Piranha (1978)

Director: Joe Dante

Ah, now this is how you do a B movie: rubber puppets on sticks. And it comes complete with an endorsement from none other than Steven Spielberg, who called it the best of the films that knocked off his own megahit Jaws, which endorsement convinced Universal to call off their planned lawsuit against producer Roger Corman for releasing his film uncomfortably close to their own sequel. There were, of course, a number of Jaws knockoffs in the late 70s, indeed nature running amok seems to have been a popular trend generally in that decade, a goodly number of which crop up on the Drive-In Delirium list… in this case, though, nature’s been given a helping hand from US military science. These particular piranhas have been genetically altered to survive in cold salt water as well as their usual tropical fresh stuff, for the purposes of introducing them into North Vietnam’s water supply and fucking them up; unfortunately the war ended but one scientist saw no reason why that should stop him continuing the research… and even more unfortunately the fish are inadvertently released into the wild, so hilarity ensues… Piranha‘s critique of the Vietnam War and the US military is, obviously, not the most subtle offered by a 70s horror film, but I don’t suppose anyone was watching it for that back in 1978, they would’ve been there to see carnivorous fish chomping down on people, and Joe Dante gives us reasonably plentiful amounts of that. But he also laces the thrills with a certain degree of sometimes wicked humour; cf. the scene where our heroes (Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies, both of whom are terrific) are trying to get past an army guard, he tells her to try and distract him with her feminine charms and she responds “but what if he’s gay?”… and Dante also has the good sense to let his amazing locations do most of the work for him; the pursuit down the river to the summer camp and ultimately the lake is as impressive as hell to look at. I will confess to not having seen most of the other Jaws knockoffs Spielberg referenced, but I’m willing to accept his judgement that this was the best of them…

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