Piranha (1978) Review

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Bite Sized Horror.

Piranha (1978): 9 out of 10: A school of genetically altered piranhas is accidentally released by a sexy private investigator and a drunk guy she just hooked up with in this well regarded parody of Jaws.

The Good

The Good: The story goes Universal Studios attempted to sue New World for spoofing Jaws (1975). However, Steven Spielberg saw the movie in advance and loved it. After that, Universal dropped the lawsuit. Producer Roger Corman originally tried to get the movie out right on the heels of Jaws, but various delays caused the movie to release three years later. Coincidentally, around the same time as Jaws 2. Apparently Steven Spielberg was of the opinion that Piranha was a better movie than Jaws 2. Steven put his money where his mouth was as he would tap movie’s director, Joe Dante, to work on the troubled Twilight Zone Movie a few years later.

Roger Corman has a reputation. On the plus side of that reputation, he is renowned for being the first place many well-known directors get thier start. {Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13), Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha), Ron Howard (Grand Theft Auto), and Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat)}.

Piranha did not create one great directorial premiere, but really three. We have the director Joe Dante (Gremlins). We have the screenwriter John Sayles (Eight Men Out) and the sequel Piranha II: The Spawning was directed by none other than James Cameron (Titanic) in his directorial debut.

1978’s Piranha itself is quite well regarded. Yes, there are plenty of kills, some gratuitous nudity (though less than many Corman outings), some funny shenanigans, and Paul Bartel. But I think one bit early on highlights why this movie works so well.

When our heroes go into the lab, there is a cute stop motion creature that is clearly an homage to Ray Harryhausen. Neither of our heroes see the creature (who is shy) and Kevin McCarthy, who I suppose was feeding it, never mentions it either. It is a one off. A small touch of background and mystery. It is those little touches that can bring depth to a movie.

The Bad

The Bad: If there is a negative, it is that poor Roger Corman had to live Piranha down. When he released, Humanoids from the Deep critics lambasted it for the gratuitous violence and nudity but without the satiric edge of Piranha. When the very witty John Sayles scripted movie named Alligator came out a few years later, critics and fans were, “it is fine but it is no Piranha.”

Now, as I mentioned above, Piranha has plenty of graphic violence (Much of it unapologetically against children) and some gratuitous nudity (Including an accidental full frontal nudity shot where the poor actress accidentally took off her panties while removing her jeans. (I can hear the RiffTrax guys in my head saying, “Janie Squire accidentally took off her panties should we redo the shot… Keep rolling). For whatever reason, Piranha hits that sweet spot with critics and gets Roger a rare pass for his usual shenanigans.

The Ugly

The Ugly: There is an out of print novelization (credited to John Sayles on the cover, but the actual novelization is by Leo Callan) that goes into the backstory of our main leads. However, no amount of backstory will ever explain why Playboy Playmate Heather Menzies-Urich would immediately want to jump into bed with very drunk unabomber Bradford Dillman. (The novel even confirms what the movie implies in that they had sex in the same room as a tied up Kevin McCarthy)

I know this type of film often has the main leads hooking up, but this is a lust at first sight that honestly stretched the credulity of that well-worn trope.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: Piranha has aged well. The sequels are fun. The plot is actually a pretty good idea. (Specially bred Piranha to use against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam only to be abandoned once the war ends.) The characters (despite thier sexual choices) are well written. In fact, what really sets Piranha apart is the John Sayles script. As I have said in many a review. You went to all the trouble to get a camera and some actors. There is no reason not to have a good script.

A Pirate’s Tale

As I mention above, there is a novelization of the movie Piranha. I have a soft spot for film novelizations that were all the craze in the seventies and the eighties. You rarely see such a thing nowadays. Presumably people don’t read for leisure, like they used to.

Since many of these novelizations are forty years out of print, they can be surprisingly hard to find in these modern times. Well, more accurately, hard to find at anything resembling a reasonable price. Still, I will set alerts on Amazon and eBay to let me know if someone has one for sale under twenty bucks. (I do this for more than novelizations. I am going to someday find a copy of the Blu-ray of Deadly Eyes for under sixty bucks if it kills me.) (Update: there is a I want to say Portuguese printing of the Deadly Eyes Blu-ray which I snagged for under twenty bucks. So watch this space for some rat on Canadian action.)

