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In the wake of "Jaws" came countless man vs. nature flicks with everything from bees to grizzly bears to frogs coming out to get man back for his crimes against the ecology (and don't forget "Night of the Lepus" in which huge bunny rabbits munched on hapless victims!) This film is considered one of the best imitators, primarily because of its tongue-in-cheek approach and it's deliberately campy writing and casting. Menzies is a hotshot missing persons expert who goes in search of two young hikers who have disappeared. She enlists the aid of hermit-like Dillman who lives near an abandoned government testing facility where the hikers were last suspected to have been. When they come upon a murky tank and believe the bodies could be at the bottom, Menzies releases the contents, unwittingly unleashing a school of vicious, genetically-altered piranha onto an unsuspecting river full of camp kids and park revelers. From there, it's a race against the clock to get to Dillman's young daughter who is about to enter a camp relay race in the water downstream. The film is deliberately peppered with actors who've made their mark in either horror or suspense films and it makes no pretenses about its lack of originality (though it does manage to come up with some despite itself!) Dillman (sporting an atrocious come-and-go Southern accent) and Menzies have a surprisingly decent rapport with each other with a few amusing scenes tossed in amongst all the panic. McCarthy pops up as a terrified scientist who knows his plans have gone awry. Wynn has a cameo as a gruff, but likable neighbor of Dillman's. Steele plays an ominous scientist in cahoots with Army colonel Gordon to keep the whole situation under wraps. Bartel is the persnickety camp counselor and Miller is the smarmy amusement park owner, both of whom disbelieve that there's any danger. Despite it's minuscule budget and rather homemade effects, the film does generate a bit of eye-opening gore and more than a little discomfort as these tiny fish nibble away at anything in the water. If "Jaws" caused people to avoid the ocean, this film could make people think twice about cloudy rivers and lakes! The murkiness of the water only adds to the horror of it all as the bikini-clad tourists and innertube-wielding kids can't begin to see what's coming. It's just a sting, then a nibble, then blood everywhere! Some of the effects are tacky and amusing, but there's a certain level of true fear as well. If one likes this genre to begin with, it will probably be a pleasure to watch. Others may be less enthralled.
On a dark, foggy night, two back-packers ignore the "no trespassing" sign, to engage themselves in a rest after a long while of mountain-climbing. They discover a pond, and instantly feel obliged to cool off. Before they can manage to enjoy this nice break, the most horrid feeling comes over them, and both become victims of a savage death, resulting in blood, only blood. Such an opening is familiar, yes, but also attention-getting, and enjoyable. This is "Piranha", the 1978 camp-classic horror film from acclaimed director Joe Dante and the production of Roger Corman. Given, the production values are some what less than "Jaws" and "Close Encounters.." but the heart and joy of film-making is also there, and thusly, the film is much more enjoyable than most Hollywood film of that era. The film is scripted by a then, young John Sayles, whom also makes a cameo! The two leads, Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies are perfect, and chemistry is dead-on making for a very fun time indeed! The writing is, perhaps, the best part of the film, seeing as Corman obviously wanted a real cultish feel, and as such, the film has so many noticeable , fun, and convenient in-jokes such as a swimmer reading acclaimed novel 'Moby Dick', and lazy workers watching old cartoons involving fish. The thrills are pretty good too, seeing as the situation involves genetically enhanced knowledge within the fish. Therefor, it is much harder for Dillman and Menzies as they attempt to over power the deadly fish while chasing them down stream a beautiful Texas river. Dillman and Menzies lead a cast of familiar faces seen in earlier Corman films such as Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, and Barbara Steele. The piranha themselves don't look too bad, and thusly, the effects are pretty good for a low budget film such as this. Other goodies are one-liners, and other dialogs that are so witty, they will either make you howl, or are just plain great to hear over and over again. Yes, this film has all the right moves, as well as many other to boot! It is comic when needed, and when the element of serious conflict is present, so is the presence of serious characters. This film was remade in '95, with the most wretched cast and concept ever! And the thought of another remake causes my blood to boil! You cannot re-create an original classic! That is what makes it original! In any case, this film is a great classic, and an always enjoyable film, every time viewed!
Debut film of B horror director Joe Dante is this fun, exciting Jaws
spoof that's the best of its kind!
A school of deadly, mutant piranha is released from a government laboratory and it's up to an alcoholic man and his detective love-interest to warn folks down stream!
