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By Pete Vonder Haar | November 15, 2002

Fishy, fishy, fishy…fish

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say “Jaws” was one of the most influential monster/horror movies of all time. It represented a convergence of almost perfect serendipity: an ambitious director, a talented cast, and a monster that has always lurked on the fringe of humanity’s neuroses. “Jaws” brought fear of sharks into the forefront of public consciousness, in spite of all the assertions that our odds of getting eaten by one were less than those of getting hit by lightning while dying of the plague, or words to that effect. And even though the hysteria has died down, the film still holds up.

“Jaws” also spawned an amazing number of imitations, just as any successful film will produce “similarly themed” retreads. The success of James Bond led to the Matt Helm spoofs, for one, and how many “Die Hard on a…something” films have we sat through in the last 12 years? Still, Dean Martin’s Helm was funny in his own way, and “Speed” was sufficiently distracting to allow most of us to forgive “Speed 2.” It wasn’t until we gave horror directors the ball that quality really took a nose dive.

The rip-offs that “Jaws” begat were, in a word, appalling. Normally this wouldn’t be that big a deal, since horror fans have learned to expect exercises of something less than Kurosawa caliber when it comes to their movies. The problem facing us post-1975 was that “Jaws” made money…staggering amounts of money. It would reign as box office champ for a blissful two years until some movie featuring a farmboy, a couple of robots, and a walking carpet knocked it off (leading to a similar quality issue in the sci-fi arena, but that’s another story). This didn’t necessarily change the tactics of those directors seeking to profit from the popularity of “Jaws.” What it did was expose many of these later efforts for the low-budget crapfests they were.

Many conversations I’ve had regarding “Piranha” (1978) have gone along the lines of, “Of all the ‘Jaws’ rip-offs, ‘Piranha’ is the best.” I’m certainly no stranger to the concept of “damning with faint praise,” but calling “Piranha” the best of the “Jaws” rip-offs is like saying Mango Lime is the best flavor MD 20/20. This is not to say “Piranha” is a horrible movie, ‘cause it isn’t. But it owes that backhanded compliment more to its comedic underpinnings than anything else.

New World Man

“Piranha” is directed by Joe Dante (“Gremlins”), in his feature film debut. Dante got his start, along with countless others, working for the venerable Roger Corman in his production company, New World Pictures. The screenplay is credited to the great John Sayles (“Lone Star”), also a Corman protégé. What we get in the end is an uneven effort, but one that’s a lot of fun to watch.

I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I see that New World Pictures logo at the beginning of a film. Trouble is, I can’t tell if it’s the good, nostalgic feeling – such as when “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” or “Battle Beyond the Stars” is about to start – or the pre-blackout-because-I-just-drank-a-bottle-of-Jim-Beam fuzziness, which is a sure sign “Def-Con 4” or “Body Rock” is coming on.

With “Piranha,” I’m somewhere in the middle.

Piranhas generally don’t rank that highly on the Scary Aquatic Things That Can Ruin Your Day list. Sharks are obviously numero uno. And I think those giant salt water crocodiles would come in second. Other “Jaws” knock-offs like “Tentacles” (showcasing some of America’s finest acting talent in a movie that probably got all their agents fired) or “Up from the Depths” tried to elevate octopi and…mososaurs (I think) in the rankings, but I’d still have to give piranhas the number three spot. They barely edge out that fish that swims up your urethra and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, mostly because I remember watching some National Geographic special where they talked about how a school of the little beasts could skeletonize a cow in six seconds, or thereabouts.

And if I have one major complaint about “Piranha,” it’s that there are no skeletonizations.

More fish talk in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “PIRANHA”>>>

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