If you were a 12-year-old when Jaws came out, you probably saw it three or four times, and then shared wonderfully childish ideas with your friends on how to make the movie even better. "It shoulda been TWO sharks! No, two sharks and a whale!" And then one of your cleverer pals would add "Nah, it should be a school or barracuda ... or piranha." And then you'd sit there and wonder how damn cool it would be to see a movie in which a giant school of barracuda (or piranha) went looney and ate a bunch of people.
So that's probably how Roger Corman came up with the idea for the 1978 release Piranha, which is a clear and obvious rip-off of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), but (and here's the important part) it's a B-movie knock-off that also manages to find its own unique spins, tweaks, and deviations from the Jaws template.
And no, it's not nearly "better than Jaws," but of the countless knock-offs, rip-offs, and retreads ... let's just say that Piranha still holds up rather well today and makes for a perfect half of an "animals run amok" double feature. At least a whole lot better than schlock like Great White, Jaws 3 and 4, and Corman's own Up from the Depths. As usual, the effects artists deserve high praise on a Corman production, and Piranha is noteworthy in that it gave some early work to Rob Bottin, Phil Tippett, and Chris Walas (among others), names that any monster maniac should know by now.
Starting with the Jaws formula but squeezing an unexpected amount of wit and cleverness from a borrowed concept, young filmmakers Joe Dante and John Sayles collaborate on a bald-faced copycat flick that, because both filmmakers had something to prove, turned out to be a whole lot better than your average B-movie. Full of slyly effective humor and more than a few creepy moments of fish-on-human mega-carnage, Piranha focuses on a small Texas town that, unfortunately for all involved, becomes a nautical highway for a giant school of genetically-engineered super-piranha. On the menu? Random character actors, an unwitting summer camp full of cute kiddies, and (of course) a "swanky" new resort run by a broadly stingy schemer.
On hand to help save the day is a local drunk turned reluctant hero, an ineffectual "skip tracer" woman who is actually to blame for all the carnage, and a mad scientist who lives just long enough to explain how a South American fish could manage to survive in a Texas river. Which leads to my favorite thing about this flick: the pace. It just keeps moving! Early kills, hero intros, another kill, a semi-quest section, some exposition, carnage, chase, more carnage, big finale. Neat, quick, efficient, and slick. Sayles amuses himself by poking a little fun at the military, Dante keeps the set pieces chock full of enjoyable jolts, the cast is a fun collection (with lead Bradford Dillman quite good, and Dante pals Dick Miller and Paul Bartel adding a lot of color), and there's a nicely impressive balance of real-deal horror and wise-ass wit. Piranha is not a satire or a parody, but it's well aware of the kind of flick it is, and it has no problem winking at the audience to let you in on the joke.
Essentially, Piranha is the best example of how to do a B-movie knockoff, and (as is often the case with Mr. Corman's best productions) the difference lies in who you hire to create that knock-off. That so many great filmmakers cut their teeth with Roger Corman (especially in the late '70s and early '80s) and moved on to great careers is a simple testament to the man's skills as a film producer. He always strives to give the genre fans what they paid for, and in some cases, he delivered even more. I'd call Piranha one of Corman's very best films...
...which is a great segue into this rather awesome new Blu-ray release from my new best friends at Shout! Factory. Much like they did with recent releases Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World (review here), this team has treated Piranha like a film that's just been scheduled for inclusion in the American Film Archives. Not only is the film presented in a frankly lovely (widescreen! hi-def! blu-ray!) format, but the sound is vastly improved, and the extras are (of course) a real treat. Old-school fans will note that the Joe Dante / Jon Davison audio commentary has been recycled from an earlier DVD release, but that disc has been out of print for a long time ... plus the chat-track is really great. D & D strike the perfect balance between production stories and laid-back banter, and it certainly helps that both are sharp, interesting, funny guys.
The 20-minute retrospective featurette, however, is brand-new, and it offers new interviews with Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and actors Belinda Balaski and the immortal Dick Miller, along with several amusing anecdotes and fond memories. Also included are ten minutes of archival "behind-the-scenes" footage, seven minutes of bloopers and outtakes, a handful of additional scenes that were used in the network broadcast of Piranha, and a ton of radio spots, TV ads, theatrical trailers, posters and stills. Oh, and a reversible DVD cover and a booklet with an essay by DVD producer Michael Felsher.
Bottom line: the flick scared the hell out of me as a kid, it amuses me endlessly as an adult, and I'm thrilled to own these sorts of "b-movies" on the blu-ray format. Hats off to Shout! Factory for treating these movies like actual movies.