As a self-proclaimed Joe Dante fan, I am heartily ashamed that it took me this long to get around to seeing Piranha. The ridiculous 1978 Jaws rip-off, from a script by John Sayles, is nothing short of delirious monster movie fun that can only come to us from the loving camera of the director of The Howling and Gremlins.
Piranha opens with two teenagers making the unhygienic decision to skinny-dip in a government reservoir near Lost River Lake, surrounded by a massive fence and signs that say “Do Not Enter.” When the teenagers are consumed by underwater forces unknown and vanish without a trace, private insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) comes in to look for them. She buddies up with alcoholic curmudgeon Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) who lives in the mountains of Lost River, and together they hunt down the government facility where the teenagers went missing. Draining the reservoir to try and locate the bodies, the pair are set upon by Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), who provides the exposition: they’ve unwittingly released hyper-intelligent, weaponized piranha into the river.
Piranha is spectacularly ludicrous and knows it. Dr. Hoak gives an extensive explanation as to why he’s been weaponizing piranha at a secret government facility, itself just as ridiculous as the idea of creating a breed of carnivorous fish that can now organize themselves, outwit human beings, and survive in fresh and salt water. But while much time is spent on setting up the situation, even more is spent in the gleeful indulgence of B-movie mayhem. The piranha attack without mercy, ripping up fishermen, beach-goers, and innocent campers on their journey downriver. The violence is actually quite gory and very well-done – not exactly Jaws, but good enough to make me cringe quite a bit.
In addition to McCarthy, the film features the always welcome faces of Keenan Wynn and B-movie superstar Barbara Steele (providing probably the best final close-up of any monster movie…ever), as well as Dante’s usual character actors, including Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski. Because the film knows its status as a Jaws rip-off, Dante gets to indulge in subversive humor, weird secondary characters, and ripping on military authority with a loving glee. This is a movie about how amazing horror movies are, and how much fun they should be.
While Piranha is unlikely to replace The Howling in my affections, it comes in a pretty close second. It’s just good fun, right down to the cheesy one-liners and silly open-ending.