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Deep Piranha

Piranha

On one level, 1978’s Piranha, released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the wake of the popularity of Jaws and waves of other nature-themed horror movies of the period, is just an entertaining exploitation venture and a bloody but fun nostalgia trip. Scrutinized more closely, however, the film may be read – I intend to contend – as esoteric Jewish civilizational discourse.

Piranha’s screenplay was written by the non-Jewish John Sayles and based on a story idea by the obscure Richard Robinson, whose only other credits are Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and High-Ballin’ (1978). Piranha was directed by Joe Dante, whose next major feature would be another collaboration with Sayles, The Howling (1981) – which, several years ago, I rather brutishly and probably not very convincingly argued was also an allegory about hostile Jewry. While notorious penny-pincher Roger Corman hardly has a reputation as a Judeo-chauvinist or a Zionist – he rather embodies the tacky Jewish cheapskate archetype – it must be said that Corman’s creative and business milieus were decidedly Jewish. Israeli Air Force veteran and future Cannon Group tycoon Menahem Golan worked as Corman’s assistant after moving to America. Corman’s classic Little Shop of Horrors (1960) broke new ground in emphasizing the Jewishness of its comedic sensibility; and that film’s screenwriter, Charles B. Griffith, would travel to Israel in a doomed attempt to produce a movie about the Arab-Israeli war. It was Piranha co-executive producer Jeff Schechtman and partner Hisako Tsukuba (a.k.a. “Chako van Leeuwen”), however, who approached Corman with a project generally regarded as a cynical Jaws rip-off – but is Piranha just another killer fish movie?

Jaws itself, as Nathan Abrams has theorized, can be interpreted as an allegory about revengeful Jewish power, and I contend that Piranha, too, is a film that rewards a deeper reading.

Piranha Graffiti

Note the graffiti. Possible crypto-Nazis are everywhere in Piranha.

Piranha, steeped in post-Vietnam paranoia, takes place in an America haunted by government conspiracies and, like New World’s Humanoids from the Deep (1980), also hints at Americans’ growing ecological concerns. The seventies, too, were the years in which hardcore pornography was normalized – years in which an ascendant evangelicalism gave rise to the Religious Right and Jerry Falwell’s much-maligned Moral Majority – none of which allayed the fears of some in the Jewish community that Christianity continued to harbor anti-Semitic impulses. The piranha, that most vicious of fish, then, serves in the movie as a symbol of Christianity’s potential for weaponization. Genetic engineer Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame), who created the fish as part of a top-secret U.S. military experiment, is Piranha’s modern mad scientist Christ figure, whose flesh-eating laboratory spawn represent a particularly virulent strain of pogrom-happy religiosity. (One is put in mind of Raul Hilberg’s assertion of the “logical progression” from Christian treatment of Jews in ancient times to the Nazis’ “Final Solution”.) Piranha makes clear its Jesus/Hoak parallel when the scientist, after being injured, is laid in a bed in a pose reminiscent of Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ. “They breed like flies,” Hoak warns his audience, giving voice to Jewish concerns about those pesky white birthrates and worried that, “Mother of God, they’ll kill us, they’ll kill all of us!” The Jesus/Hoak code is confirmed when, after the scientist is fatally wounded by his own Frankenstein creation, hero Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) laments, “Aw, Christ.”

 

Piranha Christ

Kevin McCarthy as the injured Dr. Hoak in Piranha

Piranha Christ 2

Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ (c. 1480)

Boosting the movie’s suspense is the danger that the piranhas, now released into a river, will reach a children’s summer camp. Here, depicted in campy, over-the-top horrific form, is the subtextual Jewish anxiety that American children continue to be indoctrinated in potentially Judeo-resistant currents of Christianity and that anti-Semitic ideas, represented by the piranhas, might still be able to gain access to young American minds in this poorly policed environment. This fear is given comical expression in a scene in which strict camp manager Mr. Dumont (Paul Bartel) reviews “guppies” (i.e., little Christians) who have been regimented in a mock-military formation by a counselor who has instructed the children to “stand up straight” in a “straight line” with “arms up” like Hitler Youth recruits. In an earlier scene, giving something of the game away, a camp counselor tells her wards a spooky campfire story about a witch and some demons, “venom dripping from their fangs”, who “scoured every corner of the church” in search of their prey.

