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Two teen hikers break in to a disused military research facility in the hills near Lost River Lake, and are attacked when they discover a pool and decide to swim. Maggie McKeown is a private detective charged with the task of finding the missing couple. After bullying a local drunkard, the pair trace them to the research base. During a struggle with a caretaker who confronts them, a panel switch is activated, inadvertently releasing an experimental strain of mutant piranha fish into the river - creatures which have adapted to cold water conditions, and are just as bloodthirsty. Now everyone along the lake and river is a potential victim: summer camp kids, locals who live and fish on the river and, perhaps worst of all, an entire community in celebration...
This film unashamedly exploits the success of Jaws - even down to one of the characters seen playing a Jaws arcade game. The plot, such as it is, follows very similar lines, with lots of people enjoying themselves and the mayor refusing to heed any warnings until a bloodbath ensues. Roger Corman was a well-known B-movie filmmaker. He produced some gems and (let’s be honest) some turkeys too. Piranha was a low budget race against time. There were many single takes, and plenty of quick-cut editing tricks, both to keep up the pace of events and to prevent the viewing audience from looking too closely at the cheap effects.
The job of directing the film went to the then untested Joe Dante who, with the restraints of time and money still managed to garner a more than healthy income from the finished product. When the film was released in 1978 it made a minor splash in the industry. Unfortunately, today’s viewing public will no doubt find the proceedings pretty slow and mundane. Furthermore, it has its silly moments, such as how easily killer fish get released into the river (a fight over a switch), and the government official who falls (or, rather, throws) himself to the attacking Piranha. The remake of recent years is undoubtedly a more refined, sexy and gruesome film, but I’m an avid supporter of the underdog and just love the stories of people who cut their teeth against the odds, showing early signs of the greatness to come - such as the then seventeen year old make-up and effects wizard Rob Bottin.
Extras include an Audio Commentary by Joe Dante and Jon Davison, and old cine-footage filmed at the time, showing the Piranha on sticks and everyone having a great time except Joe Dante who was under great pressure. There is a Making of... which interviews many of the cast and crew, a series of Outtakes, a Stills Gallery, and Radio and TV Spots (i.e. trailers). A good example of the story behind the film being better than the film itself.