In the realm of Jaws ripoffs, there exists one (actually two or four) that get a place right here at The Shortening. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the same man who brought us Gremlins and Small Soldiers started things off with a tale of tiny carnivorous fish with a controversially pronounced name.
Quick Plot: A pair of skinny dipping teenagers sneaks into a seemingly abandoned military area with a conveniently empty pool, only to quickly be eaten by unseen critters that sound like miniature helicopters. Thankfully, a ditzy insurance investigator named Maggie comes to the small Texas town to investigate, wrangling a local bitter divorcee named Paul to help.
Despite Maggie being an idiot and Paul being a full-time drunk, the pair manage to track down that same mysterious government sector now hosting two nubile skeletons. In an attempt to flush out the water, Maggie unwittingly releases the source of that helicopter soundtrack onto the unsuspecting water lovers of southern USA.
On hand to explain all of this is Invasion of the Body Snatchers savior/UHF’s villain Kevin McCarthy playing a tortured scientist who shares some responsibility with genre queen Barbara Steele as the cause of this danger. See, back in the ‘70s, the U.S. government was experimenting with different ideas to win the Vietnam War, one of which being the badassedly named Operation Razor Tooth. As you might guess, badassedly named Operation Razor Tooth involves the cultivation of genetically mutated piranha that would devastate that region’s water system.
It didn’t work out.
Now loose on an unsuspecting swimming public, the hungry piranha are on a tear. If you are wondering what hungry genetically mutated piranha on a tear looks like, allow me to direct you to Babies ‘R Us, the nation’s leading retail chain specializing in infant goods. You know those elaborate nightlight contraptions with aquatic imagery that circles your sleeping toddler’s crib?
Yeah, that’s pretty much the main effect for Piranha. Add in several scenes that involve extras being sucked through their tubes and surrounded by red food coloring and you pretty much have yourself an enjoyable, if fairly uninspiring Jaws rip-off.
Produced by the godfather of B-movies Roger Corman, Piranha isn’t trying to win any Saturn Awards. What was obviously commissioned in the wake of Steven Spielberg’s juggernaut certainly does follow the same beats as all Jaws inspirees (expendable teenagers, reluctant hero, greedy town official putting lives in danger, frantically flailing young legs underwater), yet it’s mostly done with the kind of Dante wink that makes the rest of his work so special.
Piranha, however much fun, is not a very good movie, primarily because it’s rather confused in finding its tone. Lead Bradford Dillman is working hard to create a layered and complicated hero, while his love interest Heather Menzies-Urich goes for daffy cute. The piranha effects are so silly that any actual horror is impossible, leading a few of the major attacks (say, on a group of kid campers) somewhat laughable, but not quite all the way. Thankfully, Dante has a secret weapon in his last act: all-star Dick Miller, basking in a Stetson and lending his signature wry charm.
In a way, Piranha is made of three films. There’s the earnest save-the-world antics of Paul and Maggie that are mostly played straight. A side story about summer camp that’s never quite as funny as it sometimes tries to be. Finally, there’s the slightly more self-aware part involving town and military politics. None every unite smoothly enough to make a good movie, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some fun along the way.
Where Piranha works is best are those little corners where director Joe Dante’s humor shines through: our heroine playing a Jaws arcade game, a sunbather reading Moby Dick on the beach, and Dick Miller embracing his inner Texas capitalist
Going along with the aforementioned hit-and-miss tone is the ending, which suddenly goes to oddly dark and ambiguous places that don’t necessarily fit in with where you’d expect the film to land
If and only if you are scientist, it is pronounced 'piranya'
When waterskiing, it's probably a good idea to have some sort of emergency signal to your boat drivers that doesn't require you to use your arms
A note to phone operators of the ‘70s: if you don’t have a requested phone number, try looking it up in that big yellow thing called the phone book
I watched Piranha because it seemed like a blind spot that needed unblinding. Eh. I could probably have grown into AARP discounts without having seen it, but the film wasn’t a waste of time. Joe Dante’s style and skill eke through enough to keep things entertaining, even if it never elevates the material into anything much more than a funner-than-average you-know-what ripoff.
Shortening Cred: C’mon. They’re piranYa.