Maggie (Heather Menzies) is a private detective investigating the disappearance of two teenagers who went out hiking but never returned. With the help of a borderline alcoholic (Bradford Dillman) who lives out by the river, she discovers a top secret military base containing a large pool - a pool which holds deadly, genetically-enhanced piranha fish which are just waiting to be unleashed...
John Sayles scripted this aquatic horror, a blatant, cheerful rip off of Jaws. When Roger Corman set up his New World production company, not only were several successful movie careers set in motion, but several entertaining, low budget films were made as well - all far better than Corman's straight-to-video films of the eighties and after, where he seemed to lose his touch.
As with Jaws, authority figures are not to be trusted in Piranha. It is the scientists, the military and the politicians who have created this fishy problem, a project that was supposed to be introduced to the rivers of Vietnam to help in the now-finished Vietnam War. The scientists refuse to take responsibility for the little killers, and the military are determined to cover up the danger at the cost of innocent lives. The developers of the new river resort and the head of the summer camp are just as unreliable.
Of course, for all this to work you have to get people into the water in the first place, so Sayles has the characters get wet in pretty contrived ways, whether dangling their feet in the water, going rafting despite knowing the danger, or simply messing about on the river. Their behaviour can be excused by the spoofy tone of the film, but the attack sequences are played straight, and it's not just the baddies who get devoured.
The most incompetent character has to be Maggie, who is not only one of the most tactless investigators in the history of the movies, she also leaves her keys in her jeep thereby allowing it to get stolen, and, most importantly, lets all the piranha out into the river. Fortunately, she later redeems herself with her guard-distracting powers ("Are you gay?") and her jailbreak abilities.
There's witty dialogue and many little in-jokes such as Maggie playing a Jaws computer game at the start, or a bather reading Moby Dick at the end, but also plenty of nastiness to go around, and a not entirely happy ending, made even less happy by the poor quality of the supposedly James Cameron-directed sequel. Still, there are nice performances and enough action in the original to keep you amused. Listen for: Barbara Steele's strange way of pronouncing "piranha", and music by Pino Donaggio.
American director of science fiction and horror, a former critic who got his big break from Roger Corman directing Hollywood Boulevard. Piranha was next, and he had big hits with The Howling and Gremlins. But his less successful films can be as interesting: Explorers didn't do as well as he had hoped, but illustrated the love of pop culture that is apparent in all his work.