Yesterday sucked for a number of reasons but I am not going to complain about it (stupid sickness). Instead, I am going to focus on today and try to recuperate from my lousy day. Now today’s movie is one that I have seen on TV countless times but in all honesty, I never saw the very beginning of the movie until I bought the DVD. It is odd, I know, but every time I watched it, the earliest part of the movie I would come in at was always when the piranha were released into the river. Sure, I could have rented this movie at some point and easily solved the problem but to be honest, I didn’t feel the need to rent a movie just for 10-15 minutes of footage over renting something that I had never seen before. Anyways, I bought the movie and have enjoyed it every time I watched it. So here’s to a little enjoyment for me today as I watch today’s movie, Piranha.
The plot: Two teenagers, Barbara and David, are hiking through the woods near Lost River Lake when they come across an abandoned army testing site and decide to go for a swim in a pool of water on the premises. As they are swimming, David complains about something biting him when he suddenly starts thrashing and disappears underwater. Barbara tries to get out of the pool when she is also attacked and dragged under. As her screams stop, a light comes on in the main building and a man opens the door and stares at the pool. Some time later, a skip tracer named Maggie McKeown is sent by her boss up to Lost River Lake to find the missing kids. During the course of her search, she comes upon the cabin of Paul Grogan, a surly drunk that has moved up into the mountains to get away from people. She asks him about the kids and if there are any places they might have taken shelter and when he mentions the army testing site, she manages to convince him to show her where it is. Arriving at the site, they find Barbara’s locket near the pool and decide to look inside the building to find the mechanism to drain the pool. Searching the building, the come across a lab filled with strange creatures which freak them out. When they find the kids backpacks and clothes, Maggie goes to drain the pool but just as she flips the switch, they are attacked by a strange man. They manage to knock the man unconscious and inspect the tank to discover it had been filled with salt water, as well as the skeleton of some animals near the drain. The man recovers and steals Maggie’s jeep but ends up crashing it and Maggie and Paul take him back to Paul’s cabin. After restraining the man, Maggie and Paul settle in for the night and the next day, decide to take him down river on a raft Paul and his daughter Suzie built in order to get him medical attention. Meanwhile, Suzie is at a summer camp but is afraid to get into the water but the head camp councilor, Mr. Dumont, doesn’t accept her excuse and expects her to compete in the swimming competition so Betsy, one of the councilors, decides to help Suzie get out of the competition by pretending she is injured. On the river, Paul starts asking the man, Dr. Robert Hoak, some questions when Hoak yells at Maggie to get her hand out of the water, saying the river is filled with piranha that were released when they drained the pool. Paul starts to question him some more when they hear a dog barking and find the dead body of Paul’s friend Jack, whose feet and lower legs had been stripped to the bone by the piranha. As they make their way down river, Hoak explains that the piranha were bred as part of Operation Razerteeth, which was intended to breed a strain that could survive the colder waters of the North Vietnamese rivers and destroy their water system. However, the war ended and poison was used to kill the fish but some of them survived and began to breed and Hoak was left to look after them. Suddenly, Paul realizes that the dam releases water downstream to keep the levels the same, which would release the fish downstream where a new resort has been built as well as the summer camp that Suzie is at, so they rush to get there before the water is released. Suddenly, they see a small boy laying on top of a canoe, his father having been killed by the piranha, and Hoak dives in to help rescue the boy but ends up dying from the wounds inflicted by the fish. As they keep heading for the dam, the blood from Hoak’s body drips into the water and the piranha start chewing up the raft’s lashings to get to it so Paul dumps the body into the river and paddles the raft to shore before the lashings give way and after making sure everyone is ok, Paul runs to the dam and stops them from releasing the water. The military arrives, led by Colonel Waxman and Dr. Mengers, who also worked on Operation Razorteeth, and after confirming the piranha are at the dam, the proceed to pour poison in the water to kill them. Paul shows them a map of the