95 Min. | Comedy – Horror – Sci-Fi | November 1978
IMDB Rating: 5.9
Director: Joe Dante
Staring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies-Urich, Kevin McCarthy
Piranha Review: While Joe Dante is best known for his darkly humorous take on established genres, it is worth noting that his career almost came to a halt because his first proper picture – not counting B-movie assemblage. Piranha Orgy – was a full-on spoof of Jaws, meaning Universal considered taking the matter to court. Luckily, Steven Spielberg saw the film and enjoyed it, subsequently lending Dante a producing hand on Gremlins and offering him the chance to direct a segment of the Twilight Zone movie. All that for good reasons, perfect it may not be, but Piranha is a lot of fun.
Instead of the ocean, Piranha situates its action on the shores of a lake, where insurance investigator Maggie McKeown is sent to find two missing teenagers. With the help of a local drunk she finds an abandoned compound, and through her encounter with a scientists Dr. Robert Hoak and Dr. Mengers, she uncovers the location’s terrible secret, the military was engineering a particularly lethal strain of Piranha to use in Vietnam, but the project was shut down. However, the fish are still there, and they have found their way to the lake. Being a Roger Corman production, Piranha was obviously made more on the cheap compared to Jaws, but it does boast a certain ambition, thanks to John Sayles’ script, filled with anti-militaristic subtext, and Pino Donaggio’s score, showcasing the knack for suspense he went on to develop with Brian De Palma.
As far as the acting is concerned, it embodies another Corman staple, not much to write home about, with cardboard characters played by relatively unknown actors, with the major exceptions of Dillman, who specifically asked to have his role properly developed, and Steele, evidently happy to help out another first-time director after her deranged performance in David Cronenberg’s Shivers. That said, McKeown isn’t too bad either, although most people are more likely to remember her for one specific scene that doesn’t require that much acting talent. So yes, Piranha is a pretty cheap knock-off of a much superior film, and even by Dante’s standards the effort comes off as sub-par at times. But hey, everyone has to get started somewhere, and as a piece of unpretentious entertainment Piranha truly delivers. And unlike the sequel, it has just enough bite.