Synopsis: A river is accidentally infested by lethal, genetically altered piranha, threatening the lives of the local inhabitants and the visitors to a nearby summer resort.
Stars: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas, Bruce Gordon, Paul Bartel
Director: Joe Dante
Rated: 94 minutes
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Steven Spielberg’s 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws set a gold standard for underwater creature features, raising the bar to new heights for every filmmaker, producer, and studio ever after. With the phenomenal success of that great white shark vs. beach community classic came the expected low-grade rip-offs looking for an easy cash-in. Much like today’s market that sees the release of suspiciously similar-sounding titles/plots as major franchises, most of these bottom-feeding flicks from the past are Z-grade turkeys, deservedly forgotten. Now and then, you strike gold and find one that puts effort into setting itself apart from the pack, a movie that might have targeted the Jaws fan at first but winds up triumphing despite its B-movie trappings.
A film like Piranha is one of the best examples of a Jaws clone that aims higher than it needs to and reaps the rewards. Made by schlock producer Roger Corman for his New World Pictures studio and employing his former protégé Joe Dante as director, Piranha had a budget of $600,000 and was fast-tracked to make its release date in late summer of 1978. That was two short months after Jaws 2 had chomped its way into theaters, proving that sequels to horror films were a viable entity. (Rumor has it that Jaws 2’s studio wanted to sue Corman for copyright infringement, but Spielberg liked Piranha so much he asked them to back off).
One need only look at the fabulous poster (also featured on the clamshell VHS box that would scare me for years at the video store), and you can see how Corman mined the Jaws fandom to get butts into seats. Once there, however, Dante’s direction of John Sayles’ screenplay would keep eyes glued to the screen for what is still a well-made, decently paced, frequently scary, enjoyably campy creature feature. The 4K restoration from Shout Factory shows how nicely Dante and cinematographer Jamie Anderson (What’s Love Got to Do with It) present the terror from below and capture propulsive action above the water.
When two hikers go missing near Lost River Lake, TX, private investigator Maggie (Heather Menzies) arrives to track them down. Needing help navigating the area, she comes across the secluded cabin of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who tells her about an abandoned army testing site nearby. The divorced, unemployed Grogan wants to be left in peace to drink the day away, but the free-spirited Maggie drags him along to help her locate the military base and its large pool that must be drained into Lost River Lake for evidence.
Flipping the switch to drain the pool is a colossal mistake because it held scores of mutant piranhas capable of multiplying at a deadly rate. And now they are free in the open water that will eventually flow into the ocean First, they will pass a camp for young children and a lakeside resort on its launch day. Forced to navigate the river on a makeshift raft, Maggie and Paul must fend off the piranha and the obligatory staunch military personnel arriving to keep the incident hush-hush. If they can avoid being caught or turning into fish food, they will also have to find a way to convince the public to get out of the water to avoid a cloud of razor-sharp teeth swimming their way.
As he would demonstrate later in 1980’s Alligator (another stellar Jaws rip-off) and again when working with Dante in 1981’s The Howling, screenwriter Sayles has a real art for making the ridiculous sound somewhat plausible, if only for the short time you are watching the film. The mechanics of Piranha don’t hold up if you sit down and think about it (notably the finale), but it’s a guaranteed good time while you’re involved with it. It helps that Dillman and especially Menzies have screen charisma that you can’t help but want to engage with and a fair amount of chemistry for whatever forced lovey-dovey tripe the movie somewhat forces on them.
Did I mention that the movie is scary? I had forgotten how disturbing some of the attacks are, namely the one involving children at a summer camp that seems to go on for longer than we ever would allow today. That’s also the one that has an image of a victim being taken away to the depths that still gives me the willies today. Dante had a talent for screen composition even then, creating memorable visuals that linger in your mind and are instantly associated with his movies. That shorthand calling card made him a sought-after director, and I’m pretty sure he perfected it from his time working with Corman. Is it any wonder that Dante is among many award-winning directors who started with Corman? Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron all took part in Corman features as they rose in the ranks.
Speaking of Cameron, he’d be behind the camera (how long is up for debate) on Piranha II: The Spawning in 1982. That’s a silly sequel if you ask me, and I can’t even discuss the two 3D updates, 2010’s Piranha 3D and 2012’s Piranha 3DD, because they are gonzo exercises in goofball tomfoolery. There’s also a bland TV remake that’s not worth any effort, even on a lark. Stick with the original, and you’ll be in for a scary skinny dip.