Cinepub


Review: Piranha (1978) by Jamie

Spoilers Ahead!

The Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week’ has been and gone, you’ve watched Jaws and it’s sequels a thousand times and Mega Shark VS Giant Octopus has begun to lose it’s lustre so what the hell are you going to do when you’ve still got an appetite for killer fish? Well, there’s always a few films involving killer fish that aren’t sharks. That’s right, I’m talking about those other fish which people seem to have hyped up as being some kind of serial killing eating machines, Piranha.

I’ve always loved Piranha. Even if their reputation is massively, massively exaggerated, they still look fucking awesome. They look like the kind of fish that deserve to have said about them the things that people say about them. Despite my love of the toothy little bastards, however, I have never watched any of the films in the ‘Piranha’ series. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever watched any films about piranha at all. Still, if there’s any time to start, now seems to be it what with the recent release of ‘Piranha 3D’. So over the course of the next few days, I’ll be reviewing each Piranha film plus a couple from outside the series including the Asylum produced mock buster ‘Mega Piranha’. Anyway, let’s begin at the beginning for it is a very good place to begin with Joe Dante’s original film, Piranha from 1978.

Now there’s one thing that confuses me about this film. Why is it always touted as being a parody of Jaws? I understand that the reason it was made was because Jaws existed in the first place but a lot of nature horror films followed the sharks release into the cinema and they’re not all considered parodies. Yes, the poster for the film certainly parodies Jaws and the film is definitely funny but then so was Jaws. The main reason I don’t buy this film as a parody is that the titular piranha are an actual threat in the film. The kind of thing I would expect in a parody would be the piranha doing weird and wacky things but in this film they are presented as a real threat. There’s no sense of parody in the piranha’s behaviour whatsoever. There aren’t any even any characters that I would consider a direct parody of the characters in Jaws either. Sure there’s that guy who always appears in Joe Dante films (Dick Miller) playing the owner of the water park who’s kinda like the mayor in Jaws in that he doesn’t want to close his water park because of the money he loses but those characters are invariably always in films involving killer fish so again, not really a parody. Sorry I went off a bit there but I jut don’t think it’s fair to just label this film as a parody of Jaws. It has merit of it’s own.

Anyway, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Joe Dante over the years it’s that he makes really good films about small things attacking people. Gremlins, Gremlins 2 and Small Soldiers (admittedly the weakest but still enjoyable) are all examples of this and Piranha is no exception. The basic gist is that the military had bio-engineered a new strain of piranha to use in the Vietnam war. The project was discontinued but the fish survived, studied under the watchful eye of Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy). Unfortunately his watchful eye doesn’t prevent a pair of skinny dipping teens going into the piranha’s tank with predictable results.

The couples disappearance prompts the arrival of Maggie McKeon (Heather Menzies), a private investigator trying to find out what happened to them. She enlists the aid of local alcoholic Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) to guide her to where the teens may have gone. They head to the apparently abandoned military base and, finding stuff belonging to the couple, decide to drain the pool to see if they have drowned in it thereby releasing the mutant piranha into the local river. Hmm, guess Dr Hoak doesn’t have that much of a watchful eye after all. In fact he really, really sucks at watching out for anything.

The trio decide that they have to try and stop the piranha from reaching the summer camp down stream where Grogan’s daughter is in attendance. To do this they take a raft down river, hoping to reach the dam operator at the bottom in order to prevent him from flushing water through, granting the piranha access to the summer camp as well. As they travel they discover gruesome evidence that the piranhas are indeed incredibly vicious such as the half-eaten body of Grogan’s friend and a boy stranded on top of a capsized canoe after the piranha had eaten his father. Dr. Hoak meets his end whilst helping the boy onto the raft, perhaps hoping to make up for the mistake he made in creating the piranha in first place. Well, it doesn’t really. That boy’s father is still dead and so are you now, Dr. Hoak. The solution to death isn’t more death unless that’s what the voices in your head tell you in which case they are absolutely right and must be obeyed without question.

Anyway, they manage to prevent the flushing of the dam but unfortunately there is a tributary which circumvents it. Double unfortunately the military show up and prevent them from contacting the media in order to keep Operation: Razorteeth (The best name for a military project in the history of forever. In fact, I hope that the military is actually working on creating vicious, mutant piranha just so that they can use that name for real. That would be awesome.) top secret so there’s no way to warn anyone about the the school of killer fish heading for the summer camp and subsequently a summer water park (having it’s opening day no less, so you know it’ll be busy. What are the odds?) further down river. They even go to the length of having the local law enforcement lock them up so they can’t fuck up the secrecy of their little fish project.

I’ll be honest, this confuses the fuck out of me. They don’t even seem to do anything about the killer piranha heading for civilians so how the fuck they think keeping everything hush hush will work out well for them is anyone’s guess. Seriously, just admit you created a race of super piranha and they were accidentally released into the river. It’s going to go a lot better for you publicity wise than having the super piranha kill a bunch of people. Reporters will find out what happened, especially reporters in 70s America. They were all bolstered by the Watergate Scandal and that. They will find out that the piranha came from your facility and that you did nothing to prevent the deaths of innocent people. Shit will not look good for you, that’s all I’m saying.

Anyway, the piranha make it down stream and attack the summer camp though Grogan’s daughter is saved due to her fear of water and they head even further down to the water park with results that are just as predictable as those earlier involving the skinny dipping teens. There’s even bigger problems though. Grogan remembers that the pool in the research facility contained salt water meaning these super piranha can survive in the sea which further means that if these fish keep heading down river they’ll make it to the ocean and be virtually unstoppable.

Grogan and McKeown head to a smelting plant where Grogan intends to open the refuse tanks so that the industrial waste can kill the school. Unfortunately the control room is now underwater and so he must dive into the water in order to carry out his plan. He ties a rope to himself and tells McKeown to count to a hundred and then drive their speed boat away as fast as she can. He struggles to turn the valve that would release the waste and the school begin to attack him until finally he manages to release it and he is pulled away to safety. The industrial waste is released, killing the school and proving that pollution can solve any problem. Fuck you Captain Planet and that kid who‘s power was Heart. Heart? What the fuck is that about anyway? You know what eats hearts? Super piranha, that‘s what.

Oh, I guess the pollution didn’t completely work because it’s heavily implied that some of the piranha made it through when there characteristic sound effect is played over an image of waves breaking over the shore. My apologies to Captain Planet. Not you though Heart Kid. You suck.

So that’s pretty much it and you know what? It was a damn enjoyable film. You don’t really see the piranha that much which works to the films benefit because it kind of suffers special effects wise in the same way that Jaws did except more so because the piranha puppets are no where near as complex as Bruce the shark but hey, at least they worked under water! The acting is really quite good, Grogan in particular is a very enjoyable character and his general surliness is kind of endearing. McKeon is also entertaining. Her character is clearly quite intelligent yet also a little ditzy as well. Also she flashes her tits for a brief moment and they’re not bad. Not bad at all.

Too sum up, Piranha is just a damn fun film. It’s certainly far better a film than something dealing with it’s rather schlocky subject matter has any right to be and I’d probably be surprised if it where anyone else directing this other than Joe Dante. He just does this kind of thing really, really well. So if you haven’t seen the 1978 classic creature feature Piranha then I highly recommend it. Four pints out of five. Join me again tomorrow for a look at Piranha 2: The Spawning. This time the piranha can fly! Will it make the film any better? Who can say either way? Me and I will tomorrow.

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Oh my God, amazing! I want to see this film now. Also the flying piranha version.

Comment by Ian

Well, we’ll see how you feel about the flying piranha version after tomorrow’s review…

Comment by Jamie




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