Piranha/The Howling

An appreciation of a horror duo by Joe Dante and John Sayles, written in 1984 for The Informer.

Piranha and The Howling, by Robert Horton

As Pirahna opens, the camera descends out of darkness, finds a chain fence in the foreground and, continuing its downward motion, sees an old, battered sign: NO TRESPASSING. This shot is a gag, a reference to the opening shot of Citizen Kane, which also surveys a fence and a No Trespassing sign. It’s not every el cheapo exploitation killer fish pic that starts with an homage to Kane, but this particular low-budget wonder is the work of director Joe Dante and writer John Sayles. The title Piranha had been handed to Sayles by legendary low-rent mogul Roger Corman, who found that the word “piranha,” in marketing tests, scored high on the cinema Richter scale, a Jaws cash-in just waiting to be made.

The opening shot does duty beyond the in-joke. It establishes that there’s something secretive and probably nasty out there in the forest. And with this gambit, Dante displays an attitude he will continue to to flaunt — and improve on — through his next films. This attitude is: When you’ve got to convey narrative information, why do it simply? If, in the space of a few seconds, Dante can make his plot point and an impertinent joke, why not? There’s that early moment in Gremlins when the young hero jogs down main street; in Dante’s layered treatment, we get 1) the information that a guy is in a hurry 2) camera movement and town layout imitative of It’s a Wonderful Life, which is about to turn up on TV and be a key source of the film’s parodistic energy 3) a movie theater marquee flitting by with the titles A Boy’s Life and Watch the Skies, which just happen to be the working titles of two films by Steven Spielberg (E.T. and Close Encounters), who just happens to be the “presenter” of Gremlins. Not everybody will get all that, but Dante doesn’t seem to mind.

Piranha continues, in its opening moments, to a spooky nighttime forest, and we hear a voice: “It’s got to lead somewhere.” And as far as Dante and Sayles are concerned, if it’s got to lead somewhere, why not let it lead to the super-secret laboratory of a slightly-mad scientist who has been cultivating for military purposes a deadly strain of piranha that attack at will and can live in both fresh and salt water? Which is exactly where it leads. Two backpackers slip under the fence, see the pool, and decide the time is right for a dip. Well, you remember how Jaws began. The piranha start nibbling and the credits start rolling (white letters that slide into the pool and turn red — what else?). After the credits, another brazen shot: a close-up of the word “Jaws,” from which the camera pulls away to reveal a video game based on the movie.

So the people who made the film have a sense of humor. But there has been an erroneous tendency to characterize Piranha and The Howling as horror spoofs. Ditto for Lewis Teague’s film of Sayles’ Alligator. To be sure, Piranha sometimes threatens to fall apart between the tenson of its jokes and its bloodshed: there’s an exchange of dialogue late in the film, during the big piranha attack at a resort called Aquarena, in which an assistant comes up to the boss and tells him something’s up with the piranhas. “What about the piranhas?” says the harried boss (played by Roger Corman — and Joe Dante — favorite Dick Miller). “They’re eating the guests, sir,” says the flunky, concerned that he’s not bothering the top man. The incongruous joke dropped into an honestly-mounted suspense sequence is a tactic better developed in The Howling, notably in a terrifying scene with heroine Dee Wallace confronted by a mad killer she saw shot in the head and presumably killed some days before (we know he’s a werewolf). He backs her into a corner and says, “I want to give you a piece of my mind,” at which point he sticks his finger into one of the cranial bullet holes and — well, ecch. Here we were, in the middle of this suspenseful scene, and an extremely disgusting and funny gesture comes out of the blue. This kind of thing blossoms into full flower in Gremlins, which has a number of scenes that walk a narrow margin between horror and hilarity, culminating with the moment Phoebe Cates, in the midst of the gremlin hullaballoo, explains her antipathy for Christmas.

