Saturday, September 24, 2016

Joe Dante, part II: Lost river


PIRANHA

Well... plastic fish being rubbed on a bunch of appliances representing human flesh is kind of scary.  I guess.

1978
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Richard Robinson and John Sayles
With Heather Menzies (Maggie McKeown), Brad Dillford (Paul Grogan), Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Robert Hoak), Keenan Wynn (Jack), Shannon Collins (Suzie Grogan), Paul Bartel (Mr. Dumont), Dick Miller (Buck Gardner), Bruce Gordon (Col. Waxman), Barbara Steele (Dr. Mengers)

Spoiler alert: moderate


In 1975, Universal Studios released a movie about a shark called Jaws.  It was, let's say, influential: both in indirect ways that we can easily credit—for it released a firestorm of audience enthusiasm for sensation and spectacle, which has remained the definitive mode of Hollywood pandering ever since—and in ways rather more direct and disreputable—which is to say, after Jaws came out, hardly a year would pass over the course of the whole subsequent decade that didn't witness the release of a half-dozen cheap-ass knock-offs, each revolving around some manner of deadly aquatic life.  Obviously, good old Roger Corman—his finger ever on the pulse of his B-movie-going audience—was bound to arrive with his own knock-offs, sooner or later.

In 1978, one of Corman's counterfeit Jawses landed with Joe Dante, who had found qualified success at Corman's New World Pictures two years earlier with his so-cheap-it-had-to-make-money feature debut, Hollywood Boulevard; and presently, our filmmaker returned to the drive-in with the first movie for which he'd earn a sole directing credit.  Piranha's script, meanwhile, arrived courtesy of John Sayles—he of the later respectable indie film career—which Sayles had elaborated from a story idea that he and Richard Robinson had cooked up previously, presumably over the course of thirty or even forty whole minutes.  Despite this somewhat cookie-cutter screenplay, Dante pursued his duties with a certain kind of messy relish.  So, let's give credit where it's obviously due: Piranha is a Goddamned quantum leap beyond Boulevard.  Why, it has noticeable suspense; it has a more-or-less coherent tone; it even uses filmmaking techniques that weren't learned from a correspondence course.  And not any of this really suggests that it's a good movie.

What does suggest that, however, is its positively baffling reputation, which is so sterling, especially considering the film's origins, that I'd usually be forced to presume that people's warm feelings toward Piranha are mainly the result of critics and audiences back-dating their affection for a creator onto what is, beyond-obviously, still one very formative work.  Now, this could apply to Dante or to Sayles; it could even apply to Piranha's make-up effects technician, a certain soon-to-be-somebody named Rob Bottin, who would go on to give us such marvels as the transformations in John Carpenter's reimagination of The Thing.

But I can't presume that, though—because it's just not the case.  In fact, the first person to call Piranha the best of the Jaws rip-offs was none other than Steven Spielberg himself, and he said so at the time.  And so when Piranha wears that title, you can see that it wears it with some small authority.  (This was the very beginning of Spielberg and Dante's acquaintance, too, and that would pay off hugely for the both of them, just a few years down the line.)

And yet, if you dig just a little deeper, the story goes a lot more like this: Universal, on the cusp of releasing of their own, official rip-off (specifically, Jaws 2: The Samening), briefly contemplated legal action to keep Piranha out of theaters entirely; and that's when Spielberg, apprised of the matter, intervened on Dante's behalf.  So, sure, I can easily believe Spielberg when he says he enjoyed Piranha; Spielberg's tastes are only slightly more trustworthy than anyone else's.  But, when gruntwork like this was less than five years in Spielberg's own past, the single keenest impulse the superstar must have felt, when confronted with Dante's burden, was solidarity.

To the barricades of artistic expression, I guess.

Frankly, Piranha seems unlikely to have inspired passion any other way.  Still, if nothing else, Spielberg certainly deserves to be commended for turning his clout against Universal's despicably frivolous lawsuit.  If their legal maneuverings had succeeded in shutting Piranha down, it could only have been because Universal had a whole hell of a lot more money than Roger Corman (who, after all, only intermittently demonstrated that he could even afford his actresses' clothes).

But I digress.  The fact is, as far as Jaws rip-offs go, Piranha is about as far away from the original as you could get without it becoming totally unrecognizable as the thing it so clearly intends to be.  It manages, somehow—and to its discredit—to hit a fair number of the same basic beats as Spielberg's fish tale.  But where Jaws offered a fearsome meditation on the majesty and malevolence of the natural world, Piranha is only another tale of human science gone awry, not unlike the 50s sci-fi from which Dante tended to draw so much of his inspiration.  Meanwhile, Piranha takes place on the rivers of smalltown America.  The ocean appears only in the very final shots of the film, as we close out upon an ominous note with hints that the film's fishy disaster has not quite been averted by our oh-so-valiant heroes.

So, let's meet these heroes: Maggie McKeown, an investigator, who departs the big city to check into the disappearance of two teenagers near Lost River Lake, and Paul Grogan, the local drunk divorc√© who lives up on the mountain where the kids were last seen.  Of course, we know a whole lot more about what happened than either one of them; but that's because we were around for Piranha's prologue, where the film's first pair of victims broke into the old government lab at the top of the mountain and went for a swim in a holding tank, which ended when the animals being held in that tank repaid each teen for their transgression by turning them into a shrieking, thrashing cloud of red food coloring.

