A school of piranha are heading downstream and eating everything in their way… just when you though it was safe to go back in the water! Produced by legendary producer-director Roger Corman, Piranha is the film that helped spawn the careers of Joe Dante (director), Jon Davison (producer), John Sayles (writer), Rob Bottin (special effects), and Chris Walas (effects). Starring Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Bradford Dillman, and Heather Menzies, as well as long time Corman-faves Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, and Paul Bartel.
Piranha (1978) 7.5
I remember seeing ‘Piranha’ when I was a kid; it was playing on TV and the family had gathered for a tension-filled evening in front of the boob tube. (I can’t confirm this but, presumably, the film had been edited for the broadcast – otherwise, the unsuspecting few who would have expected a cuddly film about fish might have been shocked to tears)
‘Piranha’ came hot on the heels of the monstrous success of ‘Jaws’ and ‘Jaws 2’. There had been others, such as ‘Orca’, ‘Tentacles’ and ‘Tintorera’, but ‘Piranha’ is probably the most recognizable and beloved of the bunch – reaching a bit of a “cult classic” status over time and being remade not once, but twice since. To top it all off, it was recently released in Roger Corman’s first batch of Blu-rays (considering the number of films he’s produced, this speaks volumes).
While it’s not necessarily a rip-off of Jaws, ‘Piranha’ does nod at it. For one, there is the obvious, such as the scene where the lead actress (who is basically a cross between PJ Soles and Muriel Hemingway) is playing a ‘Jaws’ arcade game. Nice. But there’s also the more subtle, such as the music – which, while it certainly is nowhere in the same league as John Williams’ iconic theme, manages to find a middle ground between ‘Jaws’ and ‘Halloween’, becoming somewhat a hybrid of the two.
Speaking of winks, the film is actually well-constructed, in a paint-by-numbers sort of way, but it was obviously made with the intention of nudging the audience knowingly from time to time. The film is rife with decoys that were clearly set-up on purpose – so it’s a frequent occurrence that, whenever one expects a scare, nothing really happens (it’s hardly surprising, really, as director Joe Dante is well-known for injecting a certain sense of fun in his films). As disappointing at it might sound to some, it does serve a purpose: after all, just how much suspense can you build with fish, really?
In fact, anytime the fish become a real threat it’s dispensed with casually for exactly that reason: ‘Piranha’ can’t have the ominously slow surge of Jaws’ shark, the fish don’t lurk and sneak up on you like a prowler (such as Michael Myers!) would, and they certainly don’t unleash the horrifying, gruesome nature of a werewolf – so it might as well just go for the jugular, spill some blood, and move on to the next scene. Truth be told, it’s not very gory or shocking, all things considered (although it might have been at the time, seeing as the special effects used to illustrate the piranha attacks are mostly well-conceived).
The acting isn’t amazing, but one can’t be surprised considering the low-budget. However, beyond our female lead and her male counterpart (who reminded me of a hammy James Brolin), the film has a good support-system featuring a bevy of b-movie actors (ex: Barbara Steele, Kevin McArthy, Paul Bartel, …etc.). Thus, while there aren’t any award-winning performances herein, at least there are many fan-favourites and recognizable figures. Rare do films of this genre even manage to get this calibre of a cast and ‘Piranha’ makes the most of them.
So, all in all, ‘Piranha’ is an enjoyable film – for what it is. It’s not great or especially bad, and it’s neither too tame nor especially gruesome. It’s also not long enough so as to overstay its welcome and it provides just enough entertainment to munch a full bucket of popcorn and squeeze a few chills and squeals out of its viewers. One could do a lot worse if one likes this sort of thing.