Piranha is a 1978 American horror feature film about a swarm of killer piranhas. It was directed by Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins, Trapped Ashes; Burying the Ex) and stars Bradford Dillman (Bug), Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele (Black Sunday; Shivers), Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski.
Produced by Roger Corman, Piranha is a low budget parody of the 1975 film Jaws, which had been a major success for Universal Studios and inspired a series of similarly themed killer critter movies such as Grizzly, Tintorera, Tentacles, and Orca. It was shot at Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, Texas. Screenwriter John Sayles (Alligator) used the proceeds to fund his own films and also wrote the tie-in novelization.
The film was followed by a sequel, Piranha II: The Spawning, in 1981, and two remakes, a cable TV remake in 1995, and a 3D remake in 2010, that spawned its own sequel in 2012.
Two teenagers exploring at night come upon an apparently abandoned military installation. They take advantage of what appears to be a swimming pool to skinny dip. The teenagers are attacked by an unseen force and disappear under the water. A light activates in the main building and a silhouetted figure investigates the screams but is too late to help.
A determined but somewhat absent-minded insurance investigator named Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is dispatched to find the missing teenagers near Lost River Lake. She hires surly backwoods drunkard Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) to serve as her guide. They come upon the abandoned compound, which functioned as a fish hatchery prior to being militarized. They discover bizarre specimens in jars and indications of an occupant. Maggie locates the drainage switch for the outside pool and decides to empty it to search the bottom, but the moment she activates it a haggard and frantic man attacks her, attempting to stop the draining until he is subdued by Grogan.
The two find a skeleton in the filtration trap of the empty pool and learn it was filled with salt water. The man awakens and steals their jeep, but crashes it due to his disorientation, and is taken to Grogan’s home where they spend the night. They take Grogan’s homemade raft down the river, where the man wakes up and tells them that the pool in the facility was filled with a school of piranhas and that Maggie released them into the river…
A classic, lively, fun and old-fashioned monster movie, Piranha is a delight. And the new Blu-ray edition looks fabulous and is full of extras, including a lively commentary from Joe Dante and producer Jon Davidson, some great 8mm behind-the-scenes footage (again with commentary), outtakes and a ‘making of’ that is pretty badly put together and pretty poor quality, but does feature a lot of the cast and crew discussing the movie. All in all, there’s a tempting selection of supplementary material for a film that would be an essential purchase anyway.
David Flint, HORRORPEDIA
‘Piranha rises above the pack because it goes about its task in an intelligent, lovingly crafted way. The basis of its savvy approach is a smart script by first-time screenwriter (and future indie-film icon) John Sayles that layers the storyline with quirky, well-drawn characters that charm the viewer into caring about them. Thus, when the monster-fish attacks kick in, it’s a pleasant surprise how dramatically involving it is because the audience is invested in these oddball heroes.’ Schlockmania
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“Dante’s cunning filmmaking, with plentiful gore yet judicious, mostly suggestive sense of the physical mayhem spread by the killer fish, which, apart from some unfortunate shots of them swimming in schools, are mostly glimpsed in quick flashes of wicked teeth and darting, nipping blurs, is shot and edited with the kind of zest that truly marks out talented filmmakers even in low-budget fare.” This Island Rod
“This one is cheap but funny […] The trailer doesn’t even try to pretend it’s not a rip-off, claiming “These are the man-eaters who go beyond the bite of all other jaws. Sharks kill alone, but piranha come in thousands.” This is the kind of drive-in film that simply has an x-factor and cleverness not present in most of its forgotten peers…” Jim Vorel, Paste magazine
How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, Da Capo Press
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Cast and characters:
- Bradford Dillman as Paul Grogan
- Heather Menzies as Maggie McKeown
- Kevin McCarthy as Dr Robert Hoak
- Keenan Wynn as Jack
- Barbara Steele as Dr Mengers
- Dick Miller as Buck Gardner
- Belinda Balaski as Betsy
- Bruce Gordon as Colonel Waxman
- Paul Bartel as Mr Dumont
- Melody Thomas Scott as Laura Dickinson
- Barry Brown as Trooper
- Shannon Collins as Suzie Grogan
- Shawn Nelson as Whitney
- Richard Deacon as Earl Lyon
- John Sayles as Sentry