The episode of Horror Movie Rip-Off covering Jaws and Piranha was Written by Paul Bookstaber, Narrated by Ryan Cultrera, Edited by Ryan Cultrera, Produced by John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.
They say imitation is the best form of flattery, even if it becomes apparent that we’ve seen similarities between films within a certain genre; by the end of it, they’re still sometimes enjoyable. However, what do we consider the best film that has it all between the originator and the imitator? The film that goes above and beyond in terms of scope, its acting, its overall story, and most importantly its rewatch ability? Today we’re going to compare two infamous 70s horror films that explore the creatures of the deep. One that deals in absolute, and the other that deals in packs. I apologize for the riddles, but if you consider yourself a horror hound like me, you won’t have a problem knowing these two films that we’re going to discuss and see who becomes victor by the end of it. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws (watch it HERE) and Joe Dante’s 1978 film Piranha (watch that one HERE) have that long lost brother connection between one another; even if the ladder has been forgotten about and banished to the shadow realm. When you watch these films back-to-back, you’ll notice that they share a distinct connection in action, in characterization, even in blatant rip-off of its scenes, but maybe Piranha might just be the better film when all is said and done? So, sit back, relax, grab that popcorn as we deep dive between one film that was nominated for Best Picture, countless accolades, and one certain music beat that has stuck within the minds of generations swimming in a body of water, while the other you can potentially get for five bucks at your local Walmart bin.
Between Jaws and Piranha, we have two films that explore the traumatic experiences of something, or someone nibbling at your feet beneath you in murky dark water. What lies beneath has always been the fulcrum of everyone’s paranoid mind when diving into that specific body of water whether it’s a lake, river, or ocean. While Jaws is about one specific man-eating shark that comes and goes as it pleases, choosing its victims randomly, Piranha deals with the same plot device, but with a neat twist. A horde of militarized, manmade Piranha circulate and devour everything in its path hoping to reach the ocean, repopulate, and become a significant problem for all of humanity. Both films have groups of people determined to stop their pesky, sea dwelling friends by tracking their whereabouts and disposing their existence before they all become chum by the time the credits roll. While Jaws is the preferred film, it’s also the most straight forward in exposition. Like Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of The Joker in The Dark Knight, Jaws is an absolute. There is no backstory to its madness. Jaws ravages anything that dares to defy it whether it be human, buoys, or boats, its main mission is to eliminate anything in its path. Piranha on the other hand has a neat backstory reminiscent of classic Grindhouse films of yesteryear. The Piranha were genetically modified to destroy other countries for war. It’s when the program run by the US Military was disbanded, leaving the Piranha able to roam freely by one of its scientists, resulting in catastrophic consequences. I like my films to have a little meat on them and in terms of actual story, Piranha takes the cake.
With any good rip-off comes imitation. When you watch Jaws and then Piranha, you’ll notice just how similar some of the scenes from Piranha are from that of Jaws. Hell, even in Piranha’s marketing campaign, it even copied the god damn poster of Jaws just with a little more risqué to it. For instance, who can forget the one scene that put Jaws on the map? It’s when that voluptuous blonde runs from the sandy beach, removing her clothes, and diving into the ocean right before sunup. With her boyfriend watching from the shore, the girlfriend is enjoying her time swimming around. The camera from the perspective of Jaws creeps up to her feet above. It slowly gets closer, and closer, and closer with that infamous score getting louder and louder. The camera focuses on the poor, helpless woman getting bit, then thrown around the ocean while her boyfriend watches in agony. She then disappears under the water, never to be seen of again.
With Piranha, we almost get a beat for beat scene, although this time, the horny boyfriend comes with his girlfriend for a nice little swim in a locked-up gated compound, which is owned by the military. When they’re swimming around, the boyfriend claims he was bit, blaming it on his girlfriend. As they swim farther out to the deep end, the boyfriend is then bit again, and again, blood pouring out all around him. Eventually he disappears underwater. The girlfriend is terrified, trying to swim back to the dock she doesn’t make it, only showing her arm and half of her face getting sucked back into the water and vanishing. Nothing like these two films to start out with a bang of mental-induced trauma that will stick with viewers alike.
How about Piranha taking on a redo from Jaws’ scene involving a beach filled of patrons looking to cool down from a hot summer day only to run back to shore realizing that Jaws is a few feet nearby. However, the viewer is thrown off when you realize that a shark fin was attached to some kids creating some paranoia and havoc just by a very ill-conceived prank. When the viewer cools down from the joke that just happened by those little shit pranksters, the real Jaws takes out a poor bastard canoeing alongside a few kids on another boat, next to him. The result is a great shot of a leg falling to the ocean floor. With Piranha we get a bunch of children in a lake enjoying their raft time only to become victim to some very hungry critters swimming about. The result is mass casualties and a ton of blood along the way. While Buck Gardner, the boss of the camp brushes off the situation of these campers becoming fish food, we see counselors and kids getting ripped to shreds in horrific fashion. Both scenes share very distinct similarities, even if the beach scene from Jaws happens at the end of the first act, Piranha’s massacre by the lake happens in the third act.
Also there involves a scene in both films where both modes of transportation are destroyed while our occupants are venturing out in uncharted waters. In Piranha our heroes Paul and Maggie are saving a young boy across the river from Piranhas that are trying to chew the tied-up log raft. As the raft begins to unravel with each log falling off, they make it right to land before being fish food. In Jaws, during the last act, Quint’s ship is without a working engine resulting in Jaws to land itself on the back of the boat causing it to sink. With Hooper still in the ocean from a prior attack in a shark cage, it’s up to Brody to get up on a crow’s nest with a properly placed shot to a pressurized scuba tank in Jaws mouth. Both scenes show a dire situation of peril and intensity. Even though Piranha’s may be a little smaller scale, it’s still scary to know you might be chewed to little bits, while Jaw’s last act shows the fear of losing your only transportation and being eaten whole in the middle of open water.
