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Piranha – Review

Piranha – Review

Jan 5, 2010

reviewed by Danny
directed by Joe Dante, 1978

Joe Dante’s Piranha is a bit of an odd duck.  On one hand, it was a cynical, low-budget attempt to cash in on the nature-gone-amuck sub-genre in the wake of the the first Summer blockbuster, Jaws.  But, on the other hand, it was put together by a collection of talent that, while young and new to the business, was well above what we normally see in the credits of a B-movie with an $800,000 budget.  The director would go on to prove himself one of the masters of low-budget genre film with successes like The Howling and Gremlins and at least one underrated masterpiece (The ‘Burbs).  The screenwriter, John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Matewan, Brother from Another Planet), is considered by many to be one of the greatest writer/directors in American film.  What Dante and Sayles did is make a film that is simultaneously a obvious rip-off or Jaws and a tongue-and-cheek homage to the genre.

The story begins with two typically clueless teen hikers who stumble into a military research station and decide to skinny dip in the very industrial and toxic-looking pool.  Both are quickly devoured by the eponymous beasties.  Later, a “skip tracer” (Maggie) comes along trying to find the teens and thoughtlessly drains the pool into the nearby river.  This sets up the eventual arrival of the piranha at a newly opened resort downstream.  Lots of swimmers—lots of victims.

Piranha has many scenes and situations pulled straight from Jaws.  The owner of the resort is a direct equivalent to the mayor of Amity—refusing to shut the resort down based on the warnings of the skip tracer and the drunken mountain beau who comes along because his daughter is away at the lake attending a summer camp.  Everyone is more worried about a possible economic hit than they are about the potential for lots of people to get eaten by mutant fish.

And, wow, do lots of people get eaten.  The film departs from the Jaws formula strongly here.  Dozens upon dozens of swimmers (including lots of children) fall victim to the swarms of mutant fishies.  Mostly the gore is mild, at least during the attacks—just a swirl of filmed-in-a-fish-tank piranha and a distinctive sound and lots of blood in the water.  We do get to see some gory, post-attack damage in the form of live victims with bloody stubs and nearly devoured floating corpses.  The film earns its R rating and the effects are cheap but effective.

Still, the mutant fish attacking swimmers elements of the film are just good enough to be fun.  What makes this film a B-horror classic is its humor and a couple of inspired, if weird, moments.  I love that Maggie is playing the Jaws video game when we first see her (in case anyone was confused as to what inspired the film).  There are simply some great lines in the screenplay.  Particularly, I love the throw away lines by minor characters (“People eat fish, Grogan.  Fish don’t eat People”).  The main characters have some doozies also.  (Grogan to Maggie:  “I didn’t axe-murder your young couple”).  The producer of Piranha went on to produce Airplane and Top Secret, and some of the lines wouldn’t be out of place in that level of parody.

Aside from the humor, my favorite part of Piranha is right near the beginning.  Maggie and Grogan are searching through the research station for the missing hikers.  Unseen by them, a mutant piranha is skulking around the station watching them.  The creature is brought to life with Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation.  It is creepy and wonderful looking.  The images of that walking piranha stuck with me long after seeing the film, and it was that scene I was looking forward to most when the anniversary DVD made the film available after years of obscurity.

It is difficult to refer to a B-movie with mostly amateurish acting and some ridiculous behavior as a classic.  The humor and genuine love for the genre seen in Piranha, though, bring it close to deserving that label.  If this review gives you the desire to seek out the film, be careful–there is a 1995 remake that is nearly unwatchable despite being based off the same script.  The 1978 original is the one you want as it is much more than just watchable.

One comment

  1. I loved this well written article and great website. Very informative. Keep up the good work!

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