At the height of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Government came up with a plan that could have changed the course of the war.
What if the government developed gigantic, super-fast, occasionally jumpy piranha? And what if they set those killer fish loose in the rivers of Vietnam? Would those fish swim through North Vietnam and take out the VC? Sadly, the war ended before the government got a chance to test out Operation Razorteeth. With the war over, the government was stuck with a bunch of killer fish. Scientist Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) ignored all orders to destroy his mutant fish because they were his life’s work. (Awwwwwwwww!) He kept an eye on them and did everything he could to prevent them from getting into the nearby river.
Unfortunately, Dr. Hoak’s best wasn’t good enough. Because the piranha have gotten loose and now they’re making their way down to the river! They start out eating skinny dipping teenagers, fisherman, and Keenan Wynn. (They’re good enough not to eat Wynn’s adorable dog, which I appreciated.) Further down the river, there’s a summer camp and a water park! It’s definitely not safe to get back in the water but sadly, that’s what several people insist on doing throughout this film. Even when the water is full of blood, people will jump in. (It’s easy to be judgmental but it is a pretty river. I don’t swim but I honestly wouldn’t mind living near a river that looked that nice. Instead, I have to make due with a creek.)
Floating down the river on a raft and trying to warn everyone is the unlikely team of Maggie (Heather Menzies) and Paul (Bradford Dillman). Maggie is a detective who has come to town to track down the two teenage skinny dippers who were eaten at the start of the film. Paul is a drunk. Well, technically, Paul is a wilderness guide and he does spend the entire movie wearing the type of plaid shirt that would only be worn by someone who goes camping every weekend but really, Paul’s main personality trait seems to be that he enjoys his booze. Paul’s daughter is away at the summer camp. Yes, that’s the same summer camp that’s about to be visited by a school of piranha. AGCK!
Produced by Roger Corman and obviously designed to capitalize on the monster success of Jaws, Piranha was an early directorial credit for Joe Dante. Dante would later go on to direct films like The Howling and Gremlins. Piranha was also an early screenwriting credit for the novelist John Sayles, who would use his paycheck to launch his own directing career. As a director, Sayles specializes in politically-themed ensemble pieces, which is something you might not guess while watching Piranha. (Piranha does have an anti-military subplot but then again, it’s a film from the 70s so of course it does.) Like the best of Corman’s film, Piranha works because it sticks to the basics and it delivers exactly what it promises. Piranha promises killer fish biting away at anyone dumb enough to get in the water and that’s what it gives us. As an added bonus, we also get some occasionally witty dialogue and Joe Dante’s energetic, self-aware direction.
As is typical with the films of both Corman and Dante, the cast is full of familiar faces. Along with Kevin McCarthy as the mad scientist and Keenan Wynn as the eccentric fisherman, Dick Miller shows up as the waterpark owner. Richard Deacon, who made a career of playing bosses and neighbors on various sitcoms in the 50s and 60s, plays the father of a missing teenager. Director Paul Bartel plays the head of the summer camp, who may be a jerk but who still heroically jumps in the water to save several campers. (Bartel’s moment of heroism is one of Piranha’s best scenes and, significantly, it’s played without irony. You’ll want to cheer for the guy.) Finally, the great Barbara Steele plays the government scientist who shows up to clean up Operation Razorteeth.
Piranha is simple but entertaining. Dante’s direction is energetic and, despite the film’s self-referential tone, the killer fish are just savage enough to be scary. It’s a film that tell us not to get back in the water but which understands that the temptation might just be too strong.