Two backpackers break into a restricted, no trespassing area just to explore and to wash off in a water reservoir, unconcerned about its purpose or what might be in it. Just as soon as the young woman can strip off her clothes and push her male companion into the pond, the two are rapidly and bloodily torn apart by underwater unknowns. Although the place has supposedly been abandoned for several years, an elderly man, Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy), may have some answers.Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) works for a skip-tracing company that searches for missing people, and she’s hot on the trail of the two missing teens. She calls upon Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), a reluctant native (and the voice of nagging reason), who can guide her to the army test site where the travelers might have stayed. They’re ambushed by the delirious scientist Hoak, who warns about the “razorteeth,” their accelerated breeding and possible escape into open waters, before he’s knocked out by Maggie. When he comes to, he admits that killer, mutant, intelligent piranhas are on the loose – and Paul realizes that the dam is routinely opened up to keep water levels steady, down by the Lost River Lake Resort where a summer camp for kids is in full swing (his daughter being a member).
One of the characters mentions the Creature from the Black Lagoon, a clip of The Monster that Challenged the World plays on a television, and other background people play the Jaws arcade game. It’s quite evident producer Roger Corman and director Joe Dante wanted to make their own version of Spielberg’s highly successful 1975 monster movie, and aren’t afraid to alternate between paying tribute, parodying, and copying. There’s an evident jokiness surrounding the action, partly attributed to bad acting, but mostly because the dialogue is generic and the characters poorly developed. It also doesn’t help that the music resembles a cheesy derivative of Jaws – during its good moments. The bad musical interludes include ridiculous patriotic tunes, mournful death riffs, and peaceful, desperately meaningful father/son, camp counselor/student moments.
The actual attacks are fairly convincing, using rapid cuts, panicked thrashing, inserts of toothy fish picking at flesh, lots of blood and frenzied sound effects. In contrast, the shots of children happily splashing in the lake are laughable, along with the inclusion of the army cover-up routine and an egotistical fish geneticist Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele), who can’t seem to control her possessed eyebrows. The gratuitous nudity (in one scene the piranhas eat the bikini off a victim first) also edges Piranha into the realm of exploitive, can’t-take-it-seriously, B-movie fare, along with the complete lack of suspense. Hats off to the filmmakers, however, for daring to have a piranha jump out of the water to bite a man’s face, for disguising the use of large rubber fish through crafty editing, and for allowing innocent young children to perish in a pool of blood.
Corman would go on to reuse the basic Piranha plot for 1980’s Humanoids from the Deep, while James Cameron would take over the series and direct the sequel. A 1995 TV remake would follow, along with 2010’s Piranha 3D, which promises to take the bloodthirsty critter idea to all new heights of violence and graphic nudity, expanding upon the spring break partier fodder.- Mike Massie