When it comes to characterization between both films, it only seems fair to give Jaws the crown for just how appealing and dynamic the characters are. Between Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper, Roy Scheider as the local lawman Martin Brody, who battles Jaws to the death at the end, and the most important of all, the swash-buckling shark bounty hunter, Quint played by Robert Shaw. Each actor plays their role with grace and charisma whenever they’re on scene. They even have much more to do than their competition counterparts in Piranha, and they all serve a purpose within the story. From battling the great white on top of a sinking crow’s nest with Brody or trying to survive Jaws’ mouth as the shark hurls itself onto the back of the boat with Quint, and even setting a shark cage in the water so Hooper can puncture it with a Strychnine harpoon, alas to not much effect, these characters are much more memorable. Piranha’s characters are much more lackluster, and dare I say C-grade. Not much enthusiasm comes from Piranha’s main stars Bradford Dillman as Paul Grogan, a backwoods alcoholic who has to chauffer the female tracker around, Maggie McKeown played by Heather Menzies which leads them to the Piranhas doing all the killings around the town. They seem to just go beat for beat in each scene playing with the motion. It only becomes interesting when Grogan “sacrifices” himself by diving into a submerged compound and releasing some toxic gases. Piranha’s cast doesn’t have much more to do within the context of the plot whereas Jaws‘ action scenes set up these characters much more organically within their environment and to much more effect. Both groups in their respective films are on a mission to destroy their adversarial sea monsters, however the journey is much more exciting in Jaws. We’re going to need a bigger boat, that’s for damn sure.
I can’t help but realize just how the highest of hierarchies are established within Jaws and Piranha. The mayor in Jaws as well as the US Military and Camp Boss Buck Gardner in Piranha are borderline incompetent and negligent resulting in mass casualties of death all because of greed and the almighty dollar. It seems that those in power rather brush something so major under the rug for their own gain which is prevalent in both films. In Jaws, the mayor doesn’t want to lose economic business during the summer, when he hears of a potential shark eating his capita whenever they go for a swim. He brushes off both Brody and Hooper when they warn that Jaws is lurking in its waters, while Buck Gardner in Piranha refuses to acknowledge the situation happening on his summer campgrounds, it becomes too late when the inauguration becomes a river of red doom and gloom, resulting his downfall. Nothing like sheer idiocy from the higher ups to spoil your day.
Both Jaws and Piranha deal with varying themes to the same effect. God complex are both prevalent as from Piranha’s viewpoint, it’s the military playing God and trying to formulate and weaponize fish to take out a foreign enemy. It’s the US military’s fumbling that introduced these man-eating frenzy fish that wipe out adults, and children. Maybe it’s best to not dive into manmade genetics and scientific experimenting on animals to ensure a winning outcome. With Jaws let’s lay our god complex in the form of ego and being more than oneself. Quint is front and center of this. He is very reminiscent of a man in Moby Dick by the name of Captain Ahab, the captain who tries to be the sole person responsible for taking out the massive whale which leads to his own eventual, and sad fate. Just like Captain Ahab, Quint displays the same god complex by trying to take out Jaws himself. He sabotages his own ship, his radio, and loses the trust amongst his own team which eventually leads to him turning into a nice, delicious meal by the end of the movie. When you’re playing God, you feel untouchable, however in both Piranha and Jaws, the people responsible for this complex succumb to their own failures.
We also can’t forget about the classic theme of “fear of the unknown.” Both Piranha and Jaws are unseen, hiding from within the murky deep only to pounce when least expected. It’s a classic horror trope within films showcasing many creatures of the deep such as Deep Blue Sea, Open Water, The Meg, Lake Placid, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Anaconda. This theme is forthright the main reason why most of us are afraid to go into uncharted waters for a swim. Shark and Alligator attacks happen much more frequently, although Piranhas are very rare, they still happen as well. These movies reinforce the idea of being cautious, being observant when taking those risks for a much-needed beach or lake day.
Jaws and Piranha are distinct yet similar. For films so close to come out over a handful of years from one another, you can’t help but realize the similarities they both share. From sea-dwelling monsters to scenes playing beat for beat at times, you can’t help but think if Piranha director, Joe Dante wanted to retell his own version of Jaws. Sadly, Piranha is a poor imitation of its successor. Jaws displays a sense of authenticity of being out in the ocean, hunting for a mammoth-sized shark. Its actors are much more believable and intriguing, and the action set pieces are still discussed about today. Jaws is a masterfully directed achievement by Steven Spielberg as well as technically executed. I’m sure we can give some credit to Piranha to not being a total dumpster fire, as it’s fun to watch and appreciated for what it is. It also gave influence on director Alexandre Aja remaking Piranha 3D and creating one of the most brutal on-film massacres in film history, involving Piranhas attacking a boat party and displaying truly horrific moments to one’s eyeballs. It’s efforts to imitate Jaws does in fact miss its mark but does still hit in strides. Jaws is that monumental achievement in Hollywood storytelling that has transcended the way movies are made, a movie that has high honors in score, cinematography, directing, acting, editing, you name it Jaws has it. If you’re a bargain bin shopper, Piranha is the perfect film to be placed in your horror collection, although it will have to sit a few rungs down from its cousin Jaws. It’s superior in all the best ways, case closed.
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