Monday, May 31, 2010

Piranha (1978) - 3.5/5

Due to the Piranha remake coming out this summer I received a message from my brother asking if I owned the original so he could see it. Sadly I didn't anymore and this bothered me as I consider myself the go to guy for the older horror films. I owned the New Concord DVD years ago but ended up selling the damn thing for nearly $50 when it went out of print. Thanks to the film being re-released soon I was able to pick up the old New Concorde edition I owned on eBay for pennies. Now my DVD collection finally feels more complete that I know own Piranha yet again and recently sat down with my wife to revisit some memories. All I can say is that I forgot how fun Piranha really was.

The plot itself is your basic B-movie nature gone bad rip-off that filled theaters after the success of Jaws. However the film rises above this label thanks to director Joe Dante to become an "A" of a "B" movie. It's amazing it turned out as good as it did considering the fun, yet silly plot and for the fact it was produced by Roger Corman who was mostly known for churning out fun, yet schlockingly bad monster films. The plot opens with two young lovers that break into an area that has fences with attention grabbing signs that read "Warning Keep Out" only to take a swim in what looks like the nastiest, dirtiest looking pool imaginable. Thanks to the title of the film we know that these young lovers are about to become fish food. A young, smart mouthed investigator is hired to find out where they disappeared to and with the help of a burnt out drunk living nearby, she tracks them down to that government testing facility with the pool of monsters. Unwittingly they drain the pool and thanks to our scientist played by Kevin McCarthy, they find out they released thousands of genetically mutated piranha into the mountain river system. Now it's a race against time to warn potential victims and to rescue our drunk's daughter before they all get sliced and diced by the razor sharp teeth of the PIRANHA! Throw in some government agents trying to cover up the top secret project and you are guaranteed wonderful B-movie time.

The aspects that make this film rise above other such films in the genre is the sharp writing of John Sayles (The Howling, Alligator) and the sure-handed directing of novice Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins). John Sayles' script really fleshes out the characters (all the more the Piranha to eat!) making them seem more human and more quirky than other characters in such films. Dante's directing also makes the film rise above the silly plot by having the characters take the situation seriously yet also injecting plenty of sardonic humor that he would perfect in The Howling. He also fills the film with little in-jokes seen with props and images on television screens (this would also be seen in later, more mainstream Joe Dante films). An example of this is a cop reading a newspaper which headline reads "Piranha leave little clues." I love when directors put this little extra work into films. Perhaps teh funniest in-joke is at the beginning when our investigator starts out playing a Jaws arcade game. Nothing like advertising right up front what film your ripping off! The film, for its time, is also pretty bloody and violent as we are shown victims whose legs are eaten down to the bone. The filmmakers also pull no punches and even break the taboo rule of killing children by having the pack of piranha attack a girls summer camp. By today's standards this is tame but back in 1978 this film was pretty graphic.

The one aspect about the film that brings it down for me is that the ending of the film becomes a little too much of a Jaws rip-off for my taste. We have large water resort that is owned by a stubborn Texan (cult actor Dick Miller) who refuses to believe any of the warnings just like the mayor in Jaws. Of course it ends up a mega bloodbath.

Overall I really enjoyed Piranha and the filmmakers made the film rise above it's typical B-movie status with good writing and directing. The plot may be nothing more than a Jaws rip-off (probably the best Jaws rip-off ever I might add) but B-movie fans will love the actors and graphic nature of the film (70's style). This is a B-movie I highly recommend.

Bonus Rant (Spoiler): I actually thought it was interesting how our hero beat the Piranha by killing them with pollution. Pollution coming to save us for once... that's a really unique concept. However I did find it a stretch that the control room for the sewage plant was underwater. You think the engineers would build an important room to, I don't know, a sewage treatment plant someplace that wouldn't get flooded!

Written By Eric Reifschneider

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