Piranha is one hell of a rip-off. I’m sure calling it such wouldn’t much offend its filmmakers — it was released soon after 1975’s Jaws and possesses a similar concept — as it holds the touch of a film in sync with its junkiness. It’s in on the joke of having a film’s villains be man-eating, ahem, piranhas, and it takes leap after leap of faith just in order to ensure a nasty thrill. B-movies should strive to be as awesomely schlocky as this one.
Unless you count the titular foes as the leading characters then we could say that Piranha is headlined by Maggie McKeown (a likable Heather Menzies), an insurance investigator shipped to Lost River Lake to track down a pair of missing teenage hikers. Unsure of where to begin her search, Maggie calls for the help of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), a native of the area who knows the region almost by heart. Soon, the two discover a vacant military facility, home to a seemingly concluded government project that involved the breeding of human hungry piranhas for the Vietnam War. Only Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), head of the experiment, remains — but after Maggie and Paul unknowingly release the piranhas into the area’s prolific bodies of water, a literal bloodbath quickly consumes the region.
With enough cheeky humor and manic gusto to fuel the sum of its parts, Piranha takes the most carefree elements of Jaws and subverts them, squeezing in a pinch of self-referentiality that turns horror into bodily based comedy. I suppose we shouldn’t be laughing when the bumbling characters of Piranha, for instance, jump into infested rivers knowing full well of its dangers in order to save a life (logic?), but lack of intelligence found in horror movies is a staple impossible not to guffaw at. And Joe Dante, later to be the director behind vintage cultural staples The Howling and Gremlins, helms with a cheery attitude both ticklish and self-aware.
The low-budget is not something to take note of — because of the astuteness behind the camera, Piranha is as effective as any money-pumped Hollywood blockbuster. We don’t have to have high tech shots of the piranhas, to have quirky special effects, to be provided with studio invincibility. The suspense is unforced, the humor natural; it’s a great example of sweeping escapism overcoming its boundaries.
Jaws diehards might be ticked off by Piranha’s copycat audacity, but the unknowing shades of the audience might find themselves surprised by how adept the film is. We don’t come in with high expectations, and yet we leave feeling as thrilled as we did during the greatest of schlock parties of the 1950s and ‘60s. Leave your eye-rolls, your inhibitions, at the door — this is a winner. B+