Creature Features in Review: Piranha (1978)
I remember back in the late eighties, a school friend of mine let me borrow a pirate VHS tape he had. He wanted to borrow my copy of Robocop and so was offering his tape in exchange. I loved horror as a kid (no shocker there) and back in the days before people really paid attention to the certification in shops etc., I used to frequent my local newsagent to rent videos (for a whopping 50p a go!) which going by the often gory and bloody cover art I was far too young to be watching. Nonetheless, I rented video nasties without issue and so at that point I had seen a lot of films already, but the two on this tape were new to me, even if initially I thought it was a single film.
Piranha slugs? Never heard of it,’ I said, looking at the handwritten scrawl on the label.
‘No, it’s two films. One is called Piranha, the other is called Slugs.’
Bonus! Two for one! Curious to watch these two new horrors, I handed over my copy of Robocop and took the piranha Slugs tape home to watch. Weirdly, Slugs based on the novel by Shaun Hutson was also one of my favourite films of the 80’s. Who would have thought that around 20 years later the very same Shaun Hutson would be consulting on a script I’d written based on a book I had also written for a feature length movie I was making! Weird how things work out.
Anyway, this isn’t about Slugs, this article is about the first film on that tape, Piranha.
I remember watching that tape I borrowed a couple of times and then never watched the movie again. I’m pretty sure I liked it, although if you were to have asked me the plot until I sat down to watch it today I wouldn’t have been able to give more than a basic premise. So here we are in 2017 about to watch the 1978 classic again for the first time since I borrowed that scruffy pirate VHS. How will it shape up? Let’s see. I’ll be checking off the classic horror tropes as we go!
We open with a young couple walking through a foggy wooded area at night. They come to a sign which warns them not to trespass but SHOCK HORROR they ignore said sign and climb under the conveniently broken wire fence with the man (who is wearing a HUGE backpack) claiming it was all fine and nothing bad would happen.
STUPID TEENAGER? CHECK!
We all know things never end well for people who say such things. Minutes later they arrive at an enclosed pool of sorts. This being an 80’s horror film, everyone loves to swim and because of the need for nakedness in such films, the pair strip off and we see out first bit of naked flesh
The girl pushes the guy into the water (lucky for him he’d removed his huge backpack) technically murdering him but we’ll get to that later. The girl dives in after him and the boy complains that she’d bitten him under water. The girl, of course, denies this but doesn’t have time to say much else as the man starts to convulse and shake in his best attempt to emulate the opening scene from Jaws as the water turns red. The girl kind of floats there for a while, just watching unharmed until the unseen fish apparently remember to eat her too. We cut to a shot of the moon as we hear her scream. We see our opening titles then go into the film proper.
We open on ANOTHER homage to Jaws as a woman who is really far too old for such things is playing a video game of the movie. Said woman is leaving the city to go look after a summer camp and although slightly ditzy, is clearly going to be a key player. She gets on a plane and we cut away to a lake and a young bearded man buying booze from an old bearded man. I suspect one or both of these will meet a grisly end. I also realise I remember next to nothing about this film! We shall see what happens!
POTENTIAL FISH FODDER? CHECK!
We cut away from the manly beard fest to the ditzy woman again, who after playing Jaws and getting on a plane is now driving a jeep across rough terrain. The jeep breaks down, smoke pouring from the engine. We cut away AGAIN to a shot of a fish in a frying pan. It’s young bearded man! Before he can eat, there is a knock at the door and its ditzy woman! Maybe the bearded man isn’t fodder but a love interest? Hmmm, possibly!
POTENTIAL LOVE INTEREST? CHECK!
Ditzy isn’t there by accident, she’s looking for our bearded friend, verifying that his name is Paul and telling him that she, in turn, is Maggie and that she works for a skip tracing company. Bearded Paul asks her what that is, and I’m glad because I don’t have a clue either! It turns out a skip tracer is someone who finds missing people. Bearded Paul (still holding his fish in the frying pan) asks if his ex wife sent her. Maggie says no, and she’s looking instead for the stupid kids from the pre credits sequence. The ignorant Paul is standoffish with her and after a bit of back and forth about where the teens might have gone, Paul (who is still trying to eat his bloody fish) mentions something about a nearby army facility where the kids might have gone swimming. Ignoring all rules of being polite, and despite it being clear that Paul is eating, Maggie demands he take her up there. The cheek! I definitely think this is a love interest situation. Despite being standoffish, I would bet anything Paul turns out to be a good guy and hero. I still reckon old bearded guy from earlier is going to get it though.
I ACT LIKE A DICK BUT YOU WILL LEARN IM A NICE GUY CHARACTER? CHECK!
