Thursday, October 24, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Piranha (1978) **½

R, 94 min.
Director: Joe Dante
Writers: John Sayles, Richard Robinson
Starring: 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

So back in 1978 everybody was trying to make the next “Jaws”. “Piranha” was producer Roger Corman’s attempt at replicating the searing success that came along with that original summer blockbuster. For a Corman picture, “Piranha” really isn’t all that bad. That could have something to do with a script by John Sayles, who populates the characters with more ordinary problems before the absurd issue of swimming in a lake full of man-eating piranha becomes the focus of their concerns.

If you didn’t already know, the plot involves a lake resort that is invaded by piranha that have been genetically altered by a secret government program that has engineered the fresh water fish to adapt to salt water. So, not only do the heroes have to convince the people at a Texas resort that if they stay in the water they’ll be eaten by fish from the Amazon, but they also have to prevent the fish from reaching the ocean.

Director Joe Dante uses one of his and Corman’s favorite actors, Dick Miller, as the park organizer who won’t listen to the warnings of two people, who admittedly come off as pretty crazy, a female skip tracer and a drunken divorcee. Miller is probably best known as Murray Futterman, the snowplow operator from Dante’s “Gremlins” movies, and is always a good reminder of how great a good character actor can be.

Although it is a b-movie version of “Jaws”, “Piranha” never really descends into the schlock that often plays prominently into Corman’s movies. It seems to be approached in seriousness and actually pulls it off for the most part. Once the movie really commits to the gore of the piranha attacks of the public in general, its limitations begin to show through, but it holds out in earnestness for a good amount of its running time. It isn’t the ridiculous schlock of it’s sequel “Piranha II: The Spawning”, which has become more well known due to the fact that it is the first directorial credit of mega blockbuster maker James Cameron. This is certainly a case of the original being much better than its sequel.

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