Movie review: “Piranha” fun even though it bites

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Woman straddling raft with toothy fish approaching

Keeping up with my shark-week themed reviews this summer, it’s time for a look back at “Piranha” (1978), if you dare…

The military-industrial complex hatches a plan to destroy the river systems of North Vietnam toward the end of the war.  The war ends, but the secret program lingers on to juice up piranhas and enable them to survive in fresh or salt water.  Sexy teens trespass into the old test site to go skinny dipping by moonlight.  After they’re eaten alive, an agent from a skip-tracing company (blonde and perky of course) is dispatched to find them.  Working together with an alcoholic single father mountain man, she pulls the plug on the pool to the horror of the man running the program, which drains and releases the piranhas into the river.

The duo dash downstream by raft, by stolen patrol car, and motorboat to warn the adults and save the children.  Of course, nobody believes them in time and a host of fisherman, swimmers, inter-tubers, and pleasure-boaters are turned into fish food.  It’s formulaic but fun.  The piranha backstory is clever as any creature feature.  The pace of the movie is pretty quick.

The good guys are actually well-developed characters.  The agent and the mountain man grow on each and the audience throughout the film.  They seem to be enjoying themselves along the way, which is kind of rare but refreshing for a movie like this.  We’re rooting for two to save his daughter.  Like “Orca” which came out a year earlier, the man is so focused on saving people that he ditches the bottle.

The supporting characters are one dimensional—a mean summer camp manager who refuses to listen to warning and jeopardizes campers in the process, a venal politician hell-bent on a big opening day for the water “arena” he helped develop, and a wicked witch of a scientist (brunette and dowdy of course) who consistently downplays the threat and treats people like dirt.

The movie seems to be low-budget because the piranha effects are crummy.  We never really see the fish, or when we do they look like flounder.  The sound effects, a high-pitched pulsing sound, are more annoying than scary.  Their impact on victims seems to vary in proportion to how good, bad, or inconsequential to the plot they are.  Some people end up nibbled and bloody, others get totally de-fleshed and a tub of ketchup explodes on the river’s surface in a matter of seconds.

No, it’s not as well-done or as good as “Jaws.”  It is corny but it is amusing.  There are some scenes like the skip-tracing agent ripping open her shirt to distract a guard that are worth a look and a chuckle.  Modern-day marketers brand it as a “cult classic” and it lives up to that designation.  Recommended.

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