Ever had a flick you haven’t seen in awhile and been pleasantly surprised to find, upon re-watching it, that it’s every bit as good as you remember, and maybe even better? Such is the case with your host’s recent viewing of Joe Dante’s seminal 1978 Jaws rip-off, Piranha.
Oh, sure, it’s a lot less bloody than I remember, and the fish are a lot more rubbery looking to me now than they were the last time I saw this (which has gotta be nearly a couple decades ago now), but it’s a lot more atmospheric and just plain fun than my pubescent brain gave it credit for being. And now that Shout! Factory has finally re-released it on DVD as part of their Roger Corman’s Cult Classics line (loaded with the usual awesome assemblage of extras we’ve come to expect from this gift-to-B-movie-aficionados series, including a brand-new “making-of” featurette, deleted scenes and outtakes, all the extra scenes added for the television broadcast version (yes, once the brief nudity and a little of the blood was edited out, this flick ran considerably under the standard network movie-slot runtime and extra scenes were shot to pad the flick out), radio spots, TV spots, a couple trailers, and a feature-length commentary track featuring director Dante and producer Jon Davison — oh, and the anamorphic widescreen transfer and remastered mono sound are both damn solid, to boot), we can all enjoy this camp, 50’s-influenced classic time and again in the privacy of our own homes. Who says life ain’t great?
The setup is as basic as they come : skip-tracer’s gal Friday Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) gets sent by her boss to find a couple of missing teenagers who disappeared near a Texas river, meets up with local drunk divorcee Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman, doing his best Andrew Prine imitation, which causes the mid to reel for a minute when you consider the question “How cheap is Roger Corman? So cheap he didn’t even hire Andrew fucking Prine to play a role pretty much tailor-made for him!”) who’s holing up in a cabin near where the two young lovebirds probably disappeared and enlists his more-than-reluctant help in finding them, and in their investigations they run across a formerly-employed-by-the-guv’mint mad scientist (Kevin McCarthy) who’s bread a mutant strain of killer piranha capable of surviving in cold water (he wanted to use ’em to win the Viet Nam war — really) and our erstwhile heroes commit the fuck-up of the century by accidentally releasing the flesh-eating fish into the river, where they soon threaten both the summer camp where Grogan’s daughter (played by Belinda Balaski) is staying and the new white trash water park just opened up by local unscrupulous tycoon Buck Gradner (Dick Miller, who’s just about the coolest B-movie actor of all time). Cult stalwarts like Keenan Wynn and Barbra Steele turn up in side roles along the way as the military and local law enforcement get involved, and pretty soon there’s a full-court press on to lock up and shut up our intrepid amateur sleuths who just want to save people from certain scaly doom while the powers-that-be seem more interested in averting widespread panic, keeping their dirty little secret scientific breeding program under wraps, and protecting sleazy Buck’s profit margins. It’ll all end in tears, I tell ya, it’ll all end in tears.
Actually, no it won’t, it’ll end on a totally brazen ready-for-sequel non-climax. But we won’t hold that classic exploitation hustle against D ante and his cohorts because along the way we’re treated to a combination of Jaws on a (shoestring) budget, summer camp horror of the Friday The 13th variety (albeit a few years before that slasher classic came along), a mishmash of classic 1950s B-movie style set-ups, some genuinely interesting and dare I even say charming characters, incisively witty dialogue (no huge surprise given that future indie auteur par excellence John Sayles wrote the script), solid suspense, and some of the best editing you’ll ever see in a flick this cheap. The whole thing has a surprisingly professional feel for such an overtly amateur effort and it’s really no surprise that so many of the people behind the scenes went on to have such lucrative and successful film careers. Like the titular piranha themselves, Dante, Sayles, and their counterparts (most notable co-editor Mark Goldblatt) cut their teeth on this movie and then went on to bigger, meatier fare.
Piranha is by no means top-notch, high-brow filmmaking, but it’s way better than it’s probably got any right to be, especially in terms of its production values, it’s got a comedy-romp pace and feel to it, and it never insults its audience even while (quite obviously) not taking itself too terribly seriously. It’s got plenty of heart and almost as much brains. And I’m kicking myself for having neglected it for so long.
So dive on in and enjoy yourself — sure the water’s cold, and the fish bite, but that’s the whole point! Don’t wait 20 years to get around to watching this bona fide cut-rate classic again, especially now that a readily-available (and terrific) DVD release frankly offers you no excuse to do so.