In the eighties we lived on Gray Street, Whitby, in an area of terrace houses known as The Railway. Every Tuesday evening a nice chap called Phil came from Loftus in his van selling fizzy pop by the bottle and VHS video tapes to rent. We’d often have a cherryade, two lemonades and something like Piranha, plus a comedy with Chevy Chase and a Disney cartoon for the kids.
The tapes often hadn’t been rewound by the previous renter and sometimes there were sections that were damaged producing an onscreen snow blizzard and necessitating the use of the trusty head cleaner tape. Ah the golden years of VHS exploitation films and frighteningly dayglo fizzy pop.
Piranha sadly didn’t quite live up to the memory. Two lovers looking for somewhere private to ‘make out’ stumble across an old rundown research facility on a mountain. They throw caution (and their clothes) to the wind and dive in a forbidding looking water tank. Unfortunately hungry teeth await their American high school bodies and suddenly they’re fish food.
A whiskey swilling redneck (Bradford Dillman) and a female reporter (Heather Menzies) search for the missing teens, find the facility, have a set to with the bloke who runs it (Kevin McCarthy) and accidentally activate a lever that sends genetically engineered, bloodthirsty Piranha into the river. Off they swim, stopping every now and again for a snack (dozy angler, unwitting rower, that kind of thing) and head for a riverside water park downstream, a resort that the local town mayor is especially pleased with because of its ker-chingability.
The special effects seem a bit lopsided, in the sense that when the reporter and the guy first go into the facility, a little dinosaur-like creature is moving around in the background among the specimen jars. It is stop-frame animated and must have cost quite a bit of effort and time to bring to life, yet the Piranha themselves don’t even move their fins. We don’t really see them close up, just as swiftly moving shadows in the water. During the carnage the jump cuts are so furious and scattergun that the shortcomings in the props department are just about covered.
Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Roger Corman, Piranha is clearly a satire on the Jaws phenomenon. Universal Studios were reportedly going to take legal action to prevent the film being made, until Stephen Spielberg offered positive support. Taken in context Piranha could hardly damage the Jaws franchise, because for the satire to work at all you’d surely have to see the giant shark movie first.
The original 1978 film spawned two remakes and remains a cult item. The previous two Film Night presentations seemed designed to discourage swimming, and this is clearly no exception. If you still, even after viewing these celluloid anti-swimming public information films, decide to take the plunge, don’t choose a shark infested beach, a secret army research facility or a black lagoon.