Piranha Guppies

Fascistic “guppies” line up for review.

One of the film’s few Jewish characters is a Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) who, when informed of the presence of the mutant piranhas in the vicinity, dumps a quantity of poison into the river, believing this to be a sufficient measure. Having a vested interest in the camp’s success, however – perhaps believing that a diluted form of Christianity can still be exploited for Zionist ends – he underestimates the threat posed by this super-vicious species of Christian and thus does not completely poison and ruin the river system or the lake at the site of the camp. Piranha proves him wrong, of course, its message seeming to be that the cultural environment in which Christianity continues to reproduce must be thoroughly polluted in order for Jews to feel safe living in America – an idea given visual expression when Grogan heroically wins the day by releasing a reservoir of industrial waste into the lake to destroy the fish. Even this is revealed to be a less than final solution, however, as the piranhas are then revealed to have made their way into ocean waters where they lurk and hate in waiting for Piranha II: The Spawning (1982).

Rainer Chlodwig von K.

Rainer is the author of Protocols of the Elders of Zanuck: Psychological Warfare and Filth at the Movies – the DEFINITIVE Alt-Right statement on Hollywood!

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About icareviews

Author, Protocols of the Elders of Zanuck: Psychological Warfare and Filth at the Movies

11 comments on “Deep Piranha

  1. icareviews
    December 30, 2018

    Reblogged this on icareviews.

    Like

  2. bob saffron
    December 30, 2018

    Interesting thesis. On a more prosaic level:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bob saffron
    December 30, 2018

    I haven’t seen the film, but think that it’s Jews that most closely resemble piranhas. The tendency to attack as a school and strong bite.

    Liked by 2 people

    • icareviews
      December 31, 2018

      Ever caught a blobfish?

      Like

      • bob saffron
        January 12, 2019

        Nope. But I have been in a dinghy on that river. I’m not sure that piranha are to be found upstream of Iguazú Falls, but I wasn’t tempted to swim. A magical place at dawn.

        Liked by 1 person

      • bob saffron
        January 12, 2019

        Dawn, the place is alive with toucans, macaws, and other exotics flying throught the rainforest.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. indravaruna
    January 1, 2019

    I prefer Piranha 2 by James Cameron, it’s just rolled with the silliness in the best 80s fashion without any pretentions.

    Like

    • icareviews
      January 2, 2019

      I actually haven’t watched it yet, but seeing Piranha again makes me more curious.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Deep Piranha | Hipster Racist

  6. Hipster Racist
    January 1, 2019

    I dunno, this really seems like a stretch.

    Like

    • icareviews
      January 2, 2019

      Maybe. Here’s what John Sayles said to an interviewer:

      “Somebody from one of the more ‘intellectual’ film journals was talking to me about how Piranha and how horror movies are always an allegory for something and I was trying to convince him that Piranha was actually an allegory to the cultural revolution in China and the piranhas were the Red Guard, and the four bad guys were the Gang of Four, and the heroes were actually Mao having let these things out accidentally and trying to get them back in. It works, but almost anything works when you look at it that way.”

      Sayles is correct that a movie’s meaning isn’t limited to the significance that one particular participant in its creation attaches to it. Cinema is collaborative, and individual audience members are all collaborators in the construction of a film’s meaning. Whatever Sayles, Corman, Schechtman, or anyone else involved intended, I certainly think the movie makes more sense in my interpretation than in Sayles’s troll about a meta-Maoist allegory. Was China’s cultural revolution a secret military experiment? If so, why lament, “Aw, Christ” when the scientist dies?

      Like

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