This month marks the 45th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s seminal seafaring thriller, 1975’s Jaws. Widely considered to be the first modern, high-concept blockbuster, Jaws would reshape the landscape of Hollywood with its broad but intriguing characters, minimalist approach to storytelling and emphasis on exciting set pieces. As is the case with many popular blockbusters, the success of Jaws spawned many imitators of varying quality. Today, let’s take a look at 1978’s Piranha, one of the better-known copycats and a somewhat more ambitious knockoff than the others that were released at the time. One of the earliest films directed by visionary Gremlins helmer Joe Dante and produced by Dante’s collaborator Jon Davison and independent filmmaking mogul Roger Corman, Piranha was once the target of a lawsuit from Universal Studios because it was so similar to Jaws. When Spielberg praised the film after an advance screening, the lawsuit was dropped. With that kind of ringing endorsement from one of the greatest directors around, Piranha must be good, right?
Surprisingly, Piranha kind of works! The script, written by Battle Beyond the Stars scribe John Sayles, is clever, the quick pace keeps the action flowing, Pino Donaggio’s score carries the right balance of suspense and strangeness and Dante’s signature comedic approach to science fiction and horror gives the film a consistently fun tone that matches the crazy premise of a bloodthirsty school of mutated piranha invading a river near a peaceful town. As far as the acting goes, the late, great Dick Miller, a frequent associate of both Dante and Corman, steals the film in his role as Buck Gardner, a crooked resort owner whose place of business is overwhelmed by the deadly fish. Miller’s character may lack the depth of his Jaws equivalent, Mayor Vaughn, but he’s still a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) gives a strong, grounded performance as a government scientist who is haunted by the fact that he led the project that created the mutant piranha and the two leads, Heather Menzies of The Sound of Music fame and King’s Crossing’s Bradford Dillman, have an interesting chemistry. The special effects are more of a mixed bag. This is the kind of movie where impressive stop motion creature animation and convincing prosthetic work share the screen with rudimentary puppetry and drab set design.
Spielberg may have been onto something. Although it’s a cheap Jawsploitation cash grab, Piranha is a unexpectedly charming movie with a clear sense of purpose and enough self-awareness to keep your interest.