August 30, 2018
In 1975, the movie world was changed by Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster Jaws. And almost immediately, schlock filmmakers started imitating it, hoping some of the success would rub off. And some did. The Jaws clone trend has given us awesome movies like Orca, Tentacles, and even Grizzly. Oh, and Piranha.
Piranha begins, as many horror movies do, with a pair of teenage lovers (played by the cannon fodder actors Roger Richman and Janie Squire) deciding to skinny dip in a manmade pond on the grounds of an old military installation that they’ve found while backpacking. Of course, because the movie is called Piranha, you can probably figure out how their swim ends.
The girl’s father hires a private detective named Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies from Sssssss) to track down his daughter. Maggie enlists the help of a local named Paul Grogan (Moon of the Wolf’s Bradford Dillman) to show her around the mountain area, and they end up at the same pool at the military complex. Suspecting something is up, Maggie and Paul drain the pool, much to the horror of the only man left in the lab, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy, who got famous in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but also starred in cool TV movies like Invitation to Hell and The Midnight Hour). Hoak explains that Maggie and Paul have just released a strain of mutant man-eating piranha that will make their way down river until they reach a brand new resort that has just opened up – and the summer camp that Paul’s daughter attends. Together, the three must stop the ravenous fish before they reach their people-packed destination.
Piranha is a product of the Roger Corman film school. The B-movie producer, famous for movies with titles like A Bucket of Blood and Bloody Mama, tapped longtime friend and crewmember Joe Dante (who would go on to make classics like Gremlins, The Howling, and The Burbs) to direct, while the script was written by fellow Corman disciples John Sayles (Alligator, Battle Beyond the Stars) and Richard Robinson (Kingdom of the Spiders). Just like all good Corman movies, Piranha was made on the cheap, which means that it wasn’t always easy. But it was all worth it, because the film became one of Corman’s biggest hits.
By Corman’s own admission, Piranha is one big homage to Jaws. Even though it took so long to make that Jaws 2 was out the same year, Piranha is as obvious of a Jaws tribute as one is bound to find, from its nocturnal opening attack scene to the unlikely trio of reluctant heroes that finds itself tasked with saving the day. It’s even got a mayor/resort owner who insists on keeping his water park open despite all warnings of the impending tragedy. At one point, Universal Studios considered suing Roger Corman and New World Pictures for intellectual property theft, but Spielberg reportedly loved Piranha so much that he talked them out of it. A few years later, Spielberg and Dante would be considered contemporaries, even working together on Twilight Zone: The Movie.
The special effects makeup in Piranha was done by Rob Bottin (The Incredible Melting Man, The Thing) and Vincent Prentice (Dead & Buried, Roar), a pair of artists that may have been unknown in 1978, but would become household names in the decade to come. The bulk of the pair’s effects are used to show the aftermath of the piranha attacks, as the fish themselves are too fast for any good munching action to be seen. In typical Corman fashion, the piranha themselves are rubber fish on sticks, with most of the suspense and horror of their feeding frenzies manufactured through quick and spastic editing.
Perhaps the most fun effect in the film is one that winds up being a red herring; when Maggie and Paul are exploring the military outpost, there’s a small reptilian creature that is seen stalking them. The creature is a stop-motion creation by Phil Tippett (who did The Crater Lake Monster before graduating to Star Wars), and it’s pretty cool, even if its existence does little for the movie besides illustrate the types of experiments that were taking place at the base. It gives the impression of being a plot point instead of just a piece of exposition. And it would be fun to see it pop up again in the movie. But it doesn’t.
The cast of Piranha features quite a few horror legends in glorified bit roles. Corman’s muse and main man Dick Miller (Chopping Mall, Night of the Creeps) plays the aforementioned resort owner. The sultry Barbara Steele (Silent Scream) appears as a scientist who knows more about the experiments – and Dr, Hoak - than she lets on. Keenan Wynn (Orca, The Dark) portrays a friend of Paul’s who unfortunately was hanging his legs off a dock when the piranha swarmed his part of the river. Paul Bartel (Chopping Mall, Trick or Treats) plays the head counselor at the camp, with Belinda Balaski (The Howling, The Food of the Gods) and Melody Thomas (The Fury, The Car) both showing up as junior counselors. It’s a who’s-who of Corman superstars in Piranha.
And speaking of superstars…Piranha features an awesome score from the prolific Italian composer Pino Donaggio (Dressed to Kill, Don’t Look Now, Tourist Trap). Donaggio knows exactly what kind of movie he’s scoring – the music is overly dramatic and intensely energetic. He approaches the movie as if it were a giallo or a monster movie, with light motifs that become over-the-top crescendos at the drop of a hat, all while keeping its wicked sense of humor. It’s brilliant.
In 1995, Roger Corman took a crack at producing a remake of Piranha for the Showtime network, even borrowing footage from his original film for it in an effort to tie the two movies together. French extreme director Alexandre Aja also did a loose remake of Piranha in 2010, this time in 3D. But neither of the remakes had the same fun vibe as the original. It’s a B-movie classic.