Apparently knowing he won’t get to eat in peace anyway, he agrees and we join them in Maggie’s jeep (now repaired again without explanation) as they jostle down the bumpiest road I have ever seen. If they tried to film this today health and safety would have a heart attack!
They arrive at the facility and encounter a locked fence with a warning sign. That doesn’t matter to Maggie. Who the fuck reads signs anyway in this film? Especially warning ones. She decides to cause criminal damage and smashes the padlock off the gate with an axe, thus allowing them into what is clearly a restricted area.
I KNOW THERE IS A WARNING SIGN BUT WILL IGNORE IT ANYWAY? CHECK!
Paul follows her in as she commits trespass, taking a big swig from his canteen which I suspect is filled with something other than water. A little way down a dirt road they find what looks to be an abandoned facility of sorts. Paul follows, looking suitably bored and also rocking the world’s largest belt buckle. Really, you should see it! Even though the place is clearly empty and they had to break open a gate to get in, Maggie calls out to the teenagers I the hope they will answer. They continue to look around and come to a pool which looks suspiciously like the one from the pre credits section. Maggie finds a locket by the side of the water which belonged to one of the missing teens (no clothes though? Maybe the fish jumped out and ate those too?) Confused, Paul sits on the edge of the pool and dangles his fingers into the water. We cut to an underwater shot looking up and hear what sounds like a dozen fish gargling mouthwash. It seems Paul Is about to be bitten when…he pulls his hand out of the water just in time! Phew!
CLOSE CALL WHERE ONE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS ALMOST GETS EATEN BUT DOSENT? CHECK!
Maggie wonders if the bodies might be at the bottom and so commits further trespass by breaking into one of the buildings in search of a way to ‘pull the plug’ on the pool. I don’t see this ending well….. They find themselves in a research facility of sorts. Maggie finds a cup of half drunk coffee that is still warm. My guess is the person who was drinking it has gone to find out who broke the lock off their gate and let themselves in….. Undeterred, they continue their illegal break in and move into another room, this one housing a full Frankenstein-like laboratory complete with a weird animatronic creature which looks like a miniature T-rex with a sharks fin as it skulks about on the table. Paul drinks some more, probably wondering why his agent got him this role. The lab is full of jars containing all manner of unidentifiable creatures. Mutations it seems! One particular creature in a tank of water looks a hell of a lot like that big worm thing that ate the Millennium Falcon in the Empire Strikes Back. Paul finally decides they should leave but Maggie sees something and hurries across the room. It’s the massive backpack and the clothes of the missing teenagers! Ahh so that wasn’t a plot hole and the fish didn’t eat them. Fair play! Maggie says she thinks they should drain the pond, to which Paul says (bear in mind this is after breaking and entering, criminal damage and trespass) that they probably shouldn’t do that without getting someone’s permission!
Maggie clearly doesn’t give a shit about the rules though and drains the pool anyway, just as the person who had left the cup of coffee returns, demanding, rightly, to know what the hell they think they are doing. The attendant (who works there and has every right to be there) tries to stop the intruders who have broken in and have no right to be there from draining the pool, but Paul and Maggie fight him off and stop him. They can add assault to the list of potential charges when Maggie beats the shit out of him from behind with Paul’s huge metal flask, knocking the guy out.
Leaving the unconscious attendant where he fell, they go to the now drained pool and find lots of bones at the bottom. The lab attendant, still groggy and likely concussed, in the meantime steals their jeep and tries to escape, rolling and destroying it, almost killing himself in the process. Maggie and Paul rescue him and he wakes up later patched up and in bed back at Paul’s house after they have rescued him. He begins to rant and rave screaming to be let out.
CRAZY GUY WITH A DIRE WARNING? CHECK!
He tells them they have made a mistake and ‘they will breed like flies and will kill us all’ they leave him in bed, wild eyes and mumbling to himself. Maggie quizzes Paul about his drinking habits and asks if it had anything to do with the death of his wife. They talk for a while. I can see where this is going! My love interest theory is coming true I think!
Next morning they decide they need to get the injured lab assistant some help, but with the jeep out of action, they decide to take a raft down the river to get some assistance.
We cut next to a lakeside camp. A young girl is afraid to swim. Like a scene out of Friday the 13th before Jason arrives, the camp counsellor convinces the young girl that it is perfectly safe to swim. Another councillor, this one a dick with no people skills, belittles the kid and tells her she’s stupid to be afraid and that she should show guts and swim or they will lose the competition later that day. The nice councillor ushers the young girl back to the group. I think we’ve just set up nasty councillor becoming fish food!
