Roger Corman and his company, New World Pictures, were like the Asylum of the 1970s and 1980s - except, unlike Asylum, often Corman's copycat and ripoff films were enjoyable. Also, unlike Asylum, Corman famously allowed those who worked on his movies and showed some sort of talent to get the break they needed to get into the business. So it was that Joe Dante made his official directorial debut with a Jaws knockoff called Piranha, written by none other than John Sayles, who would also go on to become a popular independent director.
Joe Dante may not be a big household name, but he is the guy behind such movies as Gremlins, The Howling and The 'Burbs. His horror films often have humorous elements to them and, even though Sayles is largely responsible for that this time around, it is something that Dante learned to temper his movies with. In addition to working with Corman he had also been responsible for a compilation of horror film scenes that aired on television in the late 1960s and was one of a number of people that worked on Hollywood Boulevard. Also working on this in the effects department was Rob Bottin, who would also work with Dante on The Howling.
When two hikers disappear in a Texas mountain town skip tracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies-Urich) is sent to investigate. She meets an alcoholic misanthrope named Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) whom she talks into taking her up to a military base at the top of the mountain. While there they find evidence of the hikers and drain a pond on the premises to look for their bodies. Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) tries to stop them, but it is too late - their actions have released a number of genetically modified piranha into the local river system.
Desperate to alert the authorities the trio begin a trek down the river to try and stop the dam from releasing water into the lake below. Unfortunately the piranha figure out a way around. There is a summer camp, attended by Grogan's daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins), as well as a new water resort being opened by entrepreneur Buck Gardner (Dick Williams), both downstream from a the dam. While Grogan does succeed in getting the military to respond, Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) both seem more interested in covering it up than actually doing something.
This is one of these movies where one of the prospective bad guy, this time Dr. Hoak, is right. While Grogan and Maggie blame him for his experimenting with the fish the truth is they were fine were they were. Certainly, Hoak should have found some way of returning their belongings with a cover story so people didn't come poking around, but Maggie should have had the forethought that if there was something in the water that may have killed the two then maybe it was best to ask around instead of taking matters into her own hands. If it wasn't for our protagonists the fish would have stayed put and Hoak would have happily lived his life with his lizard creature and whatever the piranha/eel thing is in the fish tank.
No doubt Sayles was trying to subvert the old trope of the mad scientist being evil. Yes, his military backers are evil in their own way, but also not in the way one would expect. While we do have the evil capitalist that will do anything for a buck, even risk people's lives, ultimately the villains are the two people we are supposed to root for. Until the very end they are also quite incompetent; Grogan's daughter does a better job of playing hero than he does. Also, considering the rise of environmental concerns in the 1970s, the solution the piranha problem is also quite ironic.
Speaking of the lizard creature, it's a great example of stop-motion photography and it is well-blended into the rest of the action. Apparently Joe Dante wanted it to be a big part of the plot, growing to monstrous size and wreaking some havoc of its own, but the budget just wasn't there. It's a pity because it was one of the things that stuck in my mind for years after originally seeing the movie, and I still find it more interesting than the piranha themselves. They may be vicious creatures that devour everything in their path, but the little lizard guy was a mystery without a resolution.
It is all these little weird quirks that make the movie so enjoyable even now. Universal, who owned Jaws and were preparing to release Jaws 2, were not pleased and sued - that is, until Steven Spielberg stepped in and told them to drop it, as he loved it. Audiences did as well and, though Dante and Sayles thought it was going to be one of the worst pieces of garbage ever, it turned out to be a better sequel to Jaws than its own. Unlike a number of other "nature goes wild" movies from the same time Piranha doesn't try to hide what it's doing for an instant and it is a much better film for that. It is also quite funny in many cases despite its willingness to get nasty when it needs to.
There have been a couple remakes of this, one of them being Piranha 3D. The actual sequel, Piranha II: The Spawning, was a first - this time around for Jim Cameron who, despite being credited as director, maybe has only a couple scenes of his work in it. Piranha 3D, although the rubber fish in this are in some ways more convincing than the CGI piranha, is the only one to come near achieving what this one did - right down to having Richard Dreyfus do a cameo in the beginning to further the Jaws connection. While the newer movie may have a more shocking massacre scene this one is still effective, and despite rubber fish (filmed in such murky water that the effect works), Bottin does some great work with the gore effects, and even though there is over a three-decade gap they compare well with Greg Nicotero's.
Piranha also has all those little things one can expect from a Corman movie of the time, including Paul Bartel, while Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski (who plays one of the camp counselors) became regulars in Dante's films. It's well-written, quite funny and delivers on the gore despite its low budget. Piranha was everything one should expect from a Jaws knockoff, and it managed to overcome its limitations to still remain a classic today. I just hope that someday the little lizard guy gets his own film.
Time: 94 minutes
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies-Urich, Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller
Director: Joe Dante