Piranha (1978) Review: Don’t Go in the Lake
“Lost River Lake was a thriving resort – until they discovered…”
Synopsis: When flesh-eating piranhas are accidentally released into a summer resort’s rivers, the guests become their next meal.
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Piranha belongs to the odd and exclusive club of mostly serious creature features (Arachnophobia is another good example). Upon release, it was heavily criticized for being a Jaws clone – but it was nevertheless popular. In fact, Steven Spielberg himself once described the movie as “the best of the Jaws rip-offs.” Though it was purposefully designed to jump on the Jaws bandwagon, I don’t really feel it qualifies as a mockbuster. While having the same straight-faced tone in the face of a mostly ridiculous story and a similar “don’t go in the water” vibe, the plot followed more in the footsteps of a standard creature feature than Jaws does.
A drunkard living out in the woods (Bradford Dillman) is waylaid by an extremely bossy and forward skip tracer (Heather Menzies-Urich) who wants him to take her up into the woods to search for two missing teens. While investigating the disappearance at an old Army research facility, they are attacked by Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), who is trying to stop them from draining in a pool in their search. But Dr. Hoak is unsuccessful, and the pool is drained… releasing hundreds of genetically engineered piranha into a local river. The river, naturally, feeds into a lake, where a summer camp and a resort are located.
Again, departing from the generic creature feature script, there’s actually a decent amount of explanation for why these piranha exist. The main characters also do their best to follow (mostly) good plans to keep the piranha contained by (not at all) legal means. In the end, their efforts are thwarted by greed, local cops, and some very sketchy Army personnel. Barbara Steele in particular is excellent as a cold, calculating wildlife biologist attached to the Army camp. And while the two main characters are not very sympathetic and largely make terrible life choices, there is some attempt to give most of the characters backstory. The drunkard’s daughter at the endangered summer camp has more character development than most B movies see even for their stars.
Though Piranha’s tone at times seems in conflict with its creature feature-y heritage, it mostly works. The nudity, while a bit gratuitous, at least makes sense in the context of the story. The special effects for the piranha were never going to be good, so the filmmakers deliberately keep things chaotic and zoomed in for most shots, which does a much better job of keeping the tension going than actual shots of the puppets would. For a Roger Corman movie, it’s downright well done – probably because he’s EP rather than director.
All in all, Piranha is pretty good. I was never bored, and that’s uncommon for the older creature features. Ludwig and I even yelled things at the screen once or twice – though, to be fair, that was usually because Heather Menzies-Urich’s character had just done something insane. It’s unlikely that you’ll find much to be scared by here, but the filmmakers gave it an honest shot, and the end result is more unsettling than I would have expected, considering the subject matter.
Calamity Brains’ Rating: B
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