I actually remember the big "animals have gone mad and will now kill you" boom of the late 1970s, films like Killer Grizzly, Day of the Animals, Kingdom of the Spiders, Rattlers, Bats, Night of the Lepus (giant killer rabbits), Squirm, and Frogs. In fact, I think I saw all of these films during their theatrical run, and on late night UHF TV where B-films went right after the theaters threw them out.
We can probably thank Steven Spielberg for this mini-boom in crazy animal films too. If it wasn't for critical and popular success of Jaws we'd have none of this stuff. I know, you're thinking, "Spielberg? Really? His stuff is so schmaltzy —" but remember, before he went insane with saccharine poisoning while in preproduction for ET, he was making very scary movies; Dual — scary, Jaws — terrifying. Hell, even Close Encounters has some shit-yo-pants scenes in it. By 1978 though, anyone with a camera and some sort of abundant animal life was trying to duplicate the success of Jaws. Not far from any trend you'll find New World Pictures owned by Roger Corman churning out B-pictures of whatever that popular genre might be.
Hence, we get to Piranha. Immediately you think, ah, fish, must be a Jaws knockoff. But what's really nice and surprising about this film is that it is much more of a traditional monster on the loose movie. The very punchy script by John Sayles emulates much of the standard fare of the 1950s/60s, Director Joe Dante compliments the material by amping up the gore to 1970s levels and casting a whole mess of Love Boat guest stars such as Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, and Kevin McKarthy in minor roles.
Skip tracer Maggie MacKeown and reclusive drunk mountain man Paul Grogan unwittingly unleash a school of bloodthirsty mutant piranha from a secret military base while searching for lost hikers (they were eaten while swimming in the secret military pool). Once the fish begin their migration downstream no one is safe, not loners, summer campers, or potential investors in a freshwater amusement park. That's pretty much the whole plot, and since it's a Corman film the special effects are slim but effective courtesy of 17 year old Rob Bottin. The cast led by Brad Dillman who seemed to be channeling a half drunk/half crazed Charlton Heston, and Heather Menzies is TV quality at best, but that's okay. We don't watch these expecting them to be Chimes at Midnight. Keenan Wynn and Kevin McCarthy steal the film from the others when they have screen time. Especially Kevin McCarthy as cuckoo bananas Dr. Hoakm, the geneticist charged with running now-defunct Project Razortooth. McCarthy is so nuts that when he leaps into the water to certain death it's like he's ad-libbing his own baffling suicide. Madness I tell you. He plays the whole film like the last five minutes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
But this is not to say that Piranha isn't entertaining, it is, very much so, but there are so many goofy fun things to look for that it almost requires a couple of screenings to take it all in. From the loony drunken story that Keenan Wynn tells a dog before he's eating, to watching a whole summer camp get eaten by piranha footage, the film is a goofy bloody riot. Piranha is also played totally straight, like, Waiting for Godot straight, and that makes all of the little jokes buried in the script that much funnier.
The BluRay from Shout! Factory comes loaded with so many extras you'll think you were in the film. Sit down because this gets lengthy, we get a commentary with Joe Dante and Jon Davidson a featurette on the making of the film, still gallery, blooper reel, radio and TV spots, Trailers, still photos from Phil Tippet's personal collection of behind the scenes pictures, other behind the scenes footage. In fact there is so much extra stuff it was difficult to get this review together because it only takes about 90 minutes to watch the actual film, it takes upwards of 3 hours to dig through all the stuff here.
Struck from a pristine negative, the Piranha BluRay is flawless. There is not an artifact to be found, no film scratches, no blurs, nothing. The sound is crisp and well balanced too.
The commentary with Joe Dante and Jon Davidson is entertaining and breezy. It's funny to hear Joe Dante describe his feelings as he started cutting the film together that he'd shot the worst film in history. It's amazing to think that he didn't realize how good this was back then. I mean, he must've seen some of the other New World Pictures that were being edited back then? Right? Anyway, aside from that revelation the commentary spans the who's-who of the production to discussions about working for New World, to deconstructing many of the scenes as they spool out.
So, as far as animals gone wild films go, Piranha is closer to The Monster that Challenged the World than Jaws, but it's fun as hell, funny, and plenty bloody. And, for monsters, piranhas beat giant rabbits any day.