Piranha almost never made it to the theater. Universal Studios had considered obtaining an injunction to prevent it from being released, particularly as they had Jaws 2 out that year, but the lawsuit was called off after Steven Spielberg himself gave the film a positive comment (he also called the film the “best of the Jaws ripoffs”).
Joe Dante is my favorite type of filmmaker. Even when you think you know what to expect, he zigs and zags, giving you genuine surprises and fun at every turn.
The action starts with two teens swimming in the waters of an abandoned military base — as you do. Of course, they’re instantly obliterated by an unseen creature.
Skiptracer Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies, who beyond being the wife of Robert Urich was Louisa Con Trapp in The Sound of Music and even appeared in an August 1973 Playboy pictorial entitled “Tender Trapp”) is looking for those missing teens and she’s hired Paul Grogran (Bradford Dillman, who battled many an ecological horror in Bug, The Swarm and Lords of the Deep) for help. He’s a drunk and surly mountain man, which in the 1970’s makes you a sex symbol.
Why is Grogan so multi-layered? It turns out that Bradford Dillman wasn’t pleased with how flat his character originally was, so he asked writer John Sayles why. The response was that producer Roger Corman never hired good actors, so he rarely wrote nuanced characters. However, Dillman offered Sayles the opportunity to do something deeper, if you’ll pardon the pun.
They discover the abandoned compound where the teens died and discover that it’s a militarized fish hatchery. Maggie drains the outside pool and discovers too late that she’s released Operation: Razorteeth, a strain of piranha made to survive the cold North Vietnamese rivers and win the war in Southeast Asia.
That’s when Grogan realizes that if the local dam is somehow opened, the piranha will attack the Lost River water park and the camp where his daughter is spending the summer. Everybody pays the price for the piranha, like their now crazed creator Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Soon, the military is involved and our heroes are on the run, trying to warn the media and anyone that will listen that these killer fish are on their way. Nothing will stop them, not even the poison that Colonel Waxman and Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele!) think will do the job.
Of course, the fish survive and attack the summer camp, wiping out nearly everyone but Suzie thanks to her fear of water. Now, they’re on their way to Buck Gordon’s (Dick Miller, perfect as always) waterpark, where they end up killing Waxman.
Grogan and Maggie come up with a totally ridiculous plan: to use the hazardous waste from the smelting plant to kill off the fish before they spread into the ocean. Our hero, such as he is, must go deep underwater to make this happen and he barely survives, left in a catatonic state at the end of the film.
Dr. Mengers gives the government side of the story, downplaying the danger of the piranha and saying there’s nothing left to fear, but as we see another beach, we now hear the sound of the deadly school of fish.
Beyond Dick Miller, this film features plenty of actors that Dante would work with again and again, like Belinda Balaski, the film’s writer John Sayles and the always welcome Paul Bartel. Plus, Francis Xavier Aloysius James Jeremiah Keenan Wynn shows up, but we all know him better as his stage name, Keenan Wynn. And another Invasion of the Body Snatchers alum, Richard Deacon, is here as well.
Piranha is the rarest of films — one that rises above being a simple ripoff and comes close to eclipsing the source material. It’s quick, bloody and fun as hell, with awesome effects from Phil Tippett and the debuting Rob Bottin, who was only 17 at the time.