Sure, Piranha was an early film from Gremlins director Joe Dante. And yes, the screenplay is by eventual indie stalwart John Sayles (Sunshine State). But in the end this is still a shoddy Jaws knockoff from exploitation producer Roger Corman. It’s silly, and only occasionally in the right, knowing way.
After a prologue featuring a particularly clueless pair of early victims – let’s just say it’s probably not wise to go skinny dipping in a pool on an abandoned military test site – Piranha unleashes its swarm of killer fish on an unsuspecting river community, including an idyllic summer camp. Blood is in the water – bubbling and churning as if the military-grade fish had also attained hot tub technology. The only people alarmed by any of this are a ditzy private investigator (Heather Menzies, struggling to suppress a smile) and a boozy mountain man (Bradford Dillman, looking as if he’d swallowed Charlton Heston and is now constipated) .
The chewing – incessant and accompanied by a buzz on the soundtrack – is disturbing, especially when Piranha is vicious enough to let those summer camp kiddies get bit . The movie haunted me for days after I stumbled upon the film on television when I was a little kid, but its horror doesn’t stick the way it does in Jaws.
Of course, Dante and Sayles don’t mean for it to stick – that’s why they occasionally wink, as with the cheeky moment when a piranha leaps from the water and plants itself on a snotty camp counselor’s face. But this combination of terror and jokiness leaves Piranha somewhere in the middle: not quite a thriller, not quite a spoof. It’s a B movie all right – ever so slightly above average.