The charge of spoofery misses the fact that The Howling really works as a horror movie. It’s scary, and never less than scary for also being funny and crammed with B-movie allusions (John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, released within a few months of The Howling, managed a similar comic-horrific balancing act). Piranha, too, is a real movie, not a send-up. Its backbone is a story of redemption: that of a river man (Bradford Dillman), alcoholic and misanthropic, who is resurrected in the act of searching for the backpackers and pursuing the piranha as the fish flee down the river in the direction of the Aquarena resort and a riverside summer camp which his daughter attends. The redemption-of-alcoholic thread isn’t fresh, nor is it handled in a manner that transcends the cheapie circumstances, but it’s a smart solid base on which to build a little horror picture.

Heather Menzies plays an investigator, looking for the backpackers, who stirs Dillman from his hermetic existence. The mad scientist (Kevin McCarthy) who headed the military project that spawned the killer fish (“Operation Razorteeth” — a plan to build a better piranha and destroy the river systems of North Vietnam) begins shouting things like, “There’ll be no stopping them now — they’ll kill all of us!”, as though he just stepped out of the final shots of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Delirious, McCarthy wrecks their only land transportation, which means the group must travel downriver in a raft, which means — in pragmatic movie terms — the main characters can’t just keep away from the river, as they logically should. But that would stop the story. So our heroes get to a dam, where they contact the authorities; but the lead scientist, played by sultry Barbara Steele, is more interested in the survival of the project than saving a few lives.

At this point a plan to gather the fish at the dam and then poison them brings on a choice Sayles exchange. Dillman asks, “What if the fish realize they’re bein’ slaughtered and head back upstream or something?” To which Steele replies, “You’re talking about fish…they don’t realize much of anything.”

The fish go downstream, of course, and Piranha fulfills its Corman-dictated rhythm of one manifestation of frothing bloody water every ten minutes, culminating in big attacks at the resort and the camp. It’s worth noting that at both of these places, a character who has been buffoonishly funny (Miller as the slimy resort manager, glorious Paul Bartel as the camp counselor) is allowed a moment of grace in the midst of the carnage. These turnarounds are a little awkward, but they indicate an effort to paint the narrative in something other than black-and-white. The end of Piranha, as with almost every horror picture since (at least) Halloween, suggests that the horror isn’t really over. The last moments go to Barbara Steele, the still-beautiful horror queen of the 1960s, who ends things on a suitably ambivalent shiver.

The Howling looks and moves better than Piranha. Once we get to The Colony (a self-help retreat, but actually a cover for a commune of werewolves, run by guru Patrick Macnee, ) the film is very tight. Sayles’ witty dialogue bounces it along, and the social satire keeps an edge on things. But even more than Piranha, this is Dante’s movie. He fills it with so many bits and jokes appropriated from hither and yon that the combined borrowings become a magpie style of his own. Every product with the brand name “Wolf” is dragged on screen, to fill a corner in which there might possibly be dead space. TVs hum with wolf cartoons, apartment walls shimmer with mad drawings and clippings, and The Colony is jammed with woodsy artifacts and taxidermy specimens. Dante peoples the film with horror stalwarts such as John Carradine, Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy, Kenneth Tobey, and even Lon Chaney, Jr., and Maria Ouspenskaya (via the television screen). John Sayles plays a morgue attendant, and filmmakers Roger Corman and Jonathan Kaplan make cameos.

Dante also has a scene unlike any other in his other movies: a seduction that’s actually erotic, in which a temptress bites a man in front of a campfire and they turn into wolves. Considering that Dante’s films generally roll out in comic-book terms, it’s a little surprising to see nudity that’s actually sexy — it’s certainly an advance over the piranha chewing off bikini tops to fill the quota of exposed breasts (though far be it from me to discount the ingenuity of that device). Dante ends the sequence with a clever and gorgeous variation on lycanthropic transformation, using some silhouettes and animation so that the changeover seems to happen in a single shot. You can feel the euphoria in the moving shot, Dante’s thrill in that kind of movie magic. That involvment — the kind of commitment that would allow a gremlin to get down and breakdance, without worrying too much about how exactly a gremlin would’ve learned to breakdance or what the hell it has to do with anything, really — is what makes Dante swell. Not a spoof-maker, or Hollywood whiz kid, or director-as-gremlin, but a director with teeth.

One Response

  1. Lovely “takes” on both movies. Makes me want to see them all over again (for the umpteenth time).

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