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Piranha (1978)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

PIRANHA (1978)

Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele

Written By: John Sayles (also story), Richard Robinson (story) Directed By: Joe Dante

The Short Version

Piranha is one of the most beloved exploitation flicks ever to come out of Roger Corman’s studio.

Even the director of the movie it was ripping off – Spielberg – loved it.

It’s B movie cheez that makes fun of itself with a straight face; sometimes it hits, sometimes not.

There’s a lot of major talent behind the camera here; they just hadn’t made it big yet.

It’s dated and cheesy, but there’s still fun to be had for those who fish for Piranha.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s processed.  It’s cheap.  It’s yummier than it has any right to be.  Enjoy!

Pairs Well With...


Also known as “entertainment” if you live in a cabin out in the middle of nowhere.  No glasses allowed; even at home, you may only use a canteen.  Not a flask.  A canteen.

“Maybe they never heard of recycling.”

For people who love the schlock end of the stick, Piranha is one of the more beloved films of all time.  It unashamedly pokes fun at the movie that literally changed everything in Hollywood – Jaws – and at the same time stands as one of the last truly popular triumphs of a tradition that would just a few years later disappear from the landscape (that being the drive-in movie, which is not to be confused with the phenomenon that replaced it: the direct-to-video movie).  Being very much a product of its time, Piranha definitely counts as “dated,” but while it may not be Scotch that just gets better with age, it’s not lousy wine that turns into vinegar with it, either.  Instead, it takes its place on the shelf marked “sentimental favorites,” even if there are those who question its worthiness to be there.

Let’s see what we’ve got.

After a pair of hikers disappears deep in the heart of Texas river country, a fresh-faced but determined skip tracer named Maggie (Heather Menzies, Sssssss) is sent by the young lady’s parents to go find them.  (If you’ve read any Janet Evanovich, think of Maggie as a flightier Stephanie Plum stuck in the back woods.  What?  The books are funny.  Anyway.)  Since we got to see what happened before the credits rolled, we already know that they were eaten by lots of killer fish when they took a dip in the wrong pool, but Maggie will catch up to the rest of us soon enough.

During the course of that catching up, Maggie enlists the help of single father and locally renowned alcoholic Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman, The Disappearance of Flight 412), who apparently has nothing better to do.  Together they discovered the same “abandoned” military test site that our wayward hikers found earlier, and when Maggie discovers the girl’s belongings near the pool, she surmises that the pair may have drowned and that their bodies may be lying at the bottom of the murky water.  Being armed with a “can-do” attitude, Maggie decides that the best thing to do would be to drain the pool to see if she’s right, and so she does, much to the dismay of the scientist who still happens to be very much in residence at the “abandoned” site, a certain Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers).  See, by draining the pool, she’s just released the genetically engineered piranhas that ate the two hikers into the nearby river, and not so far up the river from the test site, there happens to be a children’s summer camp and a tourist resort.

Can you say “uh-oh,” boys and girls?  I knew you could…

Executive Producer Roger Corman is a master of many things, and nearly all of them come together for Piranha.

For one thing, he knows how to read the field and pick a winner every time.  He wrote a book called “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime,” and he’s not kidding.  He plays the movie game like Warren Buffet plays the stock market, and if one accepts the apples to oranges nature of the comparison, Corman may actually be the greater savant.  Here, he grabs the tail of the movie that changed everything – Jaws – and shamelessly rips it off in a style he’d already been succeeding with for over twenty years, but with even more gusto than usual, sensing that this fish would indeed be the biggest of all.  And he was right – it was one of the biggest hits he ever produced.  The fact that the movie was delayed for two years may have even helped, since that let a bunch of other rip-offs and creature features seed the market for him.  (Universal Studios was in the process of starting a lawsuit when Steven Spielberg had a gander at Piranha and declared that he loved it.  End of suit.)

Corman also has a knack for finding and developing talent.  The list of Corman collaborators who have gone on to have massive careers and multiple Oscars on their shelves is legendary, and several of them happen to be working on Piranha.  At the helm is Joe Dante, who’d started out splicing trailers for Corman and who would later make such films as The Howling and Gremlins.  This film is a glimpse what was to come from him: a fair amount of genuine if low-key horror that balances itself out with a humorous self-awareness that knows there’s a joke but plays it off with a straight face anyway.  As for that horror stuff, it’s helped along by a monster maker named Phil Tippet, who had just been working on a little flick called Star Wars and who would soon after be instrumental in creating the puppet for a character called Yoda.   The bloody make up effects are done in part by a certain Rob Bottin, who would himself be instrumental in designing some guy named RoboCop later on.  Helping Joe Dante with editing, meanwhile, was a new kid named Mark Goldblatt, who’d soon be working on flicks with names like The Terminator, Rambo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and so on.  So yeah; there’s some talent behind the camera here.

And what does all of that talent come up with?

It comes up with a movie that feels like it’s way better than it really is.  Piranha is cheap on pretty much every level, the plot is thin, and several elements of the story are farfetched and/or don’t make any sense, but this film has an uncanny knack for making the audience not care about those things.  So what if Maggie isn’t very believable as a bounty hunter?  (You know that’s pretty much what a skip tracer is, right?)  Who cares if it doesn’t make any sense that Grogan decides to help her initially?  Does it really matter to us that all the bad things that happen after the first few minutes of this movie are entirely their fault?  Of course not, just like it doesn’t matter to us that the fish make a buzzing noise more appropriate to bees, or that we rarely see them at all when they’re not attached to something else... almost as if they’re rubber and attached to their victims with gaffer’s tape.  We’re just glad that whenever Roger Corman decided to duck his head into things and give Joe Dante some advice, that advice was always “more blood!”  In so many ways, this is just another cheesy exploitation flick with the same problems that so many others have, and yet there’s just that intangible something about it.  Piranha is proof that moviemaking really is an art and not a science.

It’s that art that makes Piranha a sentimental favorite for so many drive-in aficionados.  You know it’s dated, but unless you’re going to take offense at the fact that yes, children are attacked and even killed by our voraciously hungry fishies, this is the kind of flick that you just kick back for and let happen while you snicker and enjoy your drink.  It’s got laughs without going overboard, it’s got random boobs, and it’s got a few genuine creepy moments; other than the sex scene that’s implied but never filmed, what more do you need?

(Though I will say that I am utterly vexed by the report that the crew had to get a waitress from the local Holiday Inn – or at least her breasts – to stand in for Heather Menzies for a boob flash scene.  You’ll note that Menzies’ head is not in the shot, which is often a clue to the use of a nudity double.  What’s odd about it is that Menzies had done a full frontal Playboy spread a few years earlier.  And so, the point of the double is?)

Bottom line, whatever its flaws may be, Piranha neatly sidesteps them all and comes through as one of the most fun low budget creature features of the drive-in era.  If you’re going to watch any of Roger Corman’s “nature strikes back” flicks, this is the one to go with.  You might even consider watching it as a double feature to follow up Jaws, if you’re feeling especially saucy.

I’ll also, as an afterthought, suggest that you pick up one of the recent editions of Piranha released by Shout Factory.  The extras are interesting and far more thorough than you’ll usually find for drive-in fare, with the highlight being a new behind-the-scenes featurette featuring new interviews with Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and others.  For my own part, I’ll admit that even though I recognized Piranha as dated to begin with, it really hits you when you watch the interviews after and see the very same ladies whom you were gawking at in their roles as young camp counselors whom you were hoping would go for a skinnydip, only thirty-plus years later.  Wow.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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