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September 3, 2015

Piranha

by Franz Patrick


Piranha (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★

Maggie (Heather Menzies) finds missing people for a living and her most recent task is to locate two young people who are believed to have gone up a mountain but never did get back down. She enlists the help of Paul (Bradford Dillman), an alcoholic recluse, who knows the area well enough. He thinks that the missing couple might have gone to—or at least have passed—an army test site which has been abandoned for five or six years. Residents around the area are unaware that the site houses a school of mutant piranhas, product of Operation: Razor Fish, weapons that should have been used during the Vietnam War.

Based on the screenplay by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante, “Piranha” is known as a campy B-movie that is so bad that it’s good—and I disagree… with the latter part of that claim anyway. There is nothing egregious about it—not the kills, which are clearly inspired by Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” not the dialogue, which may be a little stilted at times, and not even the story, which I found rather interesting. It is a creature-feature film with a sense of humor and a knack for real horror.

Perhaps the most harrowing scene in the picture is the swarm of piranha’s attack during a summer camp’s swimming marathon. I was convinced that there was no way that any of the kids would end up injured, merely shaken or terrified by the encounter, let alone a handful of them would actually be dead within minutes. Putting children in danger is a cheap way to garner suspense under less skillful execution. Here, it works because time is taken to show children on land, getting in the water, splashing about, and then that joy of playing with friends being turned into screams of pain and terror.

More effort should have been put into developing Maggie’s character. Clearly confident that she is very capable of her job, it rubbed me the wrong way that from the moment she encounters Paul, she is often reduced to playing second fiddle. Although Paul is the alcoholic, he is not the main character because the perspective is through an outsider looking in. It would have been refreshing is she remained a woman defined by her career—by choice—throughout. Instead, she gets into a few (fun) banter with Paul.

The movie’s strength lies in the piranha attacks. The filmmakers never really do get the right look of the carnivorous fish biting into human flesh underwater. They look like rubber creations or some sort but they are more believable-looking than that of a fish created by a computer. Because they seem somewhat rubbery, we can believe that they are mutated fish. Maybe having a rubbery skin is a result of the DNA alteration.

I have always gotten a kick from shots of people hanging on to something—a raft, a floatie, a person’s hand—for dear life and then the water around them suddenly turning red. It is supposed to give the impression that the victim is being eaten alive and bleeding to death but with the amount of volume shown, shouldn’t the person be passed out instead of screaming? I may not have believed it but I was amused. I wondered how the special effects crew managed to execute and control the red liquid.

“Piranha” is not just about showing skin or showcasing teenagers doing stupid things and ending up dead. There is a stark contrast between movies like this then versus movies like this now. It can be enjoyed because there is craft from behind the camera. There is effort put into the acting and the story. Though it never surpasses its inspiration on any level, the fact that it tries while having fun is commendable.

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