Review: Piranha (1978)

Written by John Sayles
Directed by Joe Dante
Starring Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy
US Release Aug. 3, 1978
RT 94 min.
Home Video Shout! Factory
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)

Piranha-original-movie-poster

Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

In 1975, the movie Jaws started a phenomenon called “the summer blockbuster”, forever changing the way movies are made, marketed and released. But does anyone remember the other phenomenon that it started? Any creature that had teeth (and some that didn’t) became the deadly subject of a one word-titled movie. In the years following Jaws, we had Alligator, Barracuda, Claws, Croc, Crocodile, Devilfish, Grizzly, Hydra, Octopus, Orca, Razorback, Slugs, Squirm, Tentacles and Tintorera, to name (unfortunately) only a few. (I don’t know why no one ever made “Paws”, about cute puppies on the rampage; that is, unless you count Cujo.)

One of the more successful Jaws rip-offs was an intentional parody called Piranha, which has survived today to become a cult classic. A mini-phenomenon in itself, Piranha spawned (pun intended) a sequel in 1981, a TV remake in 1995 and a 2010 big-budget remake/reimagining. The amount of talent involved in such a franchise is simply astonishing! The original was written by John Sayles, who later became a successful independent filmmaker (Eight Men Out, Lone Star) and directed by Joe Dante, who later became a successful genre director (The Howling, Gremlins. The sequel (Piranha II: The Spawning, hence the pun above) was directed by James Cameron, who later became, well… king of the world. And the latest version attracted a surprisingly-strong cast of heavyweights including Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd (Great Scott!) and Oscar-nominee Elisabeth Shue. Only one person has the creative vision to have started this snowball of talent rolling: schlock producer extraordinaire Roger Corman.

After recently watching the original Piranha for the first time in many years, I am amazed at how much better it is than I remembered. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but the years have been more kind to it than most late-70’s/early 80’s horror flicks. In fact, it has quite a modern sensibility about it. For example, attempting to escape imprisonment by the army, our heroes, drunkard Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and skip-tracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) hatch a plan for Maggie to “distract” the guard. Always thinking, Maggie asks, “What if he’s gay?” Really? In 1978, that was a concern about our men in the military?!? (Or, for that matter, that was a deterrent from escape when the fate of a summer camp full of children threatened by a school of genetically-enhanced piranha lies in your hands?!?)

Despite the humor of that scene, as well as the fact that Piranha is usually categorized as a horror-comedy, I would not consider it to be a comedy at all. It’s not consistently funny, nor do I think that’s its intention. By today’s standards, it doesn’t have the sense of humor of a Scary Movie or Shaun of the Dead. And the story is at least somewhat plausible; many other movies have depicted science experimenting with far less believable things than man-eating fish that can survive in cold water so they can be used for warfare in Viet Nam. Dammit, though, the war ended and what are you supposed to do with a giant swimming pool full of piranha? Luckily, two hiking teenagers stumble upon it and decide to take a swim. That is so that the aforementioned drunkard and skip-tracer can also stumble upon it while searching for them and unwittingly release the hungry fish into the river.

Most of the laughs are of the unintentional kind. Bless his heart, but Kevin McCarthy (the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers) bites off a huge piece of scenery as the scientist left behind to care for the laboratory and utters the most hilarious pronunciation of the word I’ve ever heard: “puh-rawn-yah”. That alone is worth the price of admission, or at least the price of a rental.

Besides McCarthy, there are other familiar faces that bring back fond memories of the 70’s: Keenan Wynn and Richard Deacon (regulars from arguably the greatest era of Disney family movies), Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul), Dick Miller (a future regular in most Joe Dante movies) and, as a shout out to horror fans everywhere, Barbara Steele (Black Sunday and any number of Roger Corman thrillers). At the time, I suppose you’d consider them slumming, but now it’s fun to see them all hamming it up.

When you get down to it, I guess you have to decide whether or not you think little fish with razor-sharp teeth gnawing away at you while you’re swimming is scary. I kind of think it is. Of course, I thought piranha did their handiwork really fast; in the movie, they have to work pretty hard to superficially wound their victims. Cause of death: “loss of blood”. Heck, by those standards, I could die from a papercut. You know, maybe Piranha is supposed to be intentionally funny…

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