Film Review: Piranha (1978)

in #aaalast month


Success of Spielberg’s Jaws inspired many film makers to try exploit it by making their own films with similar general premise. One of the most successful among them was Roger Corman, legendary producer and king of B-films. His expertise in exploitation cinema resulted in Piranha, 1978 horror film directed by Joe Dante, with success later manifesting itself in a sequel and two remakes.

Plot begins one night in Texas when hiking teenage couple stumbles onto abandoned military installation. Curiosity leads them to go inside where they find large pool and decide to engage in skinny dipping which would result in their gruesome deaths caused by something in the water. Their disappearance is investigated by female private detective Maggie McKeown (played by Heather Menzies) who is reluctantly aided by local alcoholic recluse Paul Grogan (played by Bradford Dillman). Two of them find the installation where they find Dr. Robert Hoak (played by Kevin McCarthy), former government scientist who explains that he used to be part of Project Razor Teeth and designed genetically modified piranhas intended to be deployed in rivers of Southeast Asia in order to stop guerillas during Vietnam War. Unfortunately, Maggie and Paul have inadvertently released water from the pool into river and now the hordes of ravenous fish are swimming downstream and threaten summer camp attended by Paul’s daughter Suzie (played by Sharon Collins), as well as visitors of the spectacular water park which is about to be opened by ambitious entrepreneur Buck Gardner (played by Dick Miller).

Although made with little budget and apparently little ambition, Piranha features names that would later become quite respected. Director Dante later became protégé of Spielberg (who expressed had previously expressed his satisfaction with this film). Script was written by John Sayles, who would become one of the more renowned filmmakers in 1980s and 1990s. Special effects were handled by Phil Tippet who would later work on such high budget productions like Jurassic Park. Actors were, on other hand, somewhat less known and that includes Broadway veteran Bradford Dillman in very fine performance of an alcoholic character who convincingly transforms into hero and wins audience’s sympathies. Among the cast some of Corman’s veterans stand out, like Dick Miller in his version of mayor’s character from Jaws and 1960s horror star Barbara Steele as sinister government scientist whose seemingly reassuring words at the end point to an inevitable sequel.

Dante directs his film with great skill, putting limited resources to very good use. This includes scenes featuring piranhas, which are never properly seen and whose murderous rampage is effectively displayed through rapid editing, rubber props, good makeup and lot of fake blood. He also infuses a lot of dark humour in the film, which is enough for Piranha not to be taken seriously, although he breaks some of taboos of horror film during the scene in which children are attacked and seriously injured by carnivorous fish. Aware of the need for maximum exploitation content, Dante adds some car chases and even nudity in the film, although much less than Alexandre Aja in his 2010 remake. Greatest Dante’s achievement is, however, good editing that not only allows the plot going smoothly and being contained within 90 minutes of running time, but also prevents audience from realising that Piranha was actually unfinished. Scene at the beginning features small but menacing looking bipedal creature which would, under the rules of regular horror film, become one of major characters in the film; Corman, unfortunately, didn’t allow budget for that so the creature simply vanishes from the film without any relevance for the plot. Most of the audience, however, wouldn’t care much about this detail and that points to Piranha being rather effective genre film.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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Critic: AA