Piranha (1978) movie poster

(1978) director Joe Dante
viewed: 11/13/10

Before going to see Alexandre Aja’s recent re-make Piranha 3D (2010), I’d been wanting to watch the original Roger Corman-produced, John Sayles-written, Joe Dante-directed original.  Actually, I not only wanted to watch the original but also its sequel, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981).  But the DVD gods were not cooperating.  Between Netflix (which still doesn’t carry the original) and GreenCine (which had a long back-log for it), there was no Piranha to be had besides the shiny, 3-D new-fangled version.  Until just recently.

Made three years after Jaws (1975), and clearly marketed along those lines (just look at the poster!), the film is often referred to as a comedy or a parody.  While the film has some comic moments, and a few really good lines, it is an earnest effort in its own right.  Not nearly the exploitation orgy of the re-make, the film’s charms are a little deeper.  It has a good cast, including a number of great character actors (featuring Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, and Barbara Steele), and with Sayles on the script, the film ends up having, if not depth and insight, a lot of character and cleverness, as well as some well-managed low-budget effects.

The story starts off with two young hikers, heading up a mountain in rural Texas, breaking into a fenced-off military testing site, and foolishly going for a swim in a pool that they know little about.  Of course, they don’t make it past the first scene, either one of them.  But when a female detective comes looking for them and drains the pool into the local river, the pool’s residents, genetically altered super-piranha are unleashed on an unsuspecting populace, streaming down toward a summer camp and a lake front park that is about to open.  Oh the humanity!

Actually, the humanity gets a good munching on.  And to a greater extent than in Jaws, kids are not just endangered, but attacked, eaten, and killed.  A long while back, I read an article in Film Threat that discussed Steven Spielberg’s penchant for putting children in danger and it cited Jaws as the one film in which he’d actually followed through on the threat and had any children harmed.  In Piranha, we’ve got scads of summer camp kids in inner tubes in a swimming race getting nibbled, chomped, and de-fleshed by the hungry fishes.   Later, the fish move on to the more adult-themed lake front resort, and while there’s not nearly Aja’s level of tongue-in-cheek T&A, you can see the model for the film that Aja wound up making in the end.

While the story cites military abuses of science, other interesting and timely issues spring to mind.  As the fish are introduced into the river system, one is reminded of the Asian carp (and other invasive species) issues that plague the United States today.  And while it’s not really about eco-horror, it’s amusing that what they use to exterminate the fish at the end of the film is toxic waste.  They “pollute them to death”.  Of course, that had it’s own timely commentary in the 1970’s, but still, it plays with added poignancy today.

In the scientist’s office, there is a strange, stop-motion animated creature who is never explained and who drops out of the story, presumably the further results of experimentations.  Curious but just a little aside more than anything.

Of course, the film paved its way for a sequel, which I’ve queued up for myself.

It’s another quality Roger Corman production.

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