A fast-paced, campy, and humorous ride all the way, Piranha is a genuinely entertaining B film that recalls not only Jaws but many of the classic monster flicks of the 50's. The screenplay by John Sayles has lots of good suspense and a witty kind of humor. Dante's direction is nicely done, keeping the energetic mood of the film high. The special FX aren't half bad, especially considering the limited budget. In fact the movie packs some truly gory images. Pino Donaggio's music score is beautifully well done.
Stars Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies are quite good, making for some amusing and unlikely heroes. The supporting cast is good as well and has a number of veteran actors - Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, and Barbara Steele.
Over all, Piranha is a good old-fashioned horror delight for genre fans. See it!
**** out of ****
The 1978 Roger Corman produced picture Piranha was about
Killer fish escape a government research lab and kill hapless
vacationers, fishermen, and scientists. The film could have been real
hokey if not for writer John Sayles and director Joe Dante. The two of
them would become very successful in Hollywood with the release of The
Howling. The cast is full of familiar faces such as Kevin McCarthy,
Paul Bartel, Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller, and Barbra
Steele. The effects are cheesy but that's part of the fun. I believe
that they made the best movie about menacing fish that they could. It
has just the right mix of comedy and terror and it's entertaining. The
Jaws video game was a nice touch too.
"They're eating the guests, sir."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Even in the late 70's studios were trying to cash in on the "Jaws" phenomenon and to this date they are still doing it. This is a Roger Corman produced film and he never saw a genre that he didn't exploit. Story is about an insurance investigator named Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) who is trying to locate two lost campers and she runs into an alcoholic hermit in the woods named Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and she persuades him to give her a ride to a supposedly closed military facility. They look around and Maggie finds the campers gear certifying that they were there. They start to drain the pool to see if they drowned and they're attacked by a man who says not to let the water drain. They knock him unconscious and take him back to Paul's cabin. They tie him up and with the use of a raft they head downstream to the authorities. While on the raft they find out that his name is Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) and he has been working for the government undercover and has developed a mutant species of piranha and that they let them out of the pool and into the river! The military comes in and they try to keep Maggie and Paul quiet but they escape and try to stop the piranha from heading downriver and into the ocean. The piranha chew up several people and even little kids swimming at camp. A local businessman named Buck Gardner (Dick Miller) is opening a resort on the river and even though he knows about the piranha he doesn't delay the grand opening. This was the directorial debut of Joe Dante and even though this was made on a shoestring budget his talent is very evident. Yes, the film is silly but the special effects are not that bad and the script was written by John Sayles. The only flaw (For me that is) is that Dillman and Menzies spend way to much time on that raft. The film does slow down a notch but luckily it's not for that long. There is one truly scary scene and it's where the piranha attack the little kids at camp. The kids really get chomped on and the scene where a pretty counselor is killed is very effective and well made. The opening scene in the film is a direct "Jaws" rip-off where the two campers go swimming at night and are eaten. Menzies is then seen playing a "Jaws" video game. Like all Corman films this has many recognizable faces in the cast like Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Paul Bartel, Belinda Balaski, Richard Deacon and Sayles himself plays the Army guard that is fooled when Dillman and Menzies escape. Definitely a film that you don't take seriously but this is pretty well made and a must for fans of Corman and horror films.
Piranha is a film more self-aware than most of the post-Scream crap to
come out of Hollywood. The film knows it follows a formula. In an early
scene, we meet the protagonist Maggie playing a Jaws arcade game --
acknowledging the film it shamelessly rips off. It knows it packs a
clichés punch with its characters as well as showing off that trademark
Roger Corman cost-saving devices. It knows it carries an obligatory
anti-war message as a product of the 1970s. And Piranha brings with it
an appropriate sense of humor towards its material.
So watching the film, I found myself despising the formula it follows; however, I couldn't help but appreciate how the film never takes itself too seriously. Good thing too, because the other protagonist, Paul, represents one of my greatest character pet peeves -- the self-serving social reject SoB who gets talked into tagging along who eventually evolves into something sympathetic. I can barely stomach that character type in this goofy ride, I don't think I could endure another character like that in a straight movie. Thank you Joe Dante.
Most films will toss out a painfully contrived excuse to get the adventurous Maggie and the hermit-wanna-be Paul to run through the plot together even though no amount of logic or reason could possibly yield that result, but not Piranha. Oh no. It doesn't even bother with an excuse, it just defies logic and common sense to put the two together and doesn't ask questions. Thank you John Sayles.
Of course, I still hated Paul, but that's okay. With any luck he'll wind up Piranha bait.