Well, out of nowhere I got two alerts, one for the novelization of Prophecy and the novelization for Piranha. Looks Like my September will have some high-quality pulp reading. Well, Prophecy arrived in short order, but Piranha ran into a snag. It turns out the used book seller sent me The Pirate by Harold Robbins instead. Now it might seem obvious that the young illiterate Dickensian orphan working the stacks at Goldstone Books UK grabbed the wrong book. Or perhaps they realised such a treasure was mispriced and thought stupid American will have to read about an orphan substituted for the stillborn baby of a desert sheik and like it. (Really, Harold, you called this novel The Pirate, and it takes place in Arabia in the world of high finance?)

But they just lost their queen and Amazon made me whole with a minimum of fuss. Plus, I got a free British printing of an early seventies book, apparently about greedy Arabs taking over the world, so that could be fun. (It turns out that The Pirate was made into a 1978 TV miniseries for CBS with an all-star cast. So the universe balances itself out in the end.)

I will continue to chase my paperback memories and I am sure a Piranha novelization is in my future. (Update as of March 2023 I still have not found a copy under $20 including shipping) Speaking of which I ought to see if I can find those James Bond novelizations of the films based on the titles of the Ian Fleming books. I remember reading a few back in the day and they were a hoot. (The Spy who Loved Me was particularly good especially since the original Ian Fleming novel takes place in a motel in upstate New York.)

Jaws knockoff movie features Jaws knockoff video game.
The undialable phone, the Hertz counter, the frowning customer service, The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon (or The Birds’ Richard Deacon. The panel will accept either); Yes, it is the seventies in all its glory.
Keenan Wynn is another one of those I know that guy from somewhere character actors. I thought it was The Rockford Files, but that turned out to be wrong. Dallas maybe?
The always great Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul, of course) does not disappoint.
And rounding out our character actors from the Seventies and early eighties collection is Babe the sheep pig. Nah, I am kidding; it is Dick Miller, of course. If you are wondering where you know Dick Miller from, think Gremlins or The Terminator.
And our very fine female call out is Barbara Steele in the “I know her from somewhere” sweepstakes.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers’s Kevin McCarthy is always a treat.
Speaking of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Bradford Dillman is apparently channelling the 1978 remake.
The Night of the Lepus flashbacks start early in Piranha.
Our star ladies and gentleman. In reality, of course, there has never been a case of a school of piranhas actually killing anyone. They are omnivore carrion feeders and are quite shy. They look scary, but are about as dangerous as a committee of vultures.
Our shy Ray Harryhausen creature.
I know this is a vicious piranha attack and all but the position of this guy’s legs bothers me for days.
Well, it is the seventies. Let’s check the paper. Dogs Tear up Newborn Baby? Big Rattler Bites Teen? I know the Seventies was a much more violent time than our current coddled existence, but still. Yikes.
A Wes Anderson film has shown up in the middle of the proceedings.
An Arnold Laven film has shown up in the middle of the proceedings.
An Ivan Reitman has shown up in the middle of the proceedings.
Is that Spaulding? Also, what in all that is holy is that tie? It looks like a Mary Kay bolo.
I know it is a sight gag but really movie? Moby Dick? You know the Godfather novel would be more appropriate for the location and time period., It, too, contains a Moby Dick.

Our Heroes Ladies and Gentleman.

You know, the mutated genetically engineered Piranha were perfectly safe till these two released them from a clearly active test facility.
Bradford Dillman knows the importance of good hydration even on short walks.
Of course, that is whisky, not water in his canteen.
What kind of woman is Heather Menzies, where she could fall for a scruffy drunk living in a cabin?
The kind that flashes an army guard to escape.
Or assaults and strips a sheriff also to escape.
On second thought, an anti-social alcoholic might be just her speed.
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