Jaws. After that film came out nobody could get over the fact that Jaws had become a hit considering the kind of film it was. “A movie about a killer shark? I can do that.” Thought every idiot with some camera equipment and a couple grand. As a result we got subpar sequels and endless ripoffs. Piranha separates itself from the pack by being something different, a spoof. “I mean, piranhas? How is that scary?” The answer is it’s not. This film knows what it’s up too and really only exists to provide laughs and entertainment.
Piranha was of course the product of B-movie mogul Roger Corman. I’m sure he didn’t care what kind of movie he was producing as long as it was cheap, entertaining, and profitable. Luckily, Corman had a knack for finding talent. In this case that talent included the sharp wit and visual energy of director Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling) and the satirical sensibilities of screenwriter John Sayles (Passion Fish, Lone Star). The results are what Steven Spielberg has called, “The best of the Jaws ripoffs.” And I might have to agree with him.
The film begins with two teens stumbling upon on what appears to be an abandoned military site where they find a pool. Everyone knows military sites always have the best pools. Anyways, the teens go skinny dipping where they are quickly and mysteriously pulled down below to their watery graves. “Don’t trust unexplained swimming pools!” Is my personal advice. Next, an absent-minded insurance investigator named Maggie (Heather McKeown) comes to investigate and hopefully find the missing teens. Oh, did I mention the name of this area? “Lost River Lake” How very appropriate. Maggie hires a backwoods drunk named Paul (Bradford Dillman) to be her guide around the area and they soon discover the military compound. Not a bad start for this tongue ’n cheek animal disaster flick.
Maggie learns that the military was once a former fish hatchery where bizarre experiments took place. Maggie then finds the mysterious pool and drains it to discover two skeletons. A crazy man named Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) appears and tells Maggie that not only did she empty the pool, she just released what was in the pool into the local water source. What was in the pool? Biologically engineered Piranha that were going to be used in Vietnam. Awesome. As the film continues it’s all fun, games, and guts as a small town community has to band together and fend off scourges of flesh eating piranha.
The movie is cheap and silly but again, it’s not to be taken seriously. I don’t think anyone thought they were making high art here. That being said, John Sayles does a fairly good job of setting up the action and plotting the story. Of course Joe Dante adds plenty of visual flair and humor, and there’s some very entertaining performances from old pros like Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, and Corman/Dante favorite Dick Miller.
Piranha was later remade in 3D a handful of years ago, and Mr. Sean Lemme and myself actually went to go see it. There were some laughs but the whole vibe felt a little creepy, like the sleazy guy at a party who won’t stop telling you inappropriate jokes. I also saw the sequel appropriately named, “Piranha 3DD”. That one was so bad it was great. I mean, David Hasselhoff vs. piranhas? They knew what they were doing. And that’s what separates a good B-movie from a bad one. Good B-movies are self-aware and know to have fun. Lucky for me, Piranha wades comfortably in that area.
Fun Fact: Keenan Wynn (pictured above) was also in the Jaws ripoff Orca. How many sea creatures must we see kill this man?