PLOT: A skip tracer (Heather Menzies) and a drunk (Bradford Dillman) intentionally unleash a swarm of genetically-engineered piranha into a peaceful river, a peaceful river that happens to run by a summer camp and a water resort. Needless to say, chaos ensues.
THE RUNDOWN: One of director Joe Dante’s earliest efforts, PIRANHA is a bit like the ultimate drive-in movie. Everything that you could possibly want from a B-movie is here. Boobs, violence, a little social commentary, a relatable hero, a ditzy heroine, dumb cops, car chases, nefarious military-types who want to cover up something, a plucky child who saves the day and Roger Corman. And while Corman might not appear on camera, he’s all over this thing. Seriously, this is the virtual prototype for all Corman monster movies that followed, a trend that still continues today (Corman has been pumping out “nature run amok” cheapies for SyFy for years now).
And what’s great about PIRANHA is that it all kinda works, in a lovable cheapie kinda way. The titular fish are never clearly shown and that works in the movie’s favor. Basically, Dante lets our imaginations run wild and what we imagine is far worse than anything that could be pumped out on-screen. Plus, it helps that all the kills and attacks in PIRANHA are super bloody, so our brains kick into overdrive and fill in all the blanks.
Another thing that helps is that most of the characters here are fairly likable, a rare trait for b-movies. Usually, characters in monster flicks are disposable fodder that exist solely for the killer (or monster) to off them in creative and disgusting ways. In PIRANHA though, our heroes (played by a very Charlton Heston-esque Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies) are relatable, funny and somewhat interesting. Not terribly smart, but they don’t make us wish they were dead. Instead, we actually want them to save the day and deliver some smartly written dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, the script for PIRANHA was written by a young John Sayles. That might explain why this flick is a little smarter than the average monster movie. Another nice touch is that some of the effects work here was done by Rob Bottin (THE THING) and Chris Walas (THE FLY II). I especially dug the little stop-motion guy that was lurking around Kevin McCarthy’s office.
If there’s a beef to be had here it’s the event that sets the entire movie in motion. You see, at the beginning of PIRANHA, the titular fish are safely contained in a government swimming pool thing. Sure, a couple of daft hikers decide to go swimming in it and quickly become fish food, but the piranha are stuck there. There’s no way they can escape and these aren’t the flying piranha from the sequel, so no wings here. Basically, there’s no movie unless somebody is going to keep luring people up to that pool to feed them to the fish.
Then our likable but slightly dumb heroes roll along and decide to drain the pool. Yes, you read that right, they opt to drain the pool for reasons that don’t quite make sense to me. Our heroine thinks that the missing hikers might be in the pool, dead I guess and even after seeing that the facility was still in use, and that genetic experiments were going on, she still drains the damn pool…into the river…which leads to the lake and you see where this is going.
Normally, the bad guys are responsible for all the chaos in a monster movie. But in PIRANHA, it’s our heroes who start everything. They drain the pool, the piranha escape and people die. Lots of people and a few kids, and, well, it’s all very bad. Thankfully, Dillman and Menzies are likable, otherwise you’d hate these two nit-wits for deciding that an entire community needed to die by way of mutant piranha.
Oh, last note, AngieBee pointed out to me that the hottie camp counselor Laura was played by YOUNG AND RESTLESS star Melody Scott. Scott didn’t do too much in the way of film work, but her run on RESTLESS (1130 episodes and counting!) is pretty damn impressive.
BUY, RENT, OR AVOID: If you’re a b-movie fan, I say BUY and I definitely suggest picking up Shout Factory’s recent release. Lots of goodies, interviews and whatnot, plus it’s pretty cheap. Honestly, I think I’ll just suggest a solid BUY for everyone concerning this flick. PIRAHNA is a really a prime example of how to do a b-movie right and definitely a must-see for anyone interested in making movies. The tricks used here are simple but effective and work wonders to elevate the material above its humble beginnings (Corman wanted a cheap JAWS knock-off, Dante gave him this).