- Movie Rating -

Piranha (1978)

| August 3, 1978

I blame Steven Spielberg.

No, seriously, I blame the most successful filmmaker in history for Piranha, a movie to which he had zero input because without Jaws this may never have happened.  Am I being reactionary?  Well, yes.  I mean, I just sat through a movie called Piranha.  You’d toss blame around too.  Maybe I’ll calm down after a drink and a shower.

[a drink and a shower later]
I’m back.  Do I still blame Spielberg?  Sadly, yes.

[another drink, another shower]
Turns out I can’t shake my reaction.

I suppose it is inevitable that when a film becomes the most successful box office blockbuster in history, millions of fast-buck leeches will want to cash in.  That’s certainly the case with Jaws, which was a miracle by all standards because writers Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley (the author of the admittedly over-stuffed book) managed to create a script around the fact that the special effects weren’t working.  They made the community our concern and the water the main villain.

The writer of Piranha didn’t seem to have such ambition.  His assignment was simply to strike while the iron was hot.  Jaws stopped the world in its tracks, so who wouldn’t want to cash in?

That being said, it’s probably a good time to let you know that the writer here is John Sayles, the man whose later career included some of the best films of the past 30 years: Eight Men Out, Lone Star, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, Matewan and a personal favorite of mine, The Brother From Another Planet.  Piranha was an early project that I suspect may have offered a few car payments.

The director is also someone I admire, Joe Dante, the fun-meister responsible for Gremlins (Yay!) and later Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Oy!).  And in between also whipped up The ‘burbs, InnerSpace, The Howling and one of my favorite little treasures Matinee.  He’s a bit of a confectioner when it comes to movies.

I can’t really say that Pirahna is much of a confection.  It’s too stupid to be fun, too boring to be good trash and too structured to be Dada.  I’ll say that it has much more ambition then just about any other Jaws rip-off (including the sequels) in that it involves government research project called “Razorteeth” in which a species of genetically altered, super-charged piranha that can live in cold or fresh water are intended to be let loose on the North Vietnamese and thereby aiding in a victory for American forces in Vietnam.  Unfortunately, the leader of the scrapped project Dr. Hoak finds his precious experiment released into a nearby pond where the piranha chew on unsuspecting swimmers.  As the fish head downstream toward a summer camp, Hoak and two teenagers try to warn the councilors to no avail.

To be honest, Piranha probably has more plot than it deserves, but far less brain-power than it actually has.  I’m glad that it led Dante and Sayles to bigger and better things, and I can say that they made a film that’s not unwatchable (it has a cult following, but I was still bored) but you’ll wonder why you’re not settling in for Spielberg’s greatness over Dante and Sayles’ shot at just paying the bills.

Reviewed April 12, 2009

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1978) View IMDB Filed in: Horror