What happens when you mix B-Movie legend Roger Corman, director Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling, Innerspace) and a screenplay about killer, mutant fish attacking a holiday resort? You get 1978’s Piranha.
Piranha is part horror film and part parody as it attempts to cash in on the Jaws “fear of the water” craze. When detective Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is sent to rural Texas to find two missing teenage hikers, she gets more than she bargains for. For reasons unknown, she picks a local drunken recluse named Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) to help her find the pair and he reluctantly agrees. The trail leads to a supposedly abandoned army research center where they find evidence that the teens they are looking for had been there, and possibly never left. In an effort to find them, Maggie and Paul drain the main holding tank into the nearby river. Only then does Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) appear. He attacks them and tries to stop the draining, but it’s too late. Hoak reveals that the tank contained a new mutant strain of piranha fish that he’d been working on for the government. Now these killer fish are loose in the river and no one is safe… well, unless you stay out of the water. Now Paul and Maggie must deal with disbelieving resort owners, an army cover-up and one overzealous summer camp director (played by another B-Movie legend Paul Bartel) as they try to stop the deadly fish from eating everyone in their path.
Piranha is a fun film to watch. The cast plays their parts very tongue-in-cheek and the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Fans of gore will be especially pleased to see some early work by veteran horror make-up artist Rob Bottin. Bottin, whose later works include The Howling and the 1982 remake of The Thing, creates some gruesome effects for the piranhas’ victims. The technical work done to bring the piranha’s themselves to life needs some work. At some points, they appear to be shadow puppets moving on a rail and at others they are simply poor animation drawn in the background. However, if you squint your eyes at these points and let them pass, you can enjoy a fun little piece of 1970’s horror.