Of the myriad killer-fish flicks that followed Jaws (1975), the tongue-in-cheek Roger Corman production Piranha is probably the most beloved. While not a great movie by any measure—or even, quite frankly, a particularly good movie—Piranha is endearingly self-aware, satirizing its own silliness even as it delivers enough gore and nudity to please B-movie enthusiasts. Directed by the exuberant Joe Dante with a tip of the stylistic hat to Jack Arnold, the pulp specialist who made the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the cheaply produced Piranha tells the slight story of a summer resort getting attacked by a school of genetically engineered fish. The piranhas were created in a government facility, then accidentally released by a bounty hunter (Heather Menzies) and a mountain man (Bradford Dillman) while searching the government facility for signs of missing teenagers. (The teenagers, naturally, were the piranha’s first victims.)
Most of the picture comprises a Huckleberry Finn-inspired rafting trip during which the heroes, along with a loopy scientist (Kevin McCarthy), slowly discover the piranhas’ lethal potential. After being captured by and escaping from nefarious government types (who, of course, want to cover up the crisis), the heroes try to prevent the killer fish from eating all the young swimmers at the resort, which lies dead ahead on the river.
Boasting a whimsical screenplay by future indie-cinema star John Sayles, Piranha actually suffers for having too many jokes, because the wiseass tone and the chintzy special effects make it impossible to get frightened. Luckily, Corman stalwart Dick Miller steals the show with his thoroughly enjoyable performance as the resort’s cantankerous owner, because it’s fabulous to watch him keep a straight face while saying things like, “Don’t bother me about the goddamned piranhas!” Dante refined his jokey approach to horror with later hits including Gremlins (1984), and the killer fish he released into the world proved durable. No less a figure than James Cameron was hired (and fired) as the director of the awful sequel Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), and the original movie was remade with even more gore and nudity as Piranha 3D (2010).