This is the first entry in my Summer Movie Monster series. Here is where we will look at some great and some not so great aquatic fare looking to make you lunch. Naturally JAWS is at the top of the list but there is no fun in starting with the best. Instead I give you Piranha 78’ one of the first movies to intentionally spoof the mother of all summer horror flicks. In so doing it launched numerous sequels and remakes as well as garnered itself a respectful cult following.
Piranha 78’ wastes no time in letting the audience know it’s not taking itself too seriously. Within the first ten minutes our leading lady, Heather Urich, is paying homage by playing a Jaws video game before boarding the plane to Piranha town. Heather was sent to discover the whereabouts of our inaugural victims aka skinny-dipping hikers. It was after all the 70s and apparently no one swam with clothing. More on this later.
She makes her way up river and to the house of the stereotypical reluctant male lead. He’s gruff, drunk, and only connection to the world is his daughter in camp on the river. Foreshadowing in this film is anything but subtle. Upon further investigation we get to my personal favorite movie trope, the military base. Veteran actor Kevin McCarthy is Dr. Hoak or the researcher in charge of mutating, breading, and smartening-up our ill-tempered fish. He emerges screaming as the barrier between his breading tanks and the river is breached. Now we are off and “swimming”. (Terrible pun but this is schlock so it’s acceptable).
The danger is now apparent and the Dr. is captured by our heroes to be turned in for “unnatural practices”. Bradford Dillman our leading man known for his work on the Dirty Harry series now tries everything to get in contact with his daughter on the opposite end of the river. This is the last in U.S. history that a head councilor would deny, believably, a father’s request to talk on the phone with his child. You root for this councilor to bite it all movie and spoiler he doesn’t. That’s my only complaint. As a side note, use this movie to demon straight what miserably low standards for safety summer camps at that time had. Minors camped 10 feet from the river were left unsupervised while the female councilors attempt to night swim. Naturally this occurs in the nude, remember it’s the 70s.
We are treated to two major swarm scenes illustrating the budget and effects. Swarms of piranha are seen in shadow dragged across a blue screen. Blood is liberally applied to the water with few actual bite scenes shown. There’s much whaling and gnashing of teeth to sell the point. One occurs naturally at the summer camp where we lose a camper in the innertube laden water. The other happens a new resort opening up that has been silently invested in by the general in charge of the Piranha project. Hence, the coverup and denial by the town officials. Like Amity Island this town makes its money on the tourist trade.
Many lives lost before our heroes make a PSA about water pollution and determine to use it to kill the killer fish. An old submerged treatment facility alluded to throughout the film is tapped and pours sludge into the river. Granted it makes for a good scene but little attention is payed to the lasting effects on the community.
For blood and gore as well as sheer capitalization on a bankable idea I give this an A+. It is fun, a little dirty, and at times thrilling which is all you need for summer water themed monster movie. This is good schlock.
I give it 3.5 screens.
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