More than anything else, I think Pino Donaggio’s score sets Piranha apart. Initially, anyway. The film’s a very self-aware Roger Corman Jaws “homage,” but Donaggio’s score very quickly establishes it on firm ground. The score’s delicate, without any spoof-related cynicism (there’s no attempt to mimic the famous Jaws theme, Donaggio has some piranha attack music, but uses the score differently), and rather lovely in parts. With the score opening the door, Piranha‘s other singular elements come through.
Director Joe Dante and writer John Sayles maintain some of the Jaws mores, but quickly go their own way. The scale of Piranha is much smaller and it’s hard to believe how much time Dante and Sayles can get out of the story. There’s the pre-titles prologue (the biggest Jaws rip), but then Piranha immediately changes gears. The film’s got a constant sense of dread–something Dante does really well, especially for the scenes at the summer camp–and it’s difficult to notice the low budget aspects after a while, just because the film’s so ruthless in who the piranhas get. The scene at the summer camp is fantastic; the wholesale piranha attacks on the campers is startling. That scene alone puts Piranha on its own, in terms of cinema.
The film does have some playful elements, mostly at the beginning. There’s some good stop motion work from Phil Tippett; it doesn’t go anywhere and just serves to kill some running time, but it’s well done and a fine time passer. The rest of the film mostly gets its humor from Paul Bartel as the summer camp director. He’s a complete jackass and his scenes do provide a little relief.
It’s hard to say what’s more important for the film, Dante’s direction or Sayles’s script. The film looks so much like a Joe Dante picture–with Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy and the stop motion tangent–he seems the easy answer. But Sayles doesn’t just bring a fine attention to turning the little scenes with throwaway dialogue into real scenes (I’m thinking most of the scenes with Melody Thomas Scott and Shannon Collins, but also the even shorter water skiing scene), his pacing also makes the film work. There’s a break in the action during the second act, when the piranha attacks cease for about ten minutes (in a ninety-some minute picture, ten is a lot). Sayles is able to turn the dread to eleven here, with the summer camp attack then realizing it. But it’s Dante who makes that attack so visceral and affecting.
The acting’s decent–Bradford Dillman’s a solid lead, Heather Menzies is fine as the private investigator (though it’s unclear why her boss, a good Richard Deacon, doesn’t trust her). McCarthy, Miller and Keenan Wynn are, no shock, the best. Thomas Scott and fellow camp counselor Belinda Balaski are both good.
I think I’ve seen Piranha before, but it’s been ten or eleven years and I barely remember it if I did. It’s a lot better than I thought it would be; it seems to be overlooked and under-appreciated, regarded as a trifle instead of a credible film. It’s certainly the latter.