“Terror, horror, death! Film at eleven…”
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Bradford Gilman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller
In a Nutshell:
Piranha might be a cheeky cash-in on the Jaws phenomenon from a few years earlier, but Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins), making his proper solo directorial debut, has enough wit and style to make it a really fun creature feature in its own right. It is also one of the best B-movies to come out of the whole swathe of natural horror flicks in the 70s, which include atrocities like Night of the Lepus and The Giant Spider Invasion.
While searching for two missing teens, skip-tracer Maggie McKeown (Menzies) searches the area near Lost River Lake, where she convinces drunken backwoods resident Paul Grogan (Gilman) to be her guide. They discover a nearly-abandoned military fish hatchery and suspect the kids might have drowned in the main pool. Draining the water to find out, they inadvertently release a modified school of ravenous piranha fish into the local river system.
This is bad news, because Grogan’s daughter is at summer camp downstream, and sleazy local entrepreneur Buck Gardner (Dick Miller) is opening up his new water park to hundreds of holidaymakers. After their car is crashed by Dr Hoak (McCarthy), the mad scientist still residing at the hatchery, they must dash down river on a raft to save the day…
Menzies and Gilman are spirited as our two main protagonists, Maggie and Paul, but this movie is really about the cameos from horror and sci-fi legends. In the same year as he briefly reprised his famous role in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in Philip Kaufman’s excellent remake, Kevin McCarthy plays Dr Hoak with the same kind of panicked, paranoid intensity.
Roger Corman and Joe Dante’s favourite character actor Dick Miller shows up as Buck Gardner, Piranha’s equivalent of the mayor in Jaws, almost matching him for gaudy attire with his flashy pink tie. While it’s always fun to see Miller in a movie, he does seem a little mis-cast as Gardner. It might have been better if he had switched roles with McCarthy instead.
Elsewhere you have Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, The Pit and the Pendulum, Shivers) playing a sinister government doctor who formerly worked on the “Razorteeth” project, and Keenan Wynn, veteran of hundreds of movies and TV shows as Jack, a nice old boy who gets his legs munched down to the bone.
Pino Donaggio’s score is bog-standard horror thriller fare.
Sex and Violence:
On the nudity front, we have a few cheeky gratuitous tit shots and a flash of muff, but I can’t help thinking Corman and Dante missed a trick here for an exploitation movie featuring lots of attractive young women in bikinis swimming in the river. Like, where is the now-obligatory skinny-dipping scene? It’s something that the OTT 2010 remake tried to rectify…
On the blood and guts front, Dante is sadly let down by his special effects budget. He does a decent job of building some suspense with shots of feet, hands and asses in the water, but when the fish should really hit the fan in the finale, the budget constraints really show. There are a few satisfyingly gruesome moments earlier on, but mostly its just choppily-edited underwater fish attacks and blood churning in the water. Shame Corman couldn’t have stumped up a bit more cash to really pay off the buildup.
One irritating feature is that the fish seem to be picky eaters. If you’re an old man they’ll gnaw you down to the bone, but if you’re a kid they’ll just nibble your toes into you safely get to shore.
Also, we see a cool-looking stop-motion piranha walking around a lab early in the movie, but never see it again. What happened to that guy?
Joe Dante’s killer fish movie holds up surprisingly well, although it is let down by an underwhelming action climax. Despite that, it is still a reliably entertaining creature feature that will make you think twice about swimming in murky rivers and lakes, or top secret military facilities…