This week’s Monday Pick comes to us from the wonderful world of the king of Independent cinema, Mr. Roger Corman, who produced the low-budget version of Jaws, and that movie was the Joe Dante classic Piranha (1978). Cashing in on the “animals run amok” craze of the late 1970s, Dante and screenwriters John Sayles and Richard Robinson crafted a truly unique horror film that quickly gained a huge cult following.
The film centers around a young woman named Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) who is hired to find two missing teenagers who were hiking in the vicinity of Lost River Lake. Maggie enlists the help of a backwoods drunk named Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) to be her guide and to help her find the two missing teens. Paul and Maggie’s search brings them to an abandoned military installation with a giant pool filled with salt water. Maggie and Paul enter the facility and find a series of mutant specimens and preserved experiments. Maggie finds the master control in order to drain the pool and see whether or not the teens possibly drowned. Maggie pulls the lever and is suddenly attacked by the facility’s caretaker who is knocked unconscious, as he was trying to stop the pool from draining.
Maggie and Grogan take the man back to Grogan’s cabin where he has sustained further injuries after he crashed Maggie’s jeep in an attempt to flee. The man is tied down to a bed and is frantic when he awakens and learns that the pool had been drained. Grogan decides to take the injured man down river in a homemade raft. As the three trek down river, the man introduces himself as Dr. Robert Hoak (played by Dante alumni Kevin McCarthy) a military scientist who explains that the pool was filled with genetically engineered piranhas for a project codenamed Operation: Razorteeth, a plan which was to introduce the deadly strain of fish that could survive in the coldwater river systems of North Vietnam.
Hoak explained that when the war ended, the funding was pulled yet he continued his research. Grogan and Maggie witness the carnage of the killer fish when they discover the remains of Grogan’s friend Jack (Keenan Wynn) and come across a boy on a capsized boat after the piranhas ate his father. Grogan quickly realizes that the dam down the river opens its gates every few days to equalize the river’s water level. If the dam were to open, the fish could escape and enter more river systems and possibly the ocean.
The military are quickly called in to investigate and destroy the strain of killer fish. Grogan tries to explain that the fish are intelligent and will find a way to avoid the poison that Colonel Waxman and his team are introducing into the river. Grogan and Maggie are detained by the military that fear they will alert the media. Grogan fears that the fish will find a way through a bypass and get to the other side of the dam and attack his daughter’s summer camp that is further downstream.
Piranha is a great combination of horror and comedy that Joe Dante has pioneered for nearly forty years. Many Corman/Dante regulars appear throughout the film including Paul Bartel as the head camp counselor Mr. Dumont, Belinda Balaski as Betsy, British horror queen Barbara Steele as Dr. Mengers, and the ever great Dick Miller as Buck Gardner, the owner of a vacation water park which the piranhas turn into a buffet of blood and carnage. My favorite line in the film is when Buck Gardner’s aide comes to him and says, “Sir the piranha are eating the guests.” Gardner (Miller) replies, “I thought I told you to never say that word.” It’s not a Joe Dante movie until Dick Miller delivers one of his signature lines.
Piranha was made for only seven hundred and seventy thousand dollars and grossed nearly twenty million worldwide. John Sayles crafted a fantastic script in a very short time and used the proceeds to help finance some of his own directing projects, and helped him craft another horror classic Alligator (1980). Horror make-up legend Rob Bottin (famous for his work in John Carpenter’s The Thing), and mechanical effects wizards Peter Kuran and Phil Tippett (Star Wars) lent their amazing talents to the film as well.
Steven Spielberg said Piranha was “the best of the Jaws ripoffs.” In fact, it was Spielberg’s love of the film that led to many partnerships throughout the 1980s between he and Dante including such classics as Gremlins I & II (1984, 1990), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and the Academy Award winning comedy Sci-Fi hit Innerspace (1987).
Piranha is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc thru Shout! Factory Home Entertainment.