They're Eating The Guests, Sir: Piranha (1978)

Liminality is a word that gets thrown around in a lot of theory circles to discuss that space in between one thing and another, some sort of impossible space that can only be occupied in a transitory phase.  Think of a doorway as an appropriate metaphor to this idea.  I bring up this idea because I can only describe Piranha as a film that exists in the liminal stage between good and bad, in so much that it cannot be quantifiably described as either.  In some cases this sort of enigmatic existence can prove to make the film absolutely captivating, demanding a constant reconsideration of how and why one categorizes a film, whether it be for performances, cinematic value or narrative considerations, even moving on to look at how less quantifiable elements might affect ones relationship with the film.  Indeed, the opening scenes of this film were actually ones that, upon viewing, took me back to childhood having seen the film on some late night screening, much to my surprise considering the use of nudity and violence.  Yet, even in this flittering moment of curiosity I could not get over how middle-of-the-road this film ended up being, at times excelling at its execution, particularly in the use of stop motion early in the story and at other times completely lacking any sense of continuity and structure, jumping from one point of action to another with a less than appropriate edit.  I want so desperately to pick up on the elements that make it a cult classic, but despite a great soundtrack and an overabundance of mocking directed specifically towards Jaws, for which it is clearly ripping off, there is none of the earnestness or absurdity warranting it such a status.  Sure the alcoholic lone man character coming in contact with the doe eyed young investigator has shades of implausibility and humor, but these are not backed up by any sense of creating a narrative arc that plays upon this, even in an uncomfortable and ill-conceived manner.  Piranha is some sort of either/or film in that it is either atrocious or brilliant, but does not carry itself in a way to suggest that it wants to be investigated as such, instead being a work that unfolds in an underwhelming tale of river travel, summer camp coming-of-age discomfort and what might have been a backstory involving corrupt politics.

Piranha begins with a young couple sneaking behind the barriers of a restricted area in order to go skinny dipping in a lake, while their initial endeavor seems harmless if not gross for the area appearing to be a sanitation, when the young man is dragged under the water by an unseen creature, the girl panics swimming away, only to also be captured by the creature, thus beginning the film proper, as a young woman named Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies-Hurich) enters the area of Lost River Lake, hoping to uncover exactly what happened to the teens from the opening portion of the film.  Knowing that she is unfamiliar with the space she attempts to recruit the help of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) a river guide whose recent divorce has resulted in him forming an absurd degree of alcoholism, one that includes drinking liquor directly from a canteen.  Despite his problems, he agrees to help Maggie and the two immediately investigate the blocked off area, planning on draining the water to see what has happened.  In the process of doing so they are momentarily stopped by Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) a man who explains himself as an employee of the military that had been working to create a particular breed of flesh eating fish for warfare purposes in the Vietnam, the hatchery just happening to be in Lost River Lake and Maggie and Paul's meddling has unleashed the population into the space of the river, threatening to attack campers and the community alike, all who use the lake as a point of enjoyment.  Indeed, the damage these creatures can cause becomes apparent when one of Paul's friends is attacked while fishing on the dockside resulting in the man's grandson joining in the group as they attempt to evacuate the lake and stifle the infestation of the deadly piranhas.  Paul is also doubly concerned about rescuing his daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins) whose own past fears of the water become manifested when the attacks occur at her camp, proving her somewhat of an asshole camp counselor Mr. Dumont (Paul Bartel) wrong in his criticism.  Simultaneous to all this is the attempts by individuals like Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) and Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) to poison the river, hoping that it will kill the fish, although past attempts at such methods have proved equally futile.  Attempts to flood the water prove futile and although the spreading of the fish into the ocean occurs, Mengers goes on the radio to claim that the problems are over, a statement that is countered by the shrill sound of piranhas in the closing shots of the film.

I guess if anything the film was attempting to be a take on the, then, still burgeoning environmental horror film.  Of course, as noted earlier it is blatantly an attempt to counter the status and power of Jaws, often blatantly mocking the film either in subtle ways through soundtrack cues, or more obvious moments as is the case with the Jaws arcade game being shown early on, a notion of child's play being attached to the former, albeit far superior film.  Nonetheless, Piranha flails to make connections between the way in which nature has rebelled against the pollution and degradation enacted by humanity, whether it be political or military oriented, in the clear and blatant ways.  Yet, filmmaker Joe Dante also draws attention to how these groups are far from the only ones engaging in destructive actions, considering how something assumedly beneficial like a summer camp might also double as a look at capitalist desires and overpowering the space of the natural only to be replaced by docks, cabins and other manmade places intended to, ironically, get closer to nature.  This pollution or environment degrade also takes on metaphorical elements within the film, as the individuals who desire to find purity through water (the opening scene skinny dippers) are not only made to be foolish, but also destroyed in their actions.  The act of attempting to harness the environmental to be used in a destructive manner against others, here in the militaristic sense, is also critiqued, shown to be so dangerous that even the concern for justice by one group could result in the annihilation of a river or in a worse case the entirety of humanity.  It takes on a decidedly more poignant, but probably accidental, narrative when it is suggested that these ferocious piranhas were to specifically used in Vietnam, a space of warfare that was particularly troublesome for American troops who found the natural world impossible to navigate, often dying as a result of the fungi, diseases and general lack of basic necessities in the space as opposed to actual violence.  Finally, pollution takes on an interpersonal level with an individual like Paul who seems to want to pursue a Thoreau like return to the natural, but cannot get over his own frustrations and find a space of natural enlightenment, thus becoming a point of personal pollution through his alcoholism.

Key Scene:  The stop motion elements which become arbitrary in the convoluted plot are really quite amazing and lovingly hearken back to films like the low-budget wonder that is Equinox.

This is on Netflix Watch Instantly, it is more a curiosity than a necessary viewing, but to be fair it is also a major work in the narrative of genre film, so watching it for a sense of completist viewing is not illogical.

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