14 August 2010

Piranha 1978 - REVIEW

With the release of the remake to this 1978 cult classic being just around the corner, I figured it was time for a review. I hear people all the time talking about being traumatized by Jaws. How it scared them out of the ocean for some time. Well this film, WAS my Jaws. We didn't live near an ocean so sharks always seemed so mythical to me. But lakes? There were lakes everywhere and we visited them quite often. I can't tell you exactly how old I was when I actually watched this film but I DO remember watching it. I remember refusing to get in the water because I was afraid to get eaten. Hey, I was kid! Cut me some slack!!

When a couple of hikers go missing while trekking through the woods, Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies), a big city skip tracer, is sent to the backwoods of Texas to find them. Along the way she meets up with Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and convinces him to help her. Grogan leads her to an abandoned military research facility where crazed Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) is busily conducting a variety of experiments to create a strain of piranha that can survive in rivers and oceans and capable of devouring everything in their path. After finding some of the hikers belongings, they mistakenly drain the pond releasing the flesh eating fish into the local river system. It doesn't take long for them to realize that anyone using the river is in danger, including Grogan's daughter who is at a summer camp miles downstream. The army is brought in to help but seems more interested in covering it up. Especially Colonel Waxman, (Bruce Gordon) who along with Buck Gardner (Dick Miller) has invested a shit load of money into a resort set to open the next day. It's a race against time for McKeown and Grogan to release a poison into the river and stop the deadly piranha before they reach the ocean.

Piranha is fast paced, gory fun that has some stellar effects considering it's rather low budget. Joe Dante is one of the best at turning low budget horror into an instant cult classic. While The Howling remains my favorite Dante film, Piranha runs a very close second. Although stuffed with movie references/jokes in the typical Dante manner, Piranha is nonetheless well-made enough to offer suspense and thrills in between the gags. John Sayles managed to bust out a script that was cliched and campy but also made it work well. It has a fairly strong plot and some hilarious dialogue exchanges. One of my favorite being:
Whitney: The piranhas...
Buck Gardner: What about the goddamn piranhas?
Whitney: They're eating the guests, sir.

Along with McCarthy and Miller are some other recognizable horror faces. Barbara Steele shows up as Dr. Mengers and iconic Keenan Wynn has a small part as Jack, Grogan's BFF. As far as casting goes Dante definitely made good choices. The chemistry between McKeown and Dillman is surprisingly good. In fact, for a campy, low budget horror, the acting is damn good. That's what I love about Dante. He uses what he has, no matter how small, and makes greatness out of it. He doesn't settle for anything less than perfection. It's just a shame EVERY director doesn't follow through that way. Dante knows he's cashing in on all the Jaws fame with this film but doesn't care. He proves that right off the bat with the video game scene.

Bottom line... even after 30 years this film still holds up as a quirky, campy, horrific and fun ride. It's a must see for any horror/gore fan. Especially if you plan to see the remake. I am in no way saying this film is the best ever... it has it's downfalls but all in all, it's just an outstanding movie. It's most definitely one any genre fan should have in their collection.

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