What’s it About?
When flesh-eating piranhas are accidentally released into a summer resort’s rivers, the guests become their next meal.
Directed by Joe Dante
Good old Roger Corman. You could always count on him, on occasion, to cash in on a cinematic trend here, and there. Hell, he has made almost a life long career of it. When “Piranha,” an obvious and pretty blatant spoof of Jaws, (along with other notables: Orca and Grizzly) was released in 1978, the B grade campiness of this “man vs nature” film did not deter it from finding a large (and before hand, dubious) audience. Movie-goers eventually reveled in this cheesy, tongue-in-cheek schlocky fare, creating until this day, a beloved cult film from a notable director of some weighty talent and an impressive filmography.
Suprisingly, this low budget film, directed strongly by Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins and Innerspace), the king of monster movie parodies, and written confidently by auteur scribe John Sayles (Alligator) actually works with that neat drive-in movie, double bill charm. It’s fun, scary and not terribly gore-filled, given the genre and minimal budget trappings. Of course, the film has a very biting satirical spin on the genre that may convert fans, who admire and prefer rip off – b flicks, quickly in this particular manner.
Dante’s film also re-creates some very realistic nastiness despite the home-spun hokum that the script demands. The attacks, especially when children are involved, are quite brutal but resplendent to watch. The gore, while not over the top, provokes dread and repulsion.
The somewhat stiff but appropriately heroic Bradford Dillman plays Paul, a man of the woods type, who hesitantly pairs up with Maggie, played by Heather Menzies to investigate the disappearance of some unwary hikers at a nearby Government installation. The film, with it’s simple movie of the week plot, unfolds evenly into more of a comedy, at times, than a horror film, as our duo uncover a secret military operation involving mutated killer fish with nasty results. Joe Dante regular, Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Innerspace) stars as a left-behind scientist, who has been the crazed monitor and protector of the deadly piranha. His fevered performance is definitely one of the highlights of Dante’s small film.
Many things work in it’s favor and mostly because of Dante’s straight but incredibly humorous direction and guidance.The movie sports decent photography (the rivers and forests are drably sharp and lit) and the little monster fish look pretty rad, especially when zipping around underwater. Thankfully, the shots do not linger long and the bits and pieces we get do look ok.
The flesh-eating piranha are let loose upon on unsuspecting swimmers with a dire, even more scarier proposition than Spielberg’s great white shark. Mainly because there are MANY of these tiny, swimming killers with uber-razor sharp teeth and damn, they are crazy hungry! Now, I have seen enough National Geographic specials on Amazonian killer fish to know that this is a very un-probable premise, but Joe Dante pulls off the plausibility with such geeky and fun assurance, that one cannot help but really enjoy it all.
The mid section (that raft scene goes on a bit long) does drag a bit, mostly when trying to display exposition, and the film does have a late 70’s dated air about it, but I am definitely recommending it for the parodical sensibilities that Sayles and Dante imbue with humor and horror.
At one point Universal had considered chucking out an injuction to the film for it’s “Jaws” satirization (and close proximity to the release of “Jaws 2”) but they held back when Steven Spielberg (who actually was quoted as saying: “its the best of the “Jaws” rip off’s”) had stepped in and persuaded Universal Pictures from taking further action.
Also, a remake was once considered by Chuck Russell, who had one good remake under his belt in “the Blob.” It did not pan out so Alexandre Aja scooped up the project. As well, and this may come as a surprise to many, “Piranha” was re-made in 1995 and starred William Katt, Alexandra Paul and Mila Kunis (her first debut role). This version was also produced by Mr. Corman, but it remains overlooked and has been little seen, over the years, justifibly so.
In closing, I wished I owned a drive-in theater these days, because I’d definitely include this cult, b movie classic to the schedule! Maybe paired up with other famous parodies by Dante, like The Howling, Gremilns or Innerpsace? Enjoy, gang!