Directed by Joe Dante
Like any 1970s horror movie worth its salt(water), Joe Dante’s “Piranha” opens with a skinny-dipping couple meeting their bloody demise. From there, I’ll admit, the movie’s campy premise sucked me in faster than the titular fish were sucked into that drainage tube and straight into a local river, where they were free to terrorize anyone who dared to dip their toes in. Private investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies-Urich) is sent to the backwoods locale where the skinny-dipping couple went missing, hoping to find a clue to their whereabouts. When she and the town drunk, Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), stumble upon a once-abandoned military facility, they discover the cause of the couple’s death—a group of hardy piranhas, bred for use in the Vietnam War and able to survive in freshwater. And thanks to Maggie and Paul’s misguided quick thinking, these very same fish have just been released into the local river, where miles away Paul’s daughter swims at her summer camp and a new amusement park opens up with hundreds of anxious guests.
“Piranha” isn’t afraid to concede that it drew inspiration from a major (the major) summer blockbuster from just two summers before: “Jaws.” Early on, we even see Maggie playing the “Shark Jaws” arcade game inspired by Steven Spielberg’s film. Both movies are about killer fish and the dangers of corporate greed. In “Piranha,” the most prominent antagonists are a military man trying to conceal the news of their deadly mistake and the amusement park honcho who ignores the warnings and lets his guests swim in the river anyway. Also similar to “Jaws,” the 40-year-old special effects we see in “Piranha” pale in comparison to what can be done today. But the nature of the premise helps hide what might have been a laughably ugly movie. With all the attacks happening below the surface of the water, “Piranha” is able to get away with concealing the sea creatures and letting the audience simply imagine the worst. All we see, most of the time, are flailing victims and blood rushing to the surface of the water. What we imagine is far scarier.
Like the effects, the acting is nothing to bat an eye at. But good acting was almost never included in the price of admission when you paid to see a horror movie around this time. It wasn’t the priority for horror movie fans then. And it likely isn’t now, so I won’t belabor the point. For fans of B-movie horror, “Piranha” delivers the outlandish plot, gratuitous nudity, and buckets of blood you’ve come to expect. If that’s you thing, I’d encourage you to take the bait.