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ORIGINAL KILLER CULT CLASSIC OF JOE DANTE'S 'PIRANHA'

YEAR: 1978
"Joe Dante trusted me enough to listen and allow the freedom to write scenes in every show I ever did with him"
JAWS-like image
said the director's regular troupe member, Belinda Balaski, who we'll continue with later as now, from the origin is, at that time, a future arthouse/indie director, John Sayles, starting out a scriptwriter with terrific pulpy creature-features. Two for Joe Dante: PIRANHA, which you're reading about now, and years later THE HOWLING, very loosely based on a sparse, uncomplicated novel, and the screenplay's far more creative and edgy. And for director Lewis Teague, Sayles wrote ALLIGATOR, one of those "title says it all" flicks but with some depth and, best yet, an actor like Robert Forster who can legitimize anything...

Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies
And anyone familiar with COMPULSION knows that Bradford Dillman, who had won the Cannes Festival Best Actor award back in 1959, was no slouch either... 

As a bearded alcoholic divorced-dad living in a rural cabin, he makes an otherwise limited character interesting and humorous. Which, of course, has a lot to do with the script... But Dillman's chemistry with 70's scream queen Heather Menzies, who shrieked brilliantly at the end of SSSSSSS a few years earlier, makes a really good movie great: And there's no mystery as to homage since Joe Dante says, right up front on the DVD commentary, that PIRANHA is an intentional JAWS clone. But it's no carbon copy of the Steven Spielberg shark classic, taking place on a rural river instead of the ocean... the latter where the deadly Gov't-Created-for-Vietnam fanged-fish are ultimately headed. Plus there's a car chase/race against time: popular back then. But it's no shock that in PIRANHA, the real action takes place in the water...

Playing polar opposites are Bradford Dillman and Kevin McCarthy
That includes Kevin McCarthy, replacing Eric Braeden who... on the first day's shoot, after seeing the tin-shackled compound that's supposed to be his domain... literally walked away from the project: Well hell, who needs him since McCarthy, a built-in b-movie icon, does a fine job: One scene, atop a Huck Finn style wooden raft, has the environmentally-minded Dillman and Menzies blaming McCarthy's scientist for the PIRANHA in the river when, technically, it was Heather... playing a novice yet confident private investigator seeking two lost teenagers (or slightly older) from the pre-opening-credit prologue... who pulled the plug on the giant outdoor pool/tank: letting the PIRANHA flow into that river which leads, before the sea, towards...

Belinda Balaski being suited up for doom
Well that's where the JAWS homage and/or serious-satire becomes even more clear as the formidable antagonists are set to attack a camp full of kids where Bradford's daughter, cute and genuinely sympathetic without trying too hard, is afraid of the water, and then befriended by two female camp counsellors: the primary role being ingenue BELINDA BALASKI, who, as a snoopy reporter in THE HOWLING, died memorably, and her fate here is a chilling highlight that must be spoiled for this behind-the-scenes account of PIRANHA to make sense...

BB's Passage
BELINDA BALASKI (describing her death sequence, being pulled under water to her doom): There were about five crew guys at the end of the Olympic swimming pool at USC… with me at the other end of a rope! I’m a good swimmer, but was given “underwater diving lessons” by New World [Productions] and my instructor was underwater at all times with a tank/air for me as I (and Joe) needed for multiple takes. They (Rob Bottin’s crew) tied the rubber Piranha to me with fishing wire and gaffers tape-wrapped around my body (hurt like hell when they pulled it off!!!)... 

Belinda Balaski and Melody Thomas Scott
Once in the water I was batting away at the rubber fish as they released “blood” (Karo syrup, etc). They pulled me across the pool (under water) several times, but being a good swimmer it was fun! 

At dailies I remember Roger [Corman] was there and we were all quite nervous: Jon, Joe, Mike, everyone. When the scene played there wasn’t a sound in the house, then Roger boomed “More blood!!!” and got up and walked out! It was shot too wide anyway and you could see the strings… so Joe asked me if I’d reshoot, and I realized I had a “chance” finally and said only if you give me a body suit under the tape, and the billing my agent and I had asked for… Ahhhh yes, that tiny bit of power!

Poster Girl Represent Belinda?
Shannon Collins with Belinda
Back to the writeup: PIRANHA also features Barbara Steele as a backup scientist hiding something along with the military... And most important of all, it's produced by Roger Corman: and so, his former good luck charm, adopted by a few young directors, especially Dante, is Dick Miller: His character runs a river resort closer to the ocean with a horde of tourists: taking the Murray Hamilton (from JAWS) helm as the capitalist non-believer putting people's lives at risk for money (Paul Bartel does the same, without the financial aspect, as the bullying head-honcho at the kid's camp): Miller's media-covered tourist trap provides a second of two suspenseful threats, also including the aforementioned kiddie camp, both playing out with enough blood and screaming to appease horror fans as well as making the prior character-developed dialogue and scientific expository blend smoothly into what director Joe Dante and writer John Sayles could pull off with ease: making the unbelievable believable... And for that matter, it's what the young, non-famous Steven Spielberg historically triumphed with his big killer fish tale: Turning what could have been just another natural-creature-feature into priceless gold or, in this case, shiny silver.

SCORE: ****1/2
1970's JAWS Video Game
And so, in closing, on practically the same note... "There's a reason Joe became as successful as he did," writes the film's co-lead, Heather Menzies, from another archived PIRANHA email-to-email interview: "He knew how to edit in the camera. I did feel as though I was being a bit rushed, but I had done so much television that I was used to working that way. THE SOUND OF MUSIC was a luxury with all of that rehearsal and taking days to film one scene. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the finished product. During the making of the film there were times when I thought that this was going to look really hokey."
Melody Thomas Scott and Paul Bartel in PIRANHA
Bradford Dillman and Kevin McCarthy in PIRANHA
Belinda Balaski and Paul Bartel in PIRANHA
Shannon Collins in PIRANHA
Bradford Dillman in PIRANHA
Bradford Dillman in PIRANHA with Heather Menzies
Bradford Dillman in PIRANHA with Heather Menzies
Lab Creature from PIRANHA
Piranha from PIRANHA

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