From here we go back to old bearded drunk and I know for sure he’s about to croak! He’s drunk and sitting on the edge of his mini dock with his dog fishing, with his FEET IN THE WATER. This won’t end well… As suspected, old drunk’s feet get savaged. We hear him scream as the water turns red in a frenzy. Before we see anything else, though, we cut away AGAIN. This time to the raft with is carrying Paul, Maggie and the injured guy downstream at the slowest possible pace considering the poor guy could need urgent medical attention. Paul tries to question the guy about the facility but he won’t talk. He sees Maggie trailing her fingers in the water and snaps at her to not put her hands in there. She asks why and he tells her the water is filled with carnivorous piranha. Maggie asks how they got there, conveniently forgetting SHE LET THEM OUT IN THE FIRST PLACE until the lab guy reminds her. Before further argument can be made, the raft rolls past old drunk’s dock. He is missing and only his dog remains, barking at them. Curious and because there is apparently no rush to get the lab assistant the help he needs, they move the raft closer to investigate. They tie onto the dock and follow a blood trail back towards old drunks house where they find him dead with his feet reduced to the bone. Despite the urgency of the problem and the injured man waiting on the raft, Paul goes to look for a shovel to bury the old drunk as he wouldn’t want to be buried in town… Shouldn’t they be telling the police???
We cut away again to a canoe. A man is reaching into the water trying to untangle a fishing line as his son sits at the back of the boat. Something bites him but instead of jerking his arm out of the water and any normal person would, he leaves it there to ensure the fish can eat/kill him with ease. The boat tips over and the boy climbs onto the overturned hull. We cut away again to the raft which is once again moving s-l-o-w-l-y down the river. We learn that the lab assistant guy is actually a scientist who was tasked by the Army to develop a strain of carnivorous fish which could survive in cold and either fresh or salt water to be used as a weapon to flood the rivers in Vietnam, however, the war ended before they could be used. Paul realises there is a summer camp down the river and finally begins to speed up the raft!
We cut to said camp where kids are playing in the water. Back on the raft, Maggie and Paul blame the scientist for everything, forgetting that SHE pulled the plug. Further arguments are stopped when they encounter the canoe from earlier with the boy still on top of it. The scientist jumps in the water to help and starts to get eaten in the process, not before he can save the child though and redeem himself. The child is pulled onto the raft and Paul pulls the scientist out of the water, taking off his not one but TWO jackets and covering the scientist. He asks in vain how to stop the piranha, but the scientist dies before he can answer. Sadly, his arm is trailing in the water and the piranha attack the raft to try and get to the body. Paul Maggie and the boy barely make it to land before the raft is eaten. Paul tells Maggie to stay with the boy whilst he runs to the dam to stop them opening it and releasing the killer fish into the wild. Paul makes it just in time before they can be released. Next thing we know, the army have arrived to save the day! They say that because Paul and Maggie are the only ones who know about the killer fish, they ask them to join the team to stop them. Paul points out a river fork which goes around the dam and potentially gives the piranha a way into the open world. Rather than listen to this valid and good point, the army laughs it off and says it’s fine as the fish are not intelligent enough to know there is another way, even though the fish were being deliberately bred to be intelligent. Hmmmmm…..
STUPID DECISION BY THE ARMY? CHECK!
Paul and Maggie decide they have to take action themselves to stop the Piranha, and after Maggie causes a distraction, by flashing her lady parts at a random soldier and the two make their escape into the night. Paul makes a phone call, which is picked up by nasty camp counselor from earlier who was asleep in what looks like a bedroom ripped straight from a children’s TV programme or musical. Paul tries to warn him but he just says Paul is a drunk. Paul then asks to speak to his daughter (he kept that quiet!) and is also told no, which I think is probably not legal, then nasty councilor hangs up the phone and goes back to sleep. Taking their stolen army truck (how many laws are these two going to break??) they race to the camp at speed, only for the police to follow and pull them over and arrest them, taking them off to the station. (At last) the police call the army who tell the officer to keep them there. Both are locked in a cell and told they would be there until the morning. Paul begs to be let loose to help his daughter but to no avail.
At the camp, two female councillors are sitting alone. At night. On the dock. Talking about swimming together. Before they can dive in, nasty councillor interrupts them and reminds them swimming at night is prohibited. They send him off to the other side of the lake, certain they heard someone over there swimming.
Back at the prison, Maggie adds to her huge list of illegal activities by enticing the sole remaining guard into her cell to fix a faulty sink (which she deliberately broke off) then knocking him unconscious as they make their escape. So that’s also assaulting a police officer and jailbreaking to add to the list! They race towards the camp, hoping to make it in time as the Aquarena party kicks into action. Lots of people are in the water and having fun. Uh oh.
At the children’s camp, a swimming contest is about to take place! Paul and Maggie are now on the way to the scene, now in a stolen police car!
