Piranha (1978) Review

There is a little creature rummaging around the supposedly secure military base near Lost River Lake. It’s an unidentified little yellow… thing, a brief homage to Ray Harryhausen possibly, the slight similarity to the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth apparent. The creature is never seen by the characters, never spoke of, and never becomes integrated into the narrative. It’s just sort of there, gets a close-up, and moves on.

That’s what is so great about Piranha, certainly compared to the other no budget ’70s “animals gone berserk” tales like SSSSS! and Day of the Animals. Joe Dante has an appreciation for the sci-fi of old, and it shows. The villainous fish here are crafted from the old standby of radiation, and the genetic tinkering at the hands of (who else?) the government.

No one makes any claims that this is not a Jaws knock-off. The entire plot lifted right from the Steven Spielberg classic, no matter how sloppy is may be. The highlight, the assault on a new beach resort run by Buck Gardner (Dick Miller, who will forever have work as long as Dante is around), doesn’t even come into view until the final 30-minutes. Prior, it seems like the invasion of a summer camp will be the crowning achievement of these voracious critters.

Lost River Lake is filled with death, an entire string of scenes comprised of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) and Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) traveling down the river on a raft of all things, trailing just behind the school of rampaging fish, finding their victims at various states of the piranha dinner.

Even during its lulls when the fish are off-screen, we assume searching for a meal, Piranha has fun. The camp counselor Mr. Dumont (Paul Bartel) tries to reassure a girl who refuses to swim in the lake with, “People eat fish, fish don’t eat people.” Any other time, the boisterous and obnoxious counselor might be right, but not when Operation Razorteeth is in effect.

Surprisingly, not everyone who should die does. The military general gets his come comeuppance, instant karma after pushing people off a boat to save himself. Dick Miller though, he lives on, crushed in terms of his business, but still walking around. Apparently, Dante was building up his bad karma for Gremlins.

Movie ★★★★☆ 

That's the best shot of the Piranha possible @ 1:27:31

Shout Factory delivers an AVC encode for Piranha, generally adequate. The opening scene at night doesn’t produce deep enough black levels, causing bit of artifacting and compression to show through. It’s not severe, just noticeable. Once into the daylight and the search begins for the missing teens, the transfer remains pretty consistent.

Close-ups are fairly resolved, producing minutes amount of detail previously not visible on the DVD, which was also 4×3 cropped. This Blu-ray finally offers a widescreen 1.78:1 transfer. A claustrophobic shot of Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) at 21:29 produces some excellent facial detail, some of the best this transfer will offer. Dillman looks great 52:31, another low-light shot that succeeds. Black levels do crush ever so slightly, keeping shadow detail away.

Much of the film takes place in and around a forest. While the greens are generally vibrant, the amount of brush and leaves, combined with the grain, tends to produce a slightly muddy, compressed image. This is apparent at 25:22, where the definition simply isn’t there.

The film is reasonably soft, well within an acceptable range. The print used is rough in patches, the worst being at 36:45 where a line appears on the frame. This shot is repeated later. A slight haze creates a bloom effect to some of the photography, used only sporadically. The underwater stuff, despite the obvious attempt to filter the piranha, is clear and well defined. The attacks themselves remain sort of ambiguous, the fish generally moving too quickly to make anything out.

Video ★★★☆☆ 

A PCM 2.0 mono effort is enough to provide the source material cleanly. It’s actually surprising how well the dialogue holds up, save for those few scenes where the recording method seems to take a dive. The jail as the deputy refuses to hear Dillman’s plea carries a distinctly live echo that makes the lines almost unintelligible. Paul Bartel’s lines suffers a similar fate around 27:40, his lines possibly dubbed over or simply distorted due to age.

The minimal score is clean, maintaining crisp highs with almost no defects. During the frenzied finale, with panicked swimmers splashing about and screaming, the music remains well defined and prominent. This seems to have been preserved well.

Audio ★★★☆☆ 

Joe Dante joins producer Joe Davison for a lively commentary track, and they continue chatting over some great footage taken behind-the-scenes that lasts 9:35. A making-of is also worth watching, a nearly 20-minute look at the film’s genesis and production.

Bloopers run 6:48, followed by a 12-minute collection of scenes added for the TV release to replace the excessive gore and nudity. A photo gallery credited to Phil Tippett is full of stuff, including storyboards. Trailers and other promo material round out the extras.

Extras ★★★☆☆