Running time: 94 min.
Release date: August 3, 1978
Jaws was not the first film about a killer animal/fish and it certainly was not the last. During the 1970s, however, Jaws-mania kicked off a surge of horror/sci-fi films where a predator from the wild kingdom stalked and pursued man. Piranha came out in 1978 right around the time of Jaws 2 and reminded potential swimmers that it isn't just the ocean you need to fear. You also need to fear lakes, rivers, ponds and even tributaries. Piranha brings a little more to the table than some of the other theatrical attempts at capitalizing on Jaws, thanks to a director by the name of Joe Dante and some rather vicious-looking schools of fish. There is also a screenplay by some guy named John Sayles that keeps things sharp.
The story opens with a couple of crazy kids hiking through the hills and encountering what appears to be an abandoned military facility. After committing the felony of criminal trespassing, the couple happen upon a pond, or a pool, or something that holds water and decide that now is a good time for a good old-fashioned skinny-dipping. Don't worry about the murky green water, kids! No bacteria in there, no sir! Anyway, before we know it, the kids are suddenly attacked by something in the water and soon disappear under the surface....never to be seen again. With the two kids now missing, an insurance investigator, Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), is sent to locate them. Depicted as plucky but maybe a little absent-minded, she manages to stumble upon the cabin of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), a single father who sends his little girl off to summer camp and fully intends on drinking any bottle of alcohol that his friend Jack (Keenan Wynn) can provide for him. Needless to say, he is a little put out by Maggie's determination. They decide to investigate the facility where the kids went missing, discovering various mason jars full of failed mutated experiments. It is during this scene where a mysterious humanoid lizard-liked creature is seen lurking undetected, but the story drops this idea without even exploring what else went on in this facility. Kevin McCarthy plays Dr. Robert Hoak, who later explains that he was in charge of a military project that was cancelled after the Vietnam War ended. Unfortunately for the doctor, Maggie, Paul and countless campers and fun-seeking tourists everywhere, the facility pond has been drained and now the genetically-altered and hungry piranha are free to swim into the river and terrorize. The military, led by Col. Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) are not really any help and really only want to silence Maggie and Paul, who wish to alert the media in order to prevent fish attacks. We get some pretty unflinching piranha attacks on children, which is a pretty bold decision by Dante, since it is usually taboo to depict children in such situations on-screen. But it truly adds to the threat these fish pose, and helps the story to have such a vicious outlook. There is also a subplot with a water park owner (Dick Miller) not heeding the warning of others and keeping his park open during the busy time of year, not unlike Mayor Larry Vaughn in Jaws. With a couple of unanswered questions introduced by the story, such as the experiments and how much the military really knows about the piranha, there are holes that never get filled in. However, the story does not overstay its welcome, with good pacing, characters that generate just enough interest to follow them through the plot, and some humor interspersed throughout to hit home with the fact that this film does not even pretend to take itself seriously. However, you would think that a character who lives beside a river would have access to more than just a raft straight out of a Mark Twain story.
Joe Dante had a low budget to work with, somewhere in the vicinity of $600-700,000; so the first thing that surprises is how effective Dante is in depicting the piranha as savage and vicious creatures. The attacks look convincing, and the sound that accompanies the attacks adds to the horror. Choosing to have both adults and children as helpless and (mostly) innocent victims added to the terror. Dante counteracts the scary fish with some scenes of levity, especially in scenes where the summer camp director, Mr. Dumont (Paul Bartel), is shown to be a jerk and not well-liked by his counselors. It is these light moments that keep the movie grounded in the realm of self-awareness. Dante knows what kind of movie he's making and who his audience is and hits all the right notes with his tone. The setting and locations look hot and humid, thanks to filming in Texas. Authentic location shooting like this aids a film greatly. The screenplay by John Sayles is peppered with the right balance of wit and focus, even if some ideas were introduced that were not fully explored. Sayles would go on to be an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for films such as Lone Star and Passion Fish, but he got his start scripting films for producer Roger Corman, with Piranha being his first. This is familiar territory for a Corman production but it is elevated by the collaborative efforts of Dante and Sayles.
The cast is filled with B-movie stalwarts such as Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller and Keenan Wynn and they all provide their usual solid character work. Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies don't necessarily have great chemistry together but, then again, the story forces them together without any thrown-together romance, which is a good idea. Menzies was a little obnoxious and annoying in the beginning but, once the piranha threat was revealed, her character became more focused on the task of saving people, also saving her character from death wishes from the audience. A film of this type requires an ensemble effort and Piranha benefits from solid, if not spectacular, work from some handy veteran character actors.
Piranha should rank highly amongst the numerous films that attempted to copy what Jaws did. With a story that is surprisingly sharp and witty, albeit with a few holes, and some convincing special effects in regards to the fish, Joe Dante has pieced together an entertaining sci-fi/horror film that rises above the conventional B-movie trappings. The piranha are quite memorable in their viciousness and filmed in a manner that helps them to appear realistic. The cast provide solid work and never too hammy, even in a film with a B-movie plot. Joe Dante would go on to even bigger things with a movie called Gremlins (you may have heard of it), but Piranha was an early showcase for his talent.