Keenan Wynn plays a colorful old man who lives out in the same neck of the woods as the Paul character, and he confirms the viewer's suspicion that Piranha opts for less realistic characters in favor of silly caricatures. This prepares the viewer for the big balding camp activities administrator, Earl, who encourages little kids to overcome their fears by essentially calling them sissies for having said fears. Also the evil Colonel Waxman who is evil solely because he represents the US Government around the same era in history as the Vietnam War. And let's not forget the cocky highway patrol trooper who informs the main characters, "Don't try nothing 'cause I got my gun right here in my left hand." What I find most amusing about Piranha is the fact that the "good guys" (Maggie and Paul) are the two characters most deserving of a crucifixion over the events in the film. These characters waltz into an abandoned Government test facility and start pushing buttons without asking any questions, or even attempting to go through the right channels, or find out anything about this once top-secret and highly classified test facility. They metaphorically walk into a antique shop blindfolded while swinging a baseball bat, and it's the store owner's fault for leaving stuff out. But they said they're "reawwy, reawwy, sowwy, and it'll nevah happen again." Is it any wonder that no one believes their word about the river that bypasses the dam? I mean, most sane people hesitate to take directions from a guy who just ran full speed face first into a brick a wall.
Piranha's story, in essence, describes two characters who screw up, and spend the rest of the film trying to fix it while the narratives desperately tries to lay blame on its villain of the day. In a straight horror flick, this would no doubt irritate me; however, in this caricature jamboree of clichés it feels right. Especially with Dick Miller playing the "corrupt" businessman and owner of the aquatic park, and Barbara Steele playing a scientist associated with the project that generated the killer piranha -- both characters in league with the evil Colonel Waxman, thus villains by default. And, honestly, you can't go wrong with Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, and Barbara Steele in a film like this.
What about the stars of this film? The piranha's themselves? There's a certain charm to the hyperactive fish going into epileptic convulsions while their teeth shred away at human flesh and, of course, the foggy silhouettes that stiffly pass by the camera like glorified cardboard cutouts. In other words: fun low budget creature effects whose flaws only enhance the viewing experience.
Unfortunately, the mayhem the Piranhas cause generally falls short to the point of, dare I say, boredom. The fish begin to bite, and the scene degenerates into a mass of extras kicking, screaming, splashing, intercut with convulsing piranhas feasting. The chaos in frame drags on with no arc, no climaxes, barely any visible progress. At best, every now and again, Joe Dante offers hints of a mass exodus from the water at such a casual pace that it's difficult to believe these people's lives are at stake.
Having said that, I must confess that I respect and appreciate one of the climaxes where Joe Dante not only places a child's summer camp in danger, but also follows through by having the piranha actually attack the kids. An apparent Hollywood taboo despite the fact we're talking fiction -- where's the suspense of children in danger when the viewer knows a mainstream studio won't dare go there? Sad that this parody has more balls than some of its serious horror film brethren.
That self-awareness and sense of humor separates Piranha from the pack, and saves it from the same bashing that other creature features would receive. However, it does not grant Piranha total immunity. While littered with flaws, Piranha is not afraid to acknowledge what it is, it's not afraid to go against Hollywood taboos, and it's not afraid to mock itself. And hey, you get a dose of Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Mark Goldblatt, Dick Miller, Keenan Wynn, and Barbara Steele all in the same package. If that's not worth the price of a rental, some popcorn, and a few laughs, I dunno what is.
Not many movie-makers do parodies better than Joe Dante the director
who brought us The Howling (a werewolf movie parody), Gremlins (a
monster movie parody), Innerspace (a Fantastic Voyage parody), The
'Burbs (a neighbours-from-hell parody) and Piranha (a Jaws parody).
This 1978 comedy-horror is one of Dante's early movies, but despite
that he shows an assured touch and gets generously tongue-in-cheek
performances from his cast of horror veterans. While the film is never
a truly great rival to the awesome Jaws, it is a fun and entertaining
homage that has much going for it. Easily the strong point of this film
is the gruesome make-up provided by whiz-kid Rob Bottin, but more will
be said of that later.
