According to Hollywood lore, Universal seriously contemplated taking its lucrative Jaws franchise in a radically different direction by hiring pop prankster Joe Dante to direct a tongue-in-cheek sequel titled National Lampoon’s Jaws 3, People 0. It was not to be, though Dante would have proven both an inspired and redundant choice to direct, since his John Sayles-scripted 1978 horror-comedy Piranha already offered a lighthearted, lightly satirical take on Steven Spielberg’s 1975 suspense classic. Spielberg wasn’t amused by Universal’s plans, so it’s funny that Dante later experienced his greatest critical and commercial success with his Spielberg-produced Gremlins movies, which offered a similarly smartass, irreverent take on another of his mentor’s beloved creature features, E.T.
Part Jaws spoof, part homage, part knockoff, and part extremely effective calling card/demo reel, Piranha casts Bradford Dillman as a drunken loner who gets a chance for redemption when he stumbles upon a sinister brood of super-intelligent, genetically engineered piranha. With the help of plucky insurance investigator Heather Menzies and Kevin McCarthy, the scientist behind the malevolent flesh-eating fish, Dillman tries to keep the underwater menace from feeding at a summer camp and water park before heading out into the ocean and afflicting all humanity.
Like Spielberg before him, Dante conveys the predatory menace of the killer fish largely through inference; he suggests much but shows little. Dante makes the most of his modest budget by using a creepy, viscerally unsettling sound design, a menacing score, and point-of-view shots to create suspense in lieu of expensive special effects or sophisticated puppetry. Dillman lends gravity and substance to what could have been a stock role, and Dante repertory players Paul Bartel and Dick Miller are hilarious as the deservedly loathed head of the summer camp and the smarmy impresario behind the water park, respectively. Piranha isn’t as nakedly satirical or as funny as Dante cultists might like, but it’s an impressive act of craftsmanship that deftly balances comedy and horror. With Piranha, Dante delivers a superior Jaws rip-off with a light, goofy touch that anticipates the anarchic, gleeful mayhem of his later work. Hopefully, Piranha’s Blu-ray release and the upcoming high-profile 3-D remake will also prompt the Blu-ray release of the first film’s sequel, a little-loved 1981 cheapie about flying fish directed by another filmmaker destined for better and slightly bigger things: James Cameron.
Key features: An entertaining Joe Dante commentary highlights a typically bonus-packed Shout! Factory special-features package.