Starring Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies-Urich, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce Gordon, Barry Brown, Paul Bartel, Shannon Collins
Directed by Joe Dante
On the general scale:
On the B-movie scale:
Piranha is exactly the type of movie that I love. It’s equal parts genuine horror and outlandish comedy, with a premise so over-the-top and ridiculous that no one could possibly believe it as a plausible story. But then how did stories of piranhas in local waterways filter down to the schoolyard playgrounds of my youth? Piranha is a film that captures your imagination and runs wild. Its pace is quick, rarely coming up for air. The film’s villains may never be visible for more than a fleeting few seconds, but they are ever-present in the film’s atmosphere.
Piranha opens like hundreds of other horror films: a young couple is out at night in the woods looking for a good place to be alone together. These particular kids ignore the “No Trespassing” signs on the chain-link fences they sneak through in their quest. And of course, when they find a pool of water they decide that skinny dipping is the only course of action. What they never considered was that this secluded, abandoned Army installation wasn’t quite so completely abandoned. Shoulda watched more horror movies, guys.
It’s well-known that Roger Corman’s films provided a fish hatchery of sorts for many great filmmakers of the ’70s and beyond. Piranha happens to be the first screenplay written by notable writer/director John Sayles, and his script is what sets Piranha apart from the average low-budget horror film. The plot is incredibly well-structured, leading us naturally from one fun scene to the next. And when I say “fun scenes,” I mean it. A normal person might not call a group of pre-teen children getting assaulted by flesh-eating fish “fun,” but then no one ever accused me of being normal.
But I guess if I’m going to call that scene out specifically, which is largely dialogue-free, I must also give a lot of credit to the film’s director and co-editor: Joe Dante. Piranha was his second film (and first as a sole director) and he is able to deliver both thrills and laughs, oftentimes simultaneously. This is a skill that would later serve him well as director of The Howling, the Gremlins films, Innerspace, and one of my personal childhood favorites The ‘Burbs. Sayles definitely laced the script with the satirical humor, but Dante executed it perfectly.
If you’re the right kind of movie fan, Piranha is great, glorious fun. The films of Roger Corman are a major blind spot in my viewing, and with each passing film I see I become more and more of a fan. Corman’s films may be low-budget, but they are well-made, interesting and a whole lot of fun.