Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas, Bruce Gordon, Barry Brown, Paul Bartel, Shannon Collins, Shawn Nelson, Richard Deacon, Janie Squire, John Sayles
Written by: John Sayles, based on a story by John Sayles, Richard Robinson
Directed by: Joe Dante
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 94
Date: 03/08/1978

Piranha (1978)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Little Razor Blades

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's not often that a blatant ripoff of a Hollywood hit holds its own as well as Joe Dante's Piranha. Produced by Roger Corman, the movie doesn't have the budget of Jaws, but it makes up for it with inventiveness, humor, and gumption. A pair of hikers discover a fenced-off "pool," go for a swim, and disappear. Spunky Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) is sent to look for them (she's first seen playing a Jaws video game). Enlisting the services of local drunk Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), she drains the pool, which unwittingly releases some genetically enhanced Piranha -- designed to survive in salt water -- into the nearby rivers and streams. Kevin McCarthy, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plays the maniacal scientist who tries to warn them of the danger.

From there, Maggie and Paul (who fall in love) race around and try to prevent the children at a local summer camp from being nibbled to death. Dante and creature designer Phil Tippett cleverly show fish shadows swarming, accompanied by amazingly effective chittering sound effects. They also use quick movements and blood billowing through the water to cover up their fake fish. It works like gangbusters. Horror legend Barbara Steele appears in a small part, as does Corman veterans Dick Miller (who would go on to appear in several other Dante films) and Paul Bartel. Future filmmaker John Sayles wrote the screenplay and appears as a military guard. Overall Piranha isn't as savvy or as satirical as Dante's later works, but it's just as much fun.

James Cameron made his feature debut directing the 1981 sequel, Piranha 2: The Spawning. The inevitable remake, Piranha 3D followed, accompanied by a terrible sequel, Piranha 3DD.

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