PIRANHA is the infamous Roger Corman produced JAWS rip that contained
some heavy duty talent working behind the scenes. Itís fun, but donít
expect anything too profound.
At the time of PIRANHA (1978), director Joe Dante was
known as an editor and screenwriter John Sayles a novelist. Other famous
folk who got their start on this film included producer Jon Davison and
special effects technicians Rob Bottin and Chris Walas (and, if you
count 1981ís non-Roger Corman affiliated PIRANHA II, James Cameron).
Look also for appearances by future Dante regulars like Dick Miller and
Kevin McCarthy in small roles, along with the Italian scream queen
and the late director/actor
PIRANHA was of course a direct rip-off of
JAWS, and Corman was nearly sued over that fact by Universal Pictures. It was only
through the intervention of Steven Spielberg that the lawsuit was
averted (he apparently foresaw his relationship with Dante, who went on
to direct the Spielberg produced
TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE,
GREMLINS, INNERSPACE, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH and SMALL SOLDIERS). PIRANHA was,
in any event, a big success, and spawned an inevitable remake in 1995,
in which piranha attack footage from the original film was shamelessly
When a strain of mutant piranha escape from a secluded
army testing site into an adjacent lake, watch out! The crittersí first
victims are a couple who unwisely decide to skinny dip in the Piranhaís
tank. Once the things enter the lake, all Hell breaks loose as piranha
bite through the ropes holding together a wooden raft to nibble on its
inhabitants, and even devour their own mad scientist creator.
Thereís even more trouble on the horizon, as the grand
opening of a deluxe swimming resort, located on the piranha-infested
lake, is at hand! Paul Grogan, a local outdoorsman, and Maggie, a hot
police investigator, race to stop the resort opening. In the meantime
the piranha attack several young summer campers, in the process dragging
a woman counselor into the deep.
And thatís only an appetizer for the hungry piranha,
who go on to chomp a diver and quite a few swimmers before the day is
through. Itís up to Paul and Maggie to make things right by opening an
underwater pollution valve and poisoning the water--but how to do that
in a lake infested with deadly piranha?
This was the second feature directed by Joe Dante. The
first, 1976ís Corman pastiche HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, was funny and
loveably excessive, and the light touch extends to PIRANHA. As he would
in his later films, Dante utilizes frequent cuts to TV sets playing
parts of vintage monster movies as an ironic commentary on the action.
Dante also makes direct reference to his filmís unauthorized source in
an early scene of kids playing a JAWS video game.
As for the piranha attack sequences, Dante does what he
can. Piranha are small creatures that move extremely fast, meaning their
exploits are difficult to effectively dramatize in a movie, particularly
a low budget one (I lost count of how many times an underwater shot of a
swarm of piranha passing before the camera was repeated). If you look
closely, though, youíll see some memorable shots, including one of the
piranha chewing apart a womanís breasts.
The film overall is action-packed and satisfying (if
lightweight and forgettable, with an ending that really strains
credulity). In other words, it delivers exactly what it promises and
little else, which in this case is enough.
New World Pictures
Director: Joe Dante
Producer: Jon Davison
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cinematography: Jamie Anderson
Editing: Joe Dante, Mark Goldblatt
Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn,
Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce
Gordon, Barry Brown, Paul Bartel