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John’s Horror Corner: Piranha (1978), Joe Dante’s feisty and gory little creature feature is a blast from the 70s!

May 26, 2020

MY CALL: Pretty gory and fast-paced for the 70s! This movie goes to great effort to provide a lot of effects scenes. A strong recommendation to fans of creature features and perhaps shark movies. MORE MOVIES LIKE Piranha: Looking for more piranha creature features? Then don’t miss Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), Piranha 3D (2010) or Piranha 3DD (2012). Additional fun diminutive-turned-mutant creature features include Ticks (1993) and Mosquito (1994).

The opening scenes and shots reveal a lot to the audience. Firstly, the atmospheric, misty, full moon hike sets the kind of mood that earned director Joe Dante (Burying the Ex) the right to helm The Howling (1981). Secondly, when our hikers decide to take a midnight swim in a reservoir, the revelation of the danger in the water takes quite a feisty yet still deadly menacing tone, perhaps dawning Dante’s more playful style that would be mastered for Gremlins (1984). These traits convince me I’m in for something good…

Woodsy local Paul (Bradford Dillman; Escape from the Planet of the Apes, The Swarm) reluctantly teams up with missing persons investigator Maggie (Heather Menzies-Urich; Sssssss, Endangered Species) to find our recently disappeared fish-food victims from the opening scene.

Early in their investigation, the laboratory scene offers some great set design—I love a good laboratory set (e.g., The Vineyard, Bad Blood, Victor Frankenstein). Watch out for a completely unexplained, awesome Claymation fishman-homunculus skulking about behind the specimen jars of fish and mutant fish, illustrative of a history of strange genetic experiments in that fish hatchery reservoir. Maggie’s snooping reveals the control lever to drain the reservoir. Arriving and immediately in a panic, Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy; Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ghoulies go to College, Dark Tower) tries to stop them, but it’s too late. They drained it all into the nearby river… along with his piranhas!

The first signs of gore include the flesh-stripped feet (with some chunky fleshy remains) of someone who dipped his feet in the river off his dock. Most gore is presented post-attack, with the attacks themselves being chaotic and too difficult to tell exactly what’s happening beyond the bloody wake of their thrashing. But the visuals of the attacks remain appealing as we see rapid cuts of fish flailing and darting at their fleshy targets squirming in the water and, in one case, swarming a sinking victim as she is eaten alive. That was a particularly cool shot given the effects limitations of the 70s.

Now with this aquatic menace released in the river, they make their way to the nearby summer resort’s lake (ran by Dick Miller; Gremlins, The Terminator, Chopping Mall) brimming with kids at summer camp and vacationers. We get a large-scale attack on the resort, but it’s nothing particularly gory at first (although, maybe gory for the 70s). If you want a full-tilt gorefest, then you want the remake/reimagining Piranha 3D (2010) or Piranha 3DD (2012). Here we have a lot of chummy water, heavily nibbled-up cadavers, and lots of screaming vacationers coming ashore (and some of them) with covered in wounds and blood.

The movie ends with some commentary on our world’s cover-up nature, distrust of the military, and hints that the ocean is the next step for our voracious piranhas.

No surprise here, but director Joe Dante’s 1978 classic remains solidly entertaining for me even today. This stands strong in its 70s gore along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). This movie is faster paced than most 70s horror and goes to great effort to provide a lot of effects scenes. A strong recommendation to fans of creature features and perhaps shark movies.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2020 3:54 pm

    Awesome review. I loved this movie and like you, still enjoy it today, it is one of the few that has stood the test of time. Loved the action, gore, and pace of the movie. An absolute adrenaline rush.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      May 31, 2020 4:11 pm

      Much to my surprise, it holds up better than part II. I always used to prefer part II. But now, having seen them back to back, 1978 is the superior movie. II is just more zany.

      • June 1, 2020 8:30 am

        That’s true. Part 2 was good too, if I remember correctly the same pace of action. But the first was still the most memorable.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      June 1, 2020 6:15 pm

      Yes. But part II, despite it’s better effects, is more hokey with its flying fish piranhas. lol

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