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Our rating: four lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

"Okay guys, back to school!"
Piranha is the best of the Jaws rip-offs we've encountered. Like most Jaws rip-offs, it's about killer animals that can stay hidden, and it has authority figures who refuse to warn the general public about the threat to their lives. Unlike most pretenders to the "killer beast" movie throne, Piranha has interesting characters and energetic direction.

The interesting characters come courtesy of screenwriter John Sayles. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Sayles began his career by writing a series of low budget horror films including Alligator and the Howling. Oh, and he made something called Return of the Secaucus 7. But at this web site, we're much more concerned with movies about man-eating animals than movies about Sixties radicals. Piranha was directed by Joe Dante, better known for the darkly humorous Gremlins films. As we commented similarly about Alligator, that's quite a pedigree for a low-budget horror film.

Maggie enters the Ron Perlman calling contest.
Perky insurance investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies, aka The Sound of Music's Louisa von Trapp) is dispatched by Mel from the Dick Van Dyke Show to track down two teenagers who disappeared while hiking near Lost River Lake. Maggie cheerfully recruits misanthropic drunkard Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who lives alone in a cabin near the river, to show her around the area. Together they happen upon an old army testing base hidden on a nearby mountain. The base was used for project Razor Tooth, which created a strain of super piranha. If the guys who named Razor Tooth had worked on the atom bomb, it wouldn't have been the Manhattan Project, it would have been project Big Boom.

At the base, Maggie and Paul are attacked by an enraged Kevin McCarthy (as Dr. Robert Hoak), who was keeping the base's population of super-piranha alive. Dr. Hoak is knocked unconscious, and Maggie and Paul unwittingly release the piranha into a nearby river. From there the secrets begin to unravel and Paul finds himself in a race to beat the killer fish downstream before they reach his daughter's summer camp.

Someone get this guy to the dentist.
Piranha owes its ability to make watchers squirm to some good dialogue, a not-too-far-fetched plot, and its choice of killer animals. Piranha are small and fast, so it's not ridiculous that they speed by the camera too quickly to be seen -- and thus too quickly to show off their special-effect fakery. Plus, a large group of small animals are a harder enemy to combat -- how do you know if you've ever really killed the whole bunch? After a while, they just multiply into a killer school again and you're right back where you started. Just like Saturday Night Live!

Piranha is a nicely put-together little thriller. The actresses (those necessary staples of any horror film) are quite pretty and more than equal to the task, Dillman makes a likable-but-gruff hero, and the authorities, including shifty real estate dealer Buck Gardner (played by the omnipresent Dick Miller, a Roger Corman favorite) are perfectly corrupt and bumbling. The worst thing we can say about this film is that it bogs down a bit towards the beginning of the third act. But hey, you try following up an act like a river full of killer fish snacking on the tourist population.

Whoever thought of that chattering sound for the piranha, however, needs to be strung up. Chris' childhood experiences with this film, even the version edited for TV, made for some interesting moments at the local swimming pool. And Scott -- well, Scott won't go into the water at all.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 8/25/99

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