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. Continue reading