Written by: Richard Robinson and John Sayles
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Dick Miller, and Barbara Steele
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“What about the goddamn piranhas?”
“They‘re eating the guests, sir!”
“They‘re eating the guests, sir!”
Nobody can ever claim that the horror genre isn’t mostly about capitalizing on a hot trend. It happens all the time--one film is successful, and dozens of imitators are released, usually of much lesser quality. Never was this quite as obvious as it was after the release of Jaws in 1975. At its heart, Spielberg’s classic was nothing but a “nature run amok” film, and, as such, Hollywood ran amok with the idea. Before you knew it, all sorts of animals were attacking: grizzly bears, orca whales, giant octopi, the walking salami from Prophecy, you name it. Never one to be left out of a trend, “The King of the Bs” himself, Roger Corman, helped to produce one of the most beloved and well-regarded of the Jaws knock-offs, 1978’s Piranha.
Two teenagers are out exploring one night, and they come across an abandoned military compound that happens to have an artificial pond. An obvious invitation to skinny dip, the two kids waste no time in jumping right in. It seems pretty harmless until something in the water begins to eat them alive! Since the kids never came back home, Maggie McKeown (Menzies) is sent to find them, and she hires a local backwoods resident, Paul Grogan (Dillman) to guide her. They both come across the military compound, which is crawling with all sorts of mutated creatures, the results of failed experiments. Maggie decides to drain the pond to see if the two kids’ bodies turn up, and she unwittingly unleashes a swarm of killer piranha into the local river and lake system. There’s both a campsite and a resort nearby, so both Maggie and Paul have to warn everyone…if only the military (who wants to cover up the experiments) will let them!
I was wondering how well Piranha would hold up. It was a staple of my childhood and early adolescence--its VHS tape was in heavy rental rotation at one point, and it seems like it used to air on USA Up All Night or Monstervision as well. Watching it again after all these years, it reminds me of just how entertaining a silly little monster movie can be. I’ve always loved creature features of any sort, and this one just feels exactly how a classic one should be. It’s basically like one of the creature features Corman would have produced in the 50s and 60s, only it’s infused with 70s schlock and humor, and it works perfectly. It knows that it’s a Jaws rip-off and doesn’t exactly shy away from it considering that we see Maggie playing an arcade game inspired by it early on in the movie.
That said, Piranha stands well on its own. It’s obviously got its tongue stuck in its cheek the whole time, but it plays well as a piece of horror. This isn’t just because of the gore (more on that in a bit), but rather, all of the little horror touchstones that pop up along the way. There’s plenty of classic horror alums in the form of Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, and Barbara Steele, a reference to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Monster that Challenged the World is playing on TV, no doubt as part of some all-night horror marathon. They’re little things, but they all add up in creating the perfect monster movie vibe that’s light-hearted and entertaining as hell.
That doesn’t mean the film is without a decided mean streak though. It doesn’t shy away from gore, particularly in the form of the chewed up and mangled corpses that pop up everywhere. These are brought to gruesome life by an great early effort from Rob Bottin, who has since become one of Hollywood's premier effects men. One thing that always stuck with me was the fact that the piranha actually manage to attack a bunch of kids at the camp. Though Alex Kitner was famously a young victim of the shark in Jaws, something about the attack in Piranha just seems a little demented. But it sure is fun, especially when one of the beasts springs out of the water and bites one of the ill-tempered counselors right in the face! It’s pretty much one of the best looks you get at the title characters, who mostly show up traveling in packs as part of stock footage. Most of their attacks are frenzied, closely-shot, and end with a lot of blood bubbling up to the surface.
There is a pretty long stretch where there’s very little fish feeding, though. Most of this time is spent with Maggie and Paul, who are trying to evade various authority figures who have the gall not to believe their story about killer piranha. They’re a pretty decent couple, and Menzies’s perky performance is especially fun to watch. We also spend some time at camp, a setting usually reserved for slasher films of varying quality. Here, it works well because you have the usual hijinx going on--pranks, archery, attempted skinny-dipping, scary stories, etc. One of the kids also happens to be Paul’s daughter, so there’s some extreme relevance to the plot as well. Corman protégé Joe Dante shows off some good chops bringing it all together with some pretty slick directing. His skills here show off his early talent, which would later be refined with films like The Howling, Gremlins, and The ‘Burbs, all of which exhibit Dante’s penchant for creating fun-filled horror romps.
But it all started for Dante here, and Piranha might still be my favorite film from him. Needless to say, the film holds up extremely well for me even to this day: it’s funny, bloody, and just plain fun, which is all it really takes to make an effective monster movie. Believe it or not, this cult classic was released on DVD about a decade ago from New Concorde and is long out of print. It was a release that featured an unmatted full frame transfer that’s serviceable enough, as is the stereo soundtrack. Special features included a commentary with Dante and producer Jon Davison, making-of footage, bloopers, outtakes, a reproduction of the original theatrical marketing guide, and a nice booklet detailing the film. Luckily, you won’t even need to bend over backwards to track this release down because Shout Factory recently re-released it as part of a special edition to capitalize on Alexander Aja’s upcoming remake. Their new release is a 2-disc edition that restores the film’s original aspect ratio, and a Blu-ray has been released as well. Not too bad of a treatment for a film that was hastily made as Corman’s self-described “homage to Jaws.” And what a tribute it is--this one has a lot of teeth, and a whole lot of bite. Buy it!
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