At the camp, all the children are in the water ready for the swimming contest apart from the one kid from earlier who was afraid of the water. Nasty councillor finds her and tells her to get in the water, no excuses. This guy is definitely a dick. He is distracted and the girl manages to get away and hide. Back in the water, the nasty councillor is waist deep, running the relay races between groups of kids in rafts. Paul and Maggie are speeding and almost cause a head-on collision. Meantime we see shots of the piranha making for the children. They attack and start eating the kids! That would never fly today so good one for the 80’s!
The piranha are now fucking everyone up, even nasty councillor gets a piranha to the face when one jumps out of the water and bites his cheek .only the scared girl is safe in her hiding place. She sees everyone is being attacked and tries to push a canoe into the water but she is too small to move it. Instead, she finds a rubber dinghy and gets in it, paddling out to help her friends. The kid reaches the two stranded councillors in a rubber ring (the ones who had been nice to her). One escapes onto the raft, the other gets taken by the piranhas. Our two fugitives from the law arrive just as most people are getting out of the water.
It turns out the young kid who was afraid of the water is the one which is Paul’s daughter. I must have missed that as I wasn’t sure which one. Maggie calls the aquamarina party to warn them but they laugh it off, so she and Paul jump into their stolen police car to go there in person. We cut to lots of shots of people having fun in and around the water. Shit is about to go down! Yep, I was right. Two divers are first to go. I reckon this guy water skiing is next….. The guy water skiing sees a bloody body floating on the surface which has been eaten by the fish. He tries to warn the two girls in charge of the speedboat to take him in but they think he’s joking. There is a huge on water crash between two boats and lots of fire. Nice. Meantime, the piranhas have reached the party and are starting to eat the guests! Much mass panic and overacting follows as people try to escape their fishy killers! Paul and Maggie arrive amid the death and chaos. As they haven’t broken a law for a full five minutes, they decide to steal a speedboat. Maggie wants to know where they are going. Paul has some vague plan about poisoning the fish if they can be drawn to where they are. However, the control unit to release the pollutant into the river is submerged under water (what a surprise). Paul ties a line to himself and the boat tells Maggie that after 100 seconds if he’s not back to accelerate the boat as he can’t hold his breath any longer. With that, he dives into the water.
BRAVE ACTION HERO SACRIFICE? CHECK!
Paul swims into the submerged control room and tries to turn the valve to release the poison into the water. The valve is stuck though, and he keeps trying to turn it as the piranha arrive and start to eat him. He manages to free the valve, spilling poison waste into the water! Yay! Just then, when it looks certain Paul will die, Maggie reached her 100 count and accelerates, pulling Paul to safety and speeding away. She stops a little further away and pulls in the rope, but it is severed and bloody. She screams as a bloody hand belonging to Paul launches out of the water.
We cut back to the party where they injured are bring helped and the dead are being taken away. A reporter asks one of the scientists who was with the army if there is any danger of the few remaining piranhas escaping to the ocean. The scientist says no, it’s impossible as even if they did they couldn’t survive in salt water, which we know is false as we learned earlier that they could!
SEQUEL BAIT! CHECK
The movie ends with a shot of a sun-drenched beach as we hear the sound of gargling piranha somewhere in the distance. And that was Piranha! As with a lot of low budget films of the period it hadn’t aged particularly well and some of the acting was a bit suspect. All in all, though it was a fun nostalgic trip which was nice to revisit it again! in fact, I’m going to watch the sequel now as I don’t remember that one either!
Michael Bray is a bestselling author / screenwriter. Influenced from an early age by the suspense horror of authors such as Stephen King, Richard Laymon, Shaun Hutson, James Herbert & Brian Lumley, along with TV shows like Tales from the Crypt & The Twilight Zone, his work touches on the psychological side of horror, teasing the reader’s nerves and willing them to keep turning the pages. Several of his titles are currently being translated into multiple languages and he recently sold movie rights to his novel, MEAT with production planned to take place in 2017. A screenplay written by Bray / Shaw based on their co written novel MONSTER was picked up for distribution by Mandala Films, with both Bray and Shaw set to produce / direct the movie, taking his career into new territory as he looks to write more for both the literary world and the screen.
Keep in touch with Michael Bray by following his website!
This entry was posted on July 13, 2017 by Thomas S Flowers. It was filed under Horror, Movies, Reviews and was tagged with 1978, Barbara Steele, Bradford Dillman, classic monster movies, Creature Feature, creature features, Creature Features in Review, Dick Miller, eco-horror, film reviews, Gore, Grindhouse, Guest author, guest contributor, guts, Heather Menzies, Horror, horror movie reviews, Joe Dante, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Bray, monster movies, movie reviews, naturalism, Piranha, Reviews, thrillers.