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Piranha – 8

Director – Joe Dante

Cast – Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies-Urich, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce Gordon, Paul Bartel

Release Year – 1978

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Watching Piranha as a child is one of my earliest memories, and much to my own surprise I have not seen this film in the 20 years since then. My re-visitation of this experience brought back that awesome feel that 70s films deliver, and it also appeased my desire for animal horror. A simple film with a miniscule budget, this effort manages to deliver hard-hitting creature horror that was quite ambitious for the pre-CGI late 70s. It may be a bit tame for our modern day post-Saw community, but I found Piranha to be as enjoyable as the best films of 2014 (so far).

While searching for two missing teenagers, amateur skip tracer Maggie McKeown joins forces with the town drunk Paul Grogan and accidentally releases a swarm of genetically modified piranhas from a secret abandoned Army laboratory. As the killer fish make their way into the local river system and eat everyone in their path, it is up to Maggie and Paul to prevent disaster and stop them from reaching a children’s summer camp.

Writer John Sayles pens this piece, and it proved to be a career-starter as he also wrote creature films Alligator and The Howling only a few years later. The story is classic 70s cheese, involving a military cover-up and typical characters that are also rehashed in Alligator. After the success of Jaws, producer Roger Corman wanted to capitalize on public interest with a similar piece, and I loved the idea of involving piranhas. Also a carnivorous fish known to kill man, instead of one big fish we get lots of little piranhas doing even more damage. Sayles’ story starts off in OK fashion, giving us an opening kill sequence and then introducing us to the main protagonists. Their quest leads them to the abandoned Army laboratory, and as mentioned earlier the piranhas are accidentally released into the populace. This really is a simple film that focuses on Maggie and Paul’s hectic experience as they try to stop the piranhas from reaching the children’s camp, which has Paul’s daughter in attendance. Of course nobody believes them, and when the military gets involved there is a cover-up at play, but these clichés prove fun if you enjoy 70s horror. The kills are sporatic at first and come in single doses, but eventually you do get the payoff you go in for when the piranhas find a multitude of people to munch on during a crazy closing sequence.

This marks director Joe Dante’s first horror film, and it showed the man had much promise. He proved this true by later on directing The Howling – one of the greatest werewolf films of all time – as well as Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Burbs, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and he returned to the genre a few years ago with The Hole. Dante does a fantastic job of keeping you engaged without showing you much until the big payoff at the end. His atmosphere sucks you in and the sets used compliment the visual engagement. Good acting performances are also to be credited, with Bradford Dillman stealing the show as the drunk-turned-hero Paul Grogan. Also, keep an eye out for horror legend Dick Miller in a small but enjoyable role. Dante’s execution of the horror is solid too, making the most of what little he had to work with. At first we don’t see the piranhas delivering the kills, but soon enough we see live-action schools of piranhas ripping the flesh off of their victims. I personally expecting more gore, but what Dante did was enough to give us solid horror at the hands of the razor tooth piranhas.

Overall, Piranha is a classic tale of creature horror. One of the most recognizable 70s horror flicks, it kick-started the horror career of famed director Joe Dane and is an experience I suggest you check out / revisit.

Rating: 8/10

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