978) Was Inspired B-Film-Making

While a number of Jaws-influenced films hit theatres in the years following its release, Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978) is one of the few of these films that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Produced by legendary B-film auteur, Roger Corman, Piranha positions itself as more of a parody than outright horror. From its opening scene where two teens sneak into an abandoned military complex for late-evening skinny dip, you can see the open winks and nods to the famous opening in Jaws. Dante, who would later perfect his in-joke referencing with The Howling, litters Piranha with self-referential jokes for the keen observer. In one scene, a younger swimmer can be seen reading Moby Dick.

The man-eating fish are largely kept out of sight and while the few quick shots of the schools of piranha are admittedly cheesy it’s in fitting with the film’s overall tone.

Dante also capably handles the piranha scenes given the film’s low budget. The man-eating fish are largely kept out of sight and while the few quick shots of the schools of piranha are admittedly cheesy it’s in fitting with the film’s overall tone. In spite of the low budget, Dante sets up a few well-executed piranha scares including a boat rescue and a dwindling raft scene. The campground massacre is particularly well filmed with one camera shot of a counsellor sinking into the dark lake leaving a haunting impression. All the piranha attacks are accompanied by a hilarious whirring sound effect; it’s not quite John Williams’ familiar shark theme but further adds to Piranha’s cult-film credentials.

The blood and gore effects are also well above average for a low budget film. Younger audiences may find some fault with the effects but Piranha’s make-up effects largely hold up well. No one famous stars in the 1978 film; a few familiar character actors turn up but it’s a largely unrecognizable cast. Nonetheless, all the cast are game in Piranha and turn in fun performances that fit well with the film’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.

Piranha 3D (2010) Honours the B-Roots of its Predecessor

In the short history of this column, there have not been many instances where I have written enthusiastically about a remake. Piranha 3D (2010) is one of the rare cases were the remake capably honours the spirit of the original film while standing on its own as a bloody fun horror film. Directed by ‘New French Extremity’ filmmaker, Alexandre Aja ditches the original film’s Vietnam War-era commentary on military experimentation but keeps the eye-winking, self-deprecating humour.

In Aja’s remake, the piranha are a prehistoric breed of large man-eating fish that have been inadvertently released from a deep sea chasm following an earthquake. Like classic creature features of old, Aja slowly unveils his prehistoric monsters. The film’s opening, featuring a hilarious tongue-in-cheek cameo from Jaws alum Richard Dreyfus, gives the audience a preview of the awaiting mayhem. Dashing a few hints of his piranha in the early-going pays off with a fantastic deep sea reveal of the hordes of fish. The CGI-effects are admittedly spotty in many scenes but given the film’s stronger roots in horror-comedy as opposed to outright horror, the effects don’t detract much from enjoying Piranha 3D.

This Piranha remake scores a win with its balance of over-the-top gore and humour.

This Piranha remake scores a win with its balance of over-the-top gore and humour. The Spring Break beach massacre scene is an orgy of mangled flesh and dangling body parts that’s sure to satisfy the most ardent gorehounds. Of course all of this violence and mayhem is played for laughs. The sight of seeing Ving Rhames use a boat propellor to mow down dozens of piranha is one of the best images I can recall from a horror film in recent memory. Where Piranha 3D may lose some viewers is in its own excesses. Like many remakes, Aja’s Piranha 3D takes what worked so well with the original and opts to turn the dial up. The beach massacre scene is a pumped-up version of the original’s campground piranha attack. In addition, one character’s death, while fitting, does stoop to a literal ‘penis’ joke.

A good cast turns out for Aja’s B-movie including Adam Scott and Elizabeth Sue playing it wit straight-faces while Christoper Lloyd hams it up in a small role. Ving Rhames’ stoic presence is welcome in any film. However, the stand-out performance in Piranha 3D is easily Jerry O’Connell playing a sleazy “Girls Gone Wild” producer. OConnell is clearly having a blast in the role and his charisma is infectious whenever he is on screen.

A Fitting Double-Bill For Creature Feature Lovers

Overall, it’s hard not to give the nod to the original Piranha, which is an exercise in self-restraint compared to the remake. Younger audiences will likely prefer the remake given its quicker pacing; the original film has the more methodical pacing consistent with the time period. And there is certainly nothing wrong as the remake offers the kind of over-the-top horror fun reminiscent of films like Return of the Living Dead. But my nod still goes to the original for its more subtle riffing on Jaws.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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