I'm Sure It Will Be Fine

Piranha (1978)

When we looked at the 2010 Piranha 3D I praised it for being exactly what it needed to be. It's not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is is fun, and dumb, and a good send up of the horror of its era. In that regard it's a perfect continuation of the Piranha series, which started in 1978 as a kind of horror send up of the monster in the water genre (see: Jaws. Because of Jaws we had all kinds of films playing off its success, like Orca and Mako: The Jaws of Death. Corman's Piranha came in to say, "you know this is all really silly, right guys?" And, for the time, it did it well.

Like it's 2010 remake (and, lets face it, just about every other film in this series we're going to cover), Piranha '78 is not a good film. Hell, at this point, I'd hazard that most horror fans living now probably wouldn't bother sitting through this 1978 horror parody; the pacing is slow, the film feels dated, and it doesn't really have the spark of Spielberg's Jaws. But for anyone that can get through a film with 1970s pacing, and who enjoys cheesy B-movie fare, then there's enough to like about Piranha to make the watch enjoyable.

The film focuses on Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), a skiptracer who is particularly good at finding people that don't want to be found. She's sent out to track down two teens who went missing in the area of Lost River Lake, with hopes that she could bring them home. So she heads out into the backwater area, with the tip to go find Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), a local drunkard who just so happens to be one of the best guides in the region. Reluctantly he helps her as she searches the area, and they end up at an abandoned military base, a testing site for various water creatures. Thinking the kids might have drowned in a pool on the base, the hit the auto-drain, but that only causes a bigger issue: piranha.

It seems that the military were trying to find some kind of weapon they could release on their enemies (read: the Russians), but when the experiments weren't proving fruitful, they shut the whole place down. However, one scientist, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), stayed behind to continue his work, and what he managed was astounding and horrifying: a breed of piranha that could live in fresh and salt water, and who were ravenously hungry. Now these fish are loose and they're headed down river, towards the ocean... and every populated zone along the way.

Piranha is really two films grafted together. The first half is about the skiptracer trying to find her marks. But at the halfway point, when the fish get loose and the real danger is truly revealed, that's when the Jaws pastiche begins. From that point forward it's all about the hungry fish, the unlucky people caught in their path, and so much low-grade carnage. There's blood, screaming, and a lot of silly sequences, but that's part of the fun of the movie.

You can't rate Piranha on the same scale as Jaws. Not only was it made but a crew of B-movie professionals, and not Spielberg and his studio-funded crew, but it was also made for a whole hell of a lot less. Jaws, from three years prior, had a budget of $9 Million. Piranha, by comparison, was produced on a budget of less than a tenth of that, just $700k. The fact that they got a watchable film out of it at all speaks to the ingenuity of Roger Corman's productions.

Admittedly, you do feel the budget constraints with this film. The first act is really slow, focusing entirely on characters talking with basically no carnage to speak of at all. The creature effects start bleeding in (no pun intended) half way into the film, but it takes a solid two acts before we really start to see the piranhas go after humans and, well, it's all pretty silly. Fake fish, clearly dangled in the water, pushed towards their targets, and then bounced off the bodies they're supposed to be noming on. Oh, and a lot of the same repeating, higher-pitched noises, just to give the piranha their own buzz0like sound effect to illustrate they were eating. It's very dumb.

And yet, at the same time, with enough blood and gore makeup, it actually becomes halfway convincing. Once the flesh starts really tearing in the film (and there's a decent bit of that in the last act), the horror of the film actually does come into its own. The silliness gives way to legitimate moments of queasiness, and you can see why Spielberg called Piranha his favorite of the Jaws knock-offs. At a certain point the film finds a way to bring the actual scares, and they work.

Now, of course, to get to all that you have to get through a solid two acts of less than exciting material. The film is padded, a lot, all to get it up to a theatrical length of 95 minutes. It's not the worst Corman-produced film I've watched for this site (anything from his production house featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix. is a whole lot worse) but at the same time, you won't mistake this for a big-budget studio production. This is B-movie horror, through and through, and the only way to enjoy it is to know that going in.

I absolutely, couldn't recommend this film for anyone that isn't into watching anything with a "horror" label on it. The early acts are too slow, and the acting is middling at best. The film meanders with its plot, mixing in a military storyline, a plot thread about campers, another about a water park opening up, and then film pages through all of this repeatedly without really developing any of its characters. It's hard to get absorbed into the story when there's so little of it here despite two full acts of characters talking at each other. It's tedious, and even a little hard to sit through.

But then the fish come out to play and the gore picks up and suddenly you see what all the fuss is about. That last act is almost worth the price of admission, and if you make it that far you'll absolutely enjoy the simple pleasures of the film. And audiences did manage to find the film and enjoy it, leading to the horror cheapie making $16 Mil across its run in theaters and home video. That's not bad for a film with such a tiny budget. It's not Jaws money, but few films at the time could manages that level of success.

It was enough for a couple of the producers to purchase the rights to the film so they could make their own sequel: Piranha II: The Spawning, which just so happened to be James Cameron's directorial debut. But, of course, we'll cover that one soon...