Joe Dante, 1978
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn
"They're eating the guests, sir."
I am a little bit in love with Piranha. Allegedly this is Steven Spielberg’s favorite Jaws rip off and it is undoubtedly the... second best. After Grizzly of course. This Roger Corman produced film was one of the most successful for his New World Pictures label, which he created after retiring from the director’s chair. Good to see his dedication to cheesy B-horror films didn’t wane.
After two teenagers go missing (they are eaten by piranhas, of course), a young, enthusiastic private investigator, Maggie, is hired to track them down. She coerces a local, the curmudgeonly alcoholic Paul, to be her guide and partner in crime. They soon discover an abandoned military lab with strange mutated fish specimen and a crazy scientist that attacks them. Maggie accidentally drains a pond, unleashing mutant piranha into the river. After the scientist (who she knocked out) comes to, he explains that the deadly fish were a military experiment intended for use in the Vietnam War. Paul and Maggie race against time, the local police and a military team to warn the local summer camp and a new water park before everyone is devoured by piranha.
The reason Piranha succeeds so thoroughly is because of the obvious enthusiasm behind the project. All of the actors seem delighted to be on set and are a joy to watch.
Heather Menzies (SSSSSSS) and Bradford Dillman have good chemistry and are likable, though I can’t help but feel that Menzies could have been replaced by P.J. Soles. Menzies is sufficiently sassy and heroic, so I am probably just saying that out of my need for more Soles-helmed movies. There are a lot of great side characters and perfect casting across the board. Dick Miller (Gremlins among many other Corman films) is the asshole businessman who hilariously keeps everyone in the water just to make sure he turns a profit. The lovely, though somewhat aged Barbara Steele makes a welcome appearance as a military science. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is great as the paranoid scientist, though he has too little screen time. He did get one of the best death scenes, though. Paul Bartel, director of one of my favorite films, Death Race 2000, plays the uptight head of the summer camp and is one of my favorite characters.
Director Joe Dante does a marvelous job, as always. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he’s responsible for some of the best genre films of the ‘80s: The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, shut up, I like it), Gremlins (1984), The ‘Burbs (1989), etc. The effects from Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett are simple and effective, mostly relying on some corn syrup and food coloring, prosthetics, murky water and fast camera action. The gore is believable and some of it is pretty gruesome, including eaten feet, a bitten off nipple, and several chewed up corpses. The rapid fire fish attacks are perfect. You see enough of the piranhas to believe you are seeing more than you really are, but they are never given the time to look silly. Except maybe that walking piranha in the lab, but he’s endearing in a Gremlins sort of way. The underwater photography is murky and believable. The great thing with water-related violence is that you don’t need to show much other than blood in the water to be effective.
“Come on, I would have thought you could take a man’s pants off quicker than that!”
Piranha is funny and suspenseful. It’s one of the best ‘70s summer horror films and if you haven’t seen it, it comes highly recommended. The script is light-hearted, witty and simple. The characters are irritating in an endearing sort of way and the bad dialogue is bad in a way that makes you want to celebrate. Dante includes some in-jokes and references to Jaws, such as Menzies introduction while she’s playing a Jaws arcade game. There are explosions, car chases, Menzies knocks several people unconscious, there is some unfortunate water skiing and a mild amount of nudity. In terms of subtext, there are hints at the evils of consumerism and the war in Vietnam, though Dante is careful not to beat us over the head with any political message. The score from Pino Donaggio (who would work with Dante again on The Howling) is wonderful.
There’s a wonderful Shout Factory release on DVD or Blu-ray with a ton of special features. The commentary with Dante is a must, plus a making-of, trailers, stills galleries, bloops, behind the scenes, etc. Because Piranha was so beloved, it spawned several sequels. The first and best is Piranha 2: The Spawning, director James Cameron’s first film. Piranha was bizarrely remake for Showtime in 1995. In 2010 the film was remade again, however loosely, as Piranha 3D and followed up with Piranha 3DD in 2012. The latter two have more of a slasher movie feel and focus more on sex and nudity. Though incredibly stupid, Piranha 3D was actually entertaining. I couldn’t bring myself to see Piranha 3DD.