A couple of teenagers go missing while trekking through the woods. Private eye Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) goes searching for them, and discovers a burnt-out hermit Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) living on the mountainside who offers to help her in her hunt. McKeown and Grogan stumble upon a secluded military research centre where crazed scientist Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) is busily conducting experiments to create a strain of piranha fish able to survive in rivers and oceans, and always eager to devour anything in their way. The plan is to release these super-fish in enemy rivers, thereby making the entire river system too dangerous to use. McKeown and Grogan mistakenly release the piranhas into the local river, and realise that anyone using the river for recreation including the bustling summer camp miles downstream are now in desperate danger. The army is brought in, but instead of helping to solve the terrifying situation they seem more concerned with covering up the whole business. In particular, General Waxman (Bruce Gordon) has cause to keep the existence of the piranha secret, as he has invested his savings in the summer camp and doesn't want to scare away his paying customers. In a race against time, Grogan and McKeown try to release poison into the river to prevent the piranhas from devouring everyone in sight and proceeding to the ocean ..
Piranha is fast-moving, gory fun. It's nice to see Dillman in a heroic leading role after so many years of playing the supporting bad guy in numerous films. Menzies is fine as his partner-in-adventure, and there are great supporting roles for horror legends like Barbara Steele (as a military scientist), Dick Miller (as a cowboy entertainer) and Keenan Wynn (as Grogan's doomed buddy who lives at the riverside). As I said earlier, Rob Bottin provides some bloody make up effects that make some of the half-eaten victims look pretty yucky. The gently mocking script is by John Sayles, and is full of humorous references to earlier books and films along the same theme. The finale in which the holiday-makers fall foul of the piranha fish is packed with blood and guts, and should definitely appeal to gore-hounds. Even though the film keeps its tongue in its cheek, there are still some dumb moments along the way that mar credibility even on this level. For instance, Grogan spends much of the closing scenes underwater being attacked by the piranha . earlier in the film we were made to believe that the piranha devoured their victims in literally a few seconds, but they seem to make ludicrously hard work of attacking Grogan while he's in the water (in fact, he surfaces after several minutes in the firing line with just a few bites, which seems somewhat fortuitous!!) Piranha is enjoyable, though, and should be well received by genre addicts.
I like horror movies that happen along or in rivers. Not that there are many "Shock Waves" and "Empire of the Ants" are the only two that come to mind right now. I do not know why, something about the scenery maybe? This movie is of course about piranha released in a river by two people who should not have been messing around a facility. Of course, if they did what they were supposed to do then there would be no movie. This movie was obviously trying to capitalize on the success of "Jaws", but for me it worked. The piranha are slowly making their way down the river and along the way they run into some kids at camp and this resort place. No one believes that they are coming, but that is the way it is in these movies. A sequel would come later and it would be directed by a then unknown James Cameron and it would be awful and a bit boring. Another piranha movie would be made by Roger Corman in the 90's, but it is essentially the same movie as this only not as good.
This movie rocks! One of the very best B movies of the 70's. OK I did see this movie on TV when I was a small child and yes I was scared for very good reasons. It wasn't safe to swim in the ocean and now rivers weren't safe. What next pools? This horror classic is fun to watch with friends just for laughs. OK you can see the strings on the piranhas, and yes the fins don't move? It is a little unbelievable. Or is it??? Unfortunately this movie is a hard to find which I find very disappointing. I would love to carry this title on DVD and purchase this as a great gag gifts for a few of my friends whom also love classic B movies! I myself highly recommend this movie especially if you enjoy B movies such as Day of the Animals, SSSSSS, and Alligator. I promise you a good time Just beware of fresh water!
Let's face it, it's more fun to see a popcorn movie at the movies than
one that's meant to be taken seriously. Not that I'm knocking more
serious and socially relevant films, far from it, but the experience of
watching a really fun movie with a crowd is like no other. B grade
movies sure can be a lot of fun, including those that are obviously
trying to cash in on really successful films. 'Jaws' terrified
moviegoers and made a killing at the Box Office. Three years later came
the first of three sequels, but this was also the year to see the
release of one of if not the most popular of the 'Jaws' rip-offs.
Pros: Great cast, fun performances. Nice country scenery. Several good and bloody attack scenes. Moves at a good steady pace. Some suspense. Made with an obvious affection for these type of films. Made with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Nice job on the gore effects. An exciting and gory finale.
Cons: Pretty dated. Some weak spots in the writing. The low budget really shows and keeps the film from reaching the potential of the concept.
Final thoughts: I can imagine this must have been a ton of fun to watch at the drive-in. Still is a treat to watch on the small screen though. Instead of being a b-movie made by people out to make a quick buck, this one was made with heart and by people who cared about their craft. One of the best of it's kind and of the time.
My rating: 4/5
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