Dir. Joe Dante (1978)
Man-eating piranhas invade a summer vacation spot and feast on the vacationers.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Helmed by Joe Dante (Gremlins), with creature design and effects by Phil Tippett (Jurassic Park, Robocop, and many more), and produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (too damn many to name), Piranha was a veritable who’s who of classic American horror, and it was also Steven Spielberg’s personal favorite of all of the Jaws “ripoffs.” The main film even opens with a woman (Maggie, played by Heather Menzies) playing a Jaws video game. We learn shortly thereafter that she is a private detective looking for the young couple that are eaten by the titular fish before the main credits. This leads to all sorts of creature-feature goodness, from a mad scientist’s lab filled with insane oddities to the piranhas that have eaten the two young lovers and are looking for more meat.
Just when you thought it was safe to swim in the disgusting reservoir.
The film definitely has its shortcomings: the acting is not all that great, the plot drags along a little at times, and the writing leaves a little to be desired in certain scenes. With Corman’s propensity for rushing movies to theaters to milk as much money as possible, though, this is one of the better films that he produced, and it has a certain charm that you can only find from those late 70’s creature features. It’s also far more tasteful than most of his other films: there’s nudity in the opening scene (and a quick flash about halfway through), but he chose to actually cut nudity from later in the film to keep it scarier and more intense. When Roger Corman is holding nudity back, you know you’re in for a movie that’s destined to be great.
The film is filled with critiques about the American way of life: the military-industrial complex, conservation, ethics in scientific research, and even the bullying of children are all dealt with in some way or another. Much more than that, it’s a straightforward monster movie, only the monsters are cute little fish with itty bitty teeth. Unlike Jaws, the folks in this film can’t seem to figure out how to pronounce the creature that they’re fighting, with at least three different pronunciations used by different characters.
The film definitely drags through certain stretches, but the actual fish attacks are pretty fun, and at one point they even begin to chew apart a raft in a particularly tense scene. Every time someone is in the water, you’re wondering whether they’re going to get eaten up, even if they’re children. One of the great things about the fact that this film was produced by Roger Corman is that you never know exactly how far they’re going to go. If you’re known for exploitation flicks, your next film might or might not contain the dismemberment of children. When the young campers, who are constantly swimming in the lake, dangle their feet, will they be able to pull them back up in time? (Spoiler alert: they can’t, which at one point in the film results in the massacre of a dozen or so children.)
Of course, as always with these types of films, there’s also a festival going on with tons of revelers looking to swim in the river and an event organizer who can’t be bothered to listen to warnings. This allows for a substantially higher bodycount than otherwise possible, and the ability of the fish to live in both fresh and saltwater threatens the possibility that they will reach the ocean, giving them access to every river system in the United States (and the fucking ocean, which seems far worse to me than just telling people they can’t swim in rivers anymore.) There always has to be a point in any disaster/monster movie where the stakes are raised. It can’t be just about the lives of the relatively small pool of characters that we’re introduced to in the film; there has to be a path to untold destruction that can occur if our heroes don’t win the day. I’d certainly argue that piranhas that could soon be ravaging the ecosystems in every lake and ocean could be potentially devastating.
And swimming during that time of the month? Forget it.
Due to the sudden influx of fish victims, the last thirty minutes or so of the movie flies by. It’s a tad convoluted, but it’s also chock full of fish attacks and great, understated special effects. For a nature attack film, it’s got a huge bodycount, as at least thirty people are offed by the little bastards. While we don’t see many of these in the detail we may like, and a lot of the gore is left for after-the-attack scenes, the actual attack scenes themselves are underscored by the unique sound that Dante chose to overlay the attacks, which is alleged to be a dentist drill held under the water. It’s obnoxious and grating, but it also underlies the frenzy of the attacking fish. Being eaten alive by a swarm of anything is terrifying, and the thought of it happening when you’re going out for a pleasant swim even more so. At the end of the day, Dante makes a great little drive-in classic, and there are shades of so many of the things that we’ve come to appreciate from his later work.
Who this movie is for: B-movie fans, Creature feature lovers, Charlie the Tuna
Bottom line: Piranha is good old-fashioned fun, and while it’s seen as a ripoff of Jaws, it’s much more than that in reality. Dante’s movie has bite, and Spielberg’s love of the film probably led to their collaboration on Gremlins. Though it does drag at times, it’s worth sticking through to the super-fun final act. The insinuation near the end that the fish have escaped to the ocean teased a sequel, which came along just three years later in 1981. Give this one a shot if you’re a fan of creature features, because it’s one of the more legendary classics in the genre.