With the amazing success of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS in 1975, film makers began coming up with new ways to keep people out of the water. Of the many rip-offs and sequels that followed, one man would borrow from the JAWS formula to make one of the most popular and beloved killer fish films of all time. Of course I’m speaking of John Sayles, the prolific screenwriter who first made a splash with his screenplay for Piranha. This film was executively produced by b-movie legend Roger Corman, directed by newcomer (and "Master of Horror") Joe Dante, and boasts the early makeup work of Rob Bottin! With all these talented men involved in the making of Piranha, it’s no wonder that this film has built up a large cult following.
As the film opens, two backpackers come across a seemingly deserted military test site on a secluded mountain top near "Lost River Lake." The two young lovers sneak into the establishment and begin swimming in large pool of cold water located on the premises, only to be devoured moments later by the pool’s residents: PIRANHA! Said killer fish soon escape out into the local river system when the pool is drained by local drunk, Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and his sidekick, a professional finder of lost/missing people, Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies). As the deadly mutated fish swarm through rivers and streams and devour hapless swimmers and fishermen alike. But where did these voracious, man-eating monstrosities come from you may wonder?
Well they were created by the film’s resident mad scientist, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy!). Apparently Dr. Hoak had created his pet RAZORTEETH for the U.S. government, as a way to destroy the water systems of North Korea during the Cold War. Once the Cold War ended, Hoak was left with his surviving "biting-beauties" and continued his experiments. The result is a piranha that can live in cold or warm water, that can survive in salt water, that can breed at an exponential rate, and that also exhibit a problem-solving capability! ("You’re MAD Dr. Hoak! MAD I tell you!") Hoak joins Paul and Maggie in the race to stop the fiendish fish, and later sacrifices himself to save a young boy. (Once again, an eccentric man of science is destroyed by the very thing he created.)
Eventually the military shows up to clean up the problem, but they underestimate Hoak’s creation and soon a bloodbath ensues at a riverside summer camp, and later at the all new Lost River Lake Resort (owned by Dick Miller!). At the film’s finale, Paul Groan dives into the man-made lake and enters a flooded smelting plant that he used to work at. As Paul releases a rusty valve, releasing gallons upon gallons of pollutants into the water, he is maimed by a school of carnivorous fish. Though he is rescued at the last possible second, his efforts were futile, because some of the piranha had made it to the sea, mated with flying fish, and later invaded land in Piranha II: The Spawning.
Piranha holds a special place in my heart and I have fond memories of staying up late on weekends to watch it on TBS and/or TNT countless times during my childhood. Though it doesn’t have the same emotional impact as JAWS, Piranha easily holds its own as one of the best killer fish/nature run amok films of all time. Joe Dante and company infused some humor into this tale of terror and ultimately created some of the most vicious attacks on humanity in film history. Though we don’t get to see anyone get eaten right down to the bone (though we may in the latest Piranha remake that’s currently being filmed), us viewers can easily fill in the blanks. Along with an effective and sometimes creepy musical score and some good acting, Piranha is a superb way to kill some time (and terrify small children!).
The 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of Piranha is testament to the film’s cult status. The film is featured in a relatively clean fullscreen print (its original aspect ratio according to the pamphlet contained within the DVD) with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack and the disc is packed with extras, including: An audio commentary by director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davidson, Never-before-seen-footage of the "making of Piranha," Bloopers and Outtakes, the original theatrical trailer, cast & crew biographies, trailers of other Roger Corman Classics, cool interactive menus, and a reproduction of the original "Theatrical Marketing Guide!" This DVD gives Piranha the royal treatment it deserves, so be sure to pick up a copy of it… if you can find one.
Rogue Reviewer’s Roundtable Topic: Mad Scientists
Jordan’s Review Site: The B-Movie Film Vault