area, which shows a small stream that goes around the dam and feeds back into the river, which the piranha could use to escape the poison but Waxman and Mengers don’t believe the fish are smart enough to do that and post a guard on Paul and Maggie’s tent so they don’t tell anyone about the fish. The two manage to distract the guard and escape and Paul tries calling the camp to warn them but Dumont thinks that Paul is just drunk and ignores them. The two are eventually stopped by the local sheriff who, at Waxman’s urging, locks them up for the night. Waxman then calls Buck Gardner, the developer of the new resort, and warns him about Paul and Maggie saying there are piranha in the lake and Gardner says he will tell his people to disregard the stories so it doesn’t hurt the grand opening, as it is revealed that Waxman is a silent investor in the property. Maggie uses a trick from one of the men she captured to free herself and Paul and they steal a police car and head to the camp. At the camp, Dumont starts the the inner tube swimming relay when the piranha start attacking the kids, with Dumont being bitten in the face at one point. As the kids start swimming to shore, Suzie, who had hidden under some canoes, grabs an inflatable raft and paddles out to save Betsy and Laura but while she manages to save Laura, Betsy is killed when the inner tube she is on is popped and she is dragged under the water. Paul and Maggie arrive at the camp and while Paul grabs a canoe to get Suzie and Laura, Maggie tries calling the resort to warn them but Gardner ignores her warning and hangs up on her. When everyone is back on shore and with help coming, Paul and Maggie head down to the resort and along the way, Paul remembers the water in the pool being salt water and realizes that the piranha can survive in both fresh and salt water and that they are heading down stream so they can reach the ocean. At the resort, Waxman and Mengers show up and talk with Gardner about Paul and Maggie but a short time later, the piranha begin attacking the guests and Waxman ends up being killed by the piranha. Paul and Maggie arrive and after stealing a speedboat, the head downstream towards the old smelting plant. Paul plans on releasing the waste left in the tanks to kill the fish when they reach the area but when they get there, they discover the control booth is underwater so Paul is forced to dive down to open the tanks. As the piranha show up and start to attack him, Paul manages to open the tanks just as Maggie finishes counting to 100 and drives off, towing Paul to safety. Back at the resort, Suzie and Maggie tend to Paul’s wounds while Gardner is walking among the injured and dead bodies on the beach before yelling at a cameraman for filming it. Mengers is talking to a reporter about the incident and says that even if any of the piranha survived the pollution at the end of the river, they wouldn’t be able to survive in the ocean so, “there is nothing left to fear” but as the report is broadcast over the radio at a beach, the sound of the piranha’s feeding can be heard in the ocean.
Piranha met with positive results from the critics, earning a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Though there isn’t a critical consensus on the site, many of the critics felt that it was one of the best ripoffs of Jaws to come out during that time. When the movie was released, Jaws 2 was already released and Universal originally sought an injunction to stop the movies release but Steven Spielberg saw an advanced copy of the film and loved it so the matter was dropped. The movie would become a big success, earning $16 million off a $770,000 budget, and would spawn a sequel as well as two remakes.
This is a great movie to watch and one of my favorite of the “Jaws” ripoffs. The acting was pretty good, with Bradford Dillman (Paul), Heather Menzies (Maggie) and Kevin McCarthy (Hoak) doing a good job in there performance. I also liked Dick Miller (Gardner) and Bruce Gordon (Waxman) but thought the angle about their silent partnership in the resort was unnecessary. The story was pretty good and did a good job of capitalizing on the Jaws sensation while adding some aspects of the distrust in the military that was showing up during the post-Vietnam era. One thing I thought was really funny was the constant nods to aquatic creatures attacking people, from Maggie playing a Jaws arcade game at the beginning of the movie, to a woman reading “Moby Dick” at the resort, and even a soldier watching The Monster That Challenged The World while Waxman is speaking with the sheriff. The special effects were pretty decent considering the budget and how they managed some of the shots, such as Betsy’s death, was pretty impressive. All in all, it is not Jaws, but it is a good aquatic horror movie that can stand on it’s own.
Rating: 4 out of 5