31 Screams in October, Vol. 4, #25: Piranha (1978)

Posted: October 25, 2018 in Movie Review

25. Piranha (1978)

Director: Joe Dante

Starring: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski

If “Grizzly” is to be considered as a “Jaws” rip-off, then what does that make 1978’s “Piranha”? This Roger Corman-produced cult classic was such a clear cash-in on the success of “Jaws” that Universal Studios threatened but did not go through with a lawsuit that could have prevented the release of “Piranha.” Like a kid being told by their parents which films are not okay for them to watch, I have no doubt that this action by Universal caused at least some to want to see “Piranha” even more. It’s a good thing they did because, while “Piranha” may stand as an inferior cousin to “Jaws,” it’s a good enough horror movie all on its own.

After two youngsters go missing during a late night swim in a pool that doesn’t belong to them, Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is sent to find them. She needs someone to help her find her way around the area, and that’s where Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) comes in. Paul used to be a respected figure, but all anyone knows him by these days is as the town drunk. Their search leads them to the facility where we saw the kids go missing/get eaten. Worried that the two may have drowned, Maggie decides to drain the pool without first determining what its intended purpose is. This is always the thing to do when barging in uninvited, because taking actions which have unforeseen consequences never results in catastrophe.

The two are confronted by Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), who they knock unconscious as he tries frantically to stop the pool from draining. When he comes to, he tries to commandeer their jeep, but he’s so out of it that he crashes it a short time after. So Maggie and Paul take Hoak back to his place and watch over him to make sure he’s not badly messed up, and they bring Hoak along when they use his raft. As he wakes up, he notices Maggie dragging her fingers through the water and stops her. When she asks why, he explains that he’s been continuing a Vietnam War bioweapon experiment involving a school of piranha. This is why the tank had been filled with salt water, as Maggie and Paul had discovered. The carnivorous fish had been trained to survive in salt water, and releasing them endangers not just the lives of those at a nearby summer camp but everywhere else should the piranhas be allowed to get far enough downriver and multiply.

We lose Dr. Hoak shortly after this, which is sad because Kevin McCarthy is so good in the role, but necessary to help keep the plot moving along. Without Hoak’s guidance, it’s up to Maggie and Paul to fix the mess they themselves have helped to create. I would add the words “before it gets any worse,” but you know better than that. When it does get worse, boy this movie does not screw around! After calling the military for help and being locked up to prevent the media from being alerted, Maggie and Paul have to waste more time busting out of lockup. Meanwhile the school of piranha is in the process of attacking the summer camp. “Jaws” made a big deal out of the shark eating one child. The piranhas attack anyone and everyone swimming around in the water. This includes most of the children and one of the counselors, resulting in several deaths and other serious injuries. Paul’s daughter Suzie (Shannon Collins), one of the young campers, remains unharmed due to the fact that she’s afraid of swimming.

A resort promoted by Buck Gardner (Dick Miller) is the piranhas’ next target. Gardner receives many warnings about the piranhas, but has laughed them off as the ravings of a drunkard. When the piranhas eat many of the guests and some military personnel, Gardner is panic-stricken and horrified. Maggie and Paul then come up with one last plan to stop the piranha from spreading. It seems to be effective, nearly resulting in Paul’s death, though the film’s ending leaves room for a possible sequel. That sequel does eventually happen, but even director James Cameron would tell you to stay away from “Piranha II: The Spawning.” There’s also a 1995 made-for-TV remake, a 2010 theatrical remake, and a sequel to the 2010 film.

“Piranha” is able to present a believable aquatic foe for our protagonists largely due to its low budget, which prevents the piranha from being shown in much more than quick cuts. It is also aided by terrific direction from Joe Dante, who would go on to helm other horror classics such as “The Howling” and “Gremlins.” Also adding to the proceedings is a fantastic supporting cast. In addition to Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller, Barbara Steele is great as the shady Dr. Mengers, a scientist working with the military to try and keep the situation from exploding into a media circus. “Piranha” is already good, but it could have been even better were it not for the fact that the leads spend the entire movie trying to end a deadly situation they unwittingly helped cause. If you do check it out… and I think you should… don’t bother with the “Jaws” comparisons.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Seveal recognizable stars in this one just like in the 2010 remake. I love the movie “poster art” for this one, too!

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