Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, the trio of Roger Corman, Joe Dante and John Sayles are right there to bring you back out with Piranha. Okay, so maybe that’s overdoing it a little, but that’s not how I thought when I was but a wee little tyke sneaking a peak when my mom was doing something else in the other room. It’s funny when you revisit something from your youth and see how much your reaction has changed.
Let’s face it, Piranha is nothing more than a low-budget rip-off of Jaws with a school of smaller but equally vicious fish replacing the larger shark. Both take place in the heat of summer, both have people trying to stop others from taking a dip in the water, both have government types saying there isn’t a problem. Heck, even the posters look similar. But where Jaws stresses tension, Piranha comes at you with schlock. And what schlock it is. What was scary when I was a kid is now something to laugh at. Those vicious killer piranhas are little more than a repeated silhouette of fish outlines set to a high-pitch squeal in the background. The attacks that gave me nightmares – little more than a group of people splashing and screaming in the water.
The story revolves around a school of genetically engineered piranhas being let loose in Lost River Lake, allowing them to prey and nibble on whatever unsuspecting toes might be dipping in the water. Insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) and drunken widow bush man Paul (Bradford Dillman) do their darndest to convince the local politicians and upper crust locals that the fish represent a genuine danger. Of course, their claims are taken as a load of hogwash and we’re meant to scream at the screen going, “But Heather and Paul are right, dagnabbit. Why won’t you listen to them. The piranhas are going to eat you.”
Today Piranha is harmless and fun in a look-back-and-laugh sort of way, especially when you see the names John Sayles and Joe Dante attached to the credits. This isn’t near the multi-layered ensemble dramas Sayles has grown into. It’s pure schlock, which gives a good reason why Roger Corman’s involved. Director Dante is a decent fit though. His career has shown his admiration for sci-fi of yesteryear. With films like Gremlins, Explorers and Small Soldiers on his resume, Dante has demonstrated an affinity for wacky little creatures. He manages to find a way to get a couple into Piranha briefly but never goes anywhere with it. Instead his little monsters are left hanging and had me wondering why they were even there in the first place.
Piranha is a piece of novelty cinema that has the distinction of being the first movie to give me nightmares. Note that scared is meant to signify the past tense. If you watch Piranha for what it is, a corny Jaws rip-off with more laughs than frights, it’s tough not to have at least a little fun in all of its natural badness. If you’re looking for a genuine fish scarer just plug in Jaws for the 498th time.