Before Joe Dante was known for Gremlins, he was known in the horror world for Piranha. As one might expect, this 1978 film is overwhelmingly about the killer fish. It is undeniably a horror movie, and is actually less of a comedic Jaws rip-off than one might think. Yes, it starts at night with some victimized skinny dippers, but the bloody waters themselves are emphasized a bit more than some epic fishing trip.
This story takes place mostly around “Lost River Lake,” and involves a scientist raising killer piranha. Ostensibly its for a project for the military called “Operation: Razorteeth,” but it almost seems more for his own enjoyment. If you ask me, this scientist, named Dr. Robert Hoak is the main human star of this film. Kevin McCarthy does a great job of depicting him as a somewhat confused jumble of a character. Technically the main characters are Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), but they’re a bit on the mundane side, if I’m being honest. For me it’s more about those darn fish!
Reality Nibbling at our Ankles
Basically, what this movie has to offer are some truly no-holds-barred piranha attacks. I truly mean that. Unlike post-2000s cinema and its obsession with comfortable outcomes, Piranha lets women and children be victims. In fact, these moments turned film critic Gene Siskel into a big cry baby (as if actual wild creatures would never attack human women or children!). What’s more is that, in its attack moments, Piranha surprisingly doesn’t come off ultra-cheesy. Sure, some of the effects are flawed here and there, and there are occasional bits of humor, but much of this film lacks any obviousGremlins-style wink at the audience. These fish don’t mess around!
Nature is presented as potentially menacing, and as something ultimately outside of man’s control. In that sense, this movie is perhaps more purely horror-oriented than much of 1980s horror. That being said, Piranha does have Dick Miller, who seems to always convey something humorous in his delivery, even when his character is serious. It’s that “everyman” quality, where his characters are thrown into inexplicable situations and he has an “I can’t believe this is happening” look on his face. Basically, it’s how critics of the film might act.
I should also mention Barbara Steele’s character, Dr. Mengers. At the end of the film, it’s clear that she’s mostly there as the authorities’ damage control person. When she tries to downplay the threat posed by the invasive species, we basically know she’s full of it. It may be a weird parallel, but she kind of reminds me of good ol’ Donald Rumsfeld and the like — you know, the type of person who conveys rightness just because they speak with confidence. They may be entirely leading us down the wrong path, but their brash cockiness instills enough confidence in enough people to keep the illusion of control.
Actual piranha attacks on humans are rare, but they can happen. So what if scientists weaponized that killer potential, modifying them to be more aggressive and lethal? Piranha is another sci-fi film saying we shouldn’t tamper with nature. Why? Sometimes nature likes to tamper right back, and with razor-sharp teeth!
What are your thoughts on Piranha? Let us know in the comments!