Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele
Plot: A private detective (Menzies) and a grumpy loner (Dillman) search an abandoned reservoir for two missing teens only to unleash a school of genetically altered piranha.
Early 70s trashy B Movies are a mixed bag. The problem with reading reviews of them is that a lot of the time they are remembered fondly through nostalgia. There is a common mistake that anything old is actually good. For example, Friday the 13th is a horrendously poor attempt at horror, but because of its cult status and the time period it was made in, it is designated a ‘classic’. Therefore, when 70s ‘so-bad-its-good’ horrors like Piranha come your way, it is almost impossible to find an accurate account of its quality.
The truth is Piranha is similar to most of Roger Corman’s other stuff. In fact, a lot of the film’s running time I was impressed by how little his style has changed over the years. Piranha, other than the ropey practical effects, could have been made in 2015 and no one would have known the difference. The set-up is simplistic, to the point where a description is arguably unnecessary. The movie opens with two teenagers skinny-dipping in private property, unaware that the reservoir they are swimming in is actually a breeding ground for a military project: weaponised piranhas. They are promptly chomped up, causing an insurance investigator to come to town, looking for the missing teenagers. She recruits local deadbeat (who seems to tag along out of the fact he has nothing better to do), Paul Grogan, and the two of them accidentally release the mutant fish into the river, so they have access to summer camps, festivals and potentially, the ocean. The two leads are Piranha’s strongest card to play. Grogan has personal connections to the story, when his daughter is put directly in the piranha’s path, and Heather Menzies musters up a surprisingly charismatic female lead. She is played ditzy and without a trace of common sense, sure, but Menzies manages to find strengths in other sides of the characters. For one, she is a determined investigator and a plucky hero. Menzies has fun with the role, earning most of the laughs the movie throws at us. Even the typical Corman boob flash only partially harms the actress’s stint in the movie and she is a fun enough person to spend the time with. As we slowly introduce ourselves to this movie, especially the two ‘better-than-you’d-expect’ performances, it looks like Piranha might be worth a watch after all.
Sadly, it descends into more of the same. As I said, Corman hasn’t evolved his ideas in the slightest over the years. The heroes chase after the path of destruction, always a few steps behind the carnage. This gives the producer opportunity to squeeze as many bloody set-pieces as he can. They aren’t worth much cop, an invisible enemy under the water and blood rising from underneath screaming extras. The best moments from these scenes are the unexpected displays of character. The most unlikeable supporting character has a heroic act. Lines like politely-spoken “the piranhas are eating our guests, sir!” However, as a whole, Piranha is a guess at what entertains, rather than a solid thriller. It also relies too heavily on the ‘beach party’ stereotype, where a packed beach becomes the wraith of the chosen movie monster. It is a staple of this kind of film and while, I suppose, Piranha is a little too early to get the blame for copying, it feels aged here, in need of retiring. As for something that has been designated the best Jaws parody out there, Piranha’s only real compliment is the fact it uses its meagre budget efficiently. If only budget film-making wasn’t trying too hard to be B Movie trash…
Final Verdict: Piranha isn’t the classic it is suggested to be, rather a messy B Movie that is no better than more modern versions.