Soon enough, however—in the span of a comic edit, in fact—Maggie and Paul are on the case together.  They drive up to the lab to see with their own eyes the various crimes against God committed by one Dr. Hoak, a crazed scientist who has spent his years developing biological weapons for the Army, for use in Vietnam (and in all the wars to come—it's commentary, everybody!).  Unfortunately, in the midst of their Scooby-snooping, Maggie releases the water from Hoak's holding tank into the river, in order to check the bottom for the kids' corpses; and yet the only person who ever holds her responsible for what she actually did—which was release a swarm of hundreds of genetically-engineered super-piranha ("bred for intelligence," etc.)—is Hoak himself.  And, for his honesty, Hoak gets bashed repeatedly in the head, till ultimately he's so brain-addled that he sacrifices himself to save a young boy in the film's only major feint toward character complexity.

More's the pity when he's played by Kevin McCarthy, of immortal Body Snatchers fame.

Our duo head downriver after the pirahna aboard Paul's convenient raft, and the stakes get higher as we pass by the victims of the monsters' riverine rampage.  Those stakes get higher still when we learn that Paul's daughter is enrolled at a downstream summer camp (run by an imperious and semi-amusing blowhard, portrayed—of course—by Paul Bartel).  And that's when Piranha threatens to get genuinely good—it's been a pretty darned good B-movie so far—and so this means, sadly, that Dante and Sayles have to run their film into the unyielding brick wall of all such films.  Yes, once more, I give you what you do not want: the Evil Government Subplot.

It never recovers from this momentum-shattering moment.  Our human villains are Col. Waxman and his own amoral geneticist, Dr. Mengers (Christ, that's the name you went with, Sayles? real subtle, man); and they are redeemed, if they are redeemed, solely to the extent that Barbara Steele, longtime veteran of the underside of filmmaking, is probably giving the film's best performance as the embodiment of Unfeeling Science.  Heretofore, Piranha had developed a wonderfully doomy mood, as Maggie and Paul plied their bloodstained river, always too late to save everyone from the problem they'd instigated.

But now, things get a lot more complicated, and a lot worse, as Piranha's plot wheels spin quite violently without anything ever really resulting from its exertions.  The duo is captured; they escape by way of goofy shenanigans; it turns out that Col. Waxman is involved in some manner of self-dealing with Dick Miller's scummy carnival barker, who has opened up a terrifically-crappy riverside "amusement park" for reasons that can best be described as "this film needs a piranha massacre and, also, boat explosions."

It turns "humanity against nature" into the vastly more prosaic "humanity against humanity"; and, in the context of a New World film, too, where this was probably never going to fly no matter what.  And so there are shades of Jaws and its own selfish mayor, except without either the nuance or the efficiency.  Ultimately, it's actually kind of tedious; and the last thing that any Corman-branded exploitation film can survive is being even a little bit tedious.

This leaves the fundamental appeal of (hopefully) seeing human beings torn apart by weaponized piranhas—something that, mostly, does not happen, at least not on the screen.  When we talked about Jaws, we talked about how it was the seen and the unseen that gives that film its special power; but, truly, Piranha isn't exactly "playing coy."  In that respect, then, it is a lot like Jaws: it simply does not have the physical ability to depict the things it mostly ever elliptically describes, and a lot of the film is a result of its ambitions vastly exceeding its grasp.  Of course, Spielberg had his ocean, and its fathomless mysteries—not to mention a semi-functional giant robot and the backing of a major studio.  Dante has a river, the backing of Roger Corman, and a buzzing beehive sound effect, which gets paired up with all those shots of barely-articulated piranha puppets getting wiggled around by their off-camera operators.

We have, in the past, used superlatives to describe Rob Bottin's work, and I dearly wish we could do the same thing here.  But in a time when gore effects were usually still interesting even when they failed, Bottin doesn't reach that minimal level.  Piranha is patently phony and, more surprising still, it's not even all that enthusiastic.  (It was rated R, but there is no comparison between it and the PG-rated Jaws that justifies this, even when you account for the obligatory tits.)  Nope: Piranha rarely invites you to get any serious visceral jolt out of its vague destruction of human bodies—not even after the fact.  And when it comes to those piranhas themselves, this film is hardly anything more than a heap of shaky close-ups, usually disaggregated right into abstraction in the editing room.  It rapidly becomes, not to put too fine a point on it, boring—to the extent you get the distinct impression that maybe piranhas aren't even the best possible subject for a monster movie in the first place.

Now, the best of Bottin's efforts here is saved for last—finally, we can actually make out what the piranha's vicious nibbling does to a human face.  Piranha does indeed have an enjoyable nerve-jangle of climax, which thankfully rescues it from being a total a waste of your time.  (Although, let's back up: before the final massacre of adults, Dante and Sayles manage to pay off pretty wonderfully on that summer camp subplot, offering up a river full of kids who get savaged.  And, frankly, any horror movie that has the intestinal fortitude to kill some children can't ever really be all bad.)

Roger Ebert had his rules for movies, and I have mine.

In the meantime, Dante gets to occasionally drop an in-joke into the proceedings, and it's a lot more organic here than in Hollywood Boulevard (for example, in Piranha, someone's watching The Monster That Challenged the World).  And Sayles' screenplay, alongside Heather Menzies' and Brad Dillford's performances, are essentially competent when it comes to our leads, so that you're not, like, annoyed to spend time with these two unlikely heroes.  Finally, it would be a shame not to mention Pino Donaggio's score—hardly his best work, either, and you'd better believe that it riffs like mad upon John Williams, but it's still a perfectly capable backdrop for Dante's watery horror.

But Piranha is hamstrung by plot elements that only serve to slow down the action and distract from the central dilemma; and it is absolutely hobbled by its low budget and lower technology.  Frankly, the idea that this was ever the best that any Jaws rip-off could aspire to be is awfully hard to square with what you get when you sit down and actually watch it.

Score:  5/10

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