Review by Michael Jacobson
Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller
Director: Joe Dante
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Shout! Factory
Features: See Review
Length: 92 Minutes
Release Date: August 3, 2010
“Lost River Lake. Terror. Horror. Death. Film at eleven.”
If the makers of Piranha deserve credit for one thing, it's honesty. Neither legendary producer Roger Corman nor rising young director Joe Dante pretended they were making anything other than a rip-off of Jaws. Most productions try and cash in on the success of a bigger and better predecessor, but it's nice to hear folks admit it for once.
The idea was that if the shark in Jaws was gigantic and singular, the way to cash in and not be an exact copy was to make the menace small and numerous. Piranhas were the logical choice. Anyone who's ever seen a nature special on the tiny Amazonian monsters never forgot them. As a kid, I once saw piranhas pick clean an animal in a minute...PBS warping young minds even in my day.
For a story, we have a skip trace specialist named Maggie McKeown (Menzies) sent to find two missing kids who went hiking in the vicinity of one of those...oh...you know, top secret government research facilities. She ends up partnered with Paul Grogan (Dillman), a loner with so much reputation for being a drunk that I honestly can't remember what his character was actually supposed to be in the story.
In an opening that was obviously another nod to the great shark film of two years earlier, we already saw what happened to the missing kids. They broke into the government facility, took a swim, and ended up feeding the fishies.
Trying to determine if the kids' bodies are in the big water holding areas, she flips the switch to drain them, cuing the possibly deranged scientist Dr. Hoak (McCarthy), who shows up just in time for the plot exposition. The government was genetically altering piranha to be faster and deadlier as a possible weapon to use in the rivers of Vietnam, but when the war ended, they just kind of hung out. That is, until Maggie released them into the waters.
Now, the deadly fish are heading down river to a new man-made lake where a glad-handing businessman Buck Gardner (Miller) is having his big grand opening gala. Even worse, en route is a summer camp for kids, where Paul's own daughter is attending, and where the day's big event is an inner tube race.
Piranha tried to turn up the blood factor a bit...remember Jaws was a PG movie, but Roger Corman and company weren't stopping there. The film is obviously small budgeted, but not terrible by any stretch. Yes, the effects mostly leave something to be desired, but one sequence where the rabid fish are attacking the ropes on a hand made raft causing log after log to split away and leaving our intrepid heroes with less and less safe real estate was very well done, and effectively suspenseful.
Apart from that, I though in many instances the fish didn't live up to the hype. One early shot has a man with his feet in the water, and his lower legs are devoured to the bone, and I thought, yes, that's what we're talking about. But then scene after scene shows the piranhas going crazy attacking someone in the water, and the victim ends up coming out of the water with just a couple of bite marks. These are some sort of genetically engineered superfish? Normal piranha would have done more damage than that.
But I give Joe Dante and company some credit in that they didn't go the safe route most filmmakers would take and spare kids. Young or old, if you take a swim, you're meeting the swarm.
This film really launched Joe Dante as a director, and a few years later, the sequel would begin the career of one James Cameron, who was talented enough to recover from the disastrous experience. And there have been enough cult fans to keep Piranha alive through the years, so that one day in the new millennium fans with high definition theatres could re-visit the little movie that REALLY demonstrated the danger of feeding a fish too much.
The opening shots of the kids taking an ill-advised night swim are absolutely hideous: grainy, soft, and murky, and I was ready to dismiss the whole presentation as a loss. It does improve, however. The daytime shots are much better, and while just a tad muted owing to the age, still come through with some well-defined colors and sharp images, and a lot more cleanness and clarity. Overall, the good definitely outweighs the bad, but the bad stretches are kind of hard to ignore.
I'm not 100% sure what the audio offering is on this Blu-ray disc...I believe it's standard stereo. It's not remixed for high definition audio, and as such, there is very little dynamic range, even when the scenes get scary and chaotic. Dialogue is rendered well, but the spoken words and music are a bit thin sounding throughout.
There is an engaging and informative commentary track from Joe Dante and producer Jon Davidson, plus some original behind-the-scenes footage and an outtake reel. A new documentary chronicles the making of the film and features interviews with Roger Corman and others. You can watch the original trailer with or without commentary, plus peruse a TV spot, radio ads and two galleries of stills. Finally, there is a collection of scenes that were used for network television broadcasts, but not part of the theatrical release.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water and the cineplex...well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and sometimes the most lucrative as well. Piranha had a small budget but made a nice profit thanks to fans who were eager for more terror in the waters. Now, modern viewers can experience this little picture that swam in a mighty big shadow for themselves thanks to this Blu-ray offering.