Piranha has been publicly acknowledged by Steven Spielberg as “the best of the Jaws rip-offs”, but that somehow seems to sell it slightly short. A sharp, snappy classic in its own right, Piranha bites hold of one's attention from the start and refuses to let go.
Two mountain hikers stop off at an apparently-abandoned army site one moonlit night and decide to go for a spot of skinny dipping in the decidedly murky pool there. They are promptly eaten by piranha. A private investigator and her guide searching for the pair some weeks later then find their belongings by the pool and decide to drain it into the local river, inadvertently releasing several hundred mutant piranha (stress “mutant”) in the process, resulting in one of the most obvious cause-and-effect scenarios in all of cinema history.
Looking back nowadays, it’s clear the pedigree of talent was perfectly suited to the task – executive producer Roger Corman’s legendary exploitation creature features, director Joe Dante’s love of gimmicky B-(and C-)pictures and John Sayles’ exceptional skills as a screenwriter, but I can only assume that this film came as a very pleasant surprise to a late 70s audience dreading an inevitable slew of dreary aquatic-beastie films.
The supporting cast should make any genre fan sit up and take notice – Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele, the terrifically grouchy Dick Miller, Keenan Wynn, who all play it half-straight-faced – and an orchestral score of surprising quality and beauty from the sorely underrated Pino Donaggio. The effects often aren’t spectacular – the fish are all too obviously on rods in close-up and many of the optical effects of the fish swimming towards the camera are shockingly poor, but many of Rob Bottin’s flesh-mincing make-up appliances are superbly effective and fake blood is sloshed everywhere with generous abandon (indeed, it was only with this release that the film was downgraded to a '15' from an '18').
Aside from a remarkably assured solo directorial debut, Dante proves himself to be a superb editor – the film’s fast pace ensures even the most fidgety viewer can rest assured that another piranha-related death is never more than a few minutes away, and the disintegrating raft sequence is a particular testimony to his skill.
To lay it straight on the line, the film is a model of its form – delivering gore, laughs, genuine tension and even self-referential in-jokes that don’t make you feel physically ill, it remains a refreshingly gleeful little horror comedy that retains its energy, charm and a wonderful, long-lost sense of showmanship to this day.
Oh, happy day! Screened only a couple of times by Channel 4 in its correct widescreen version, the film gets its first ever release in its original aspect ratio, and anamorphic to boot. Removing picture information from the top and bottom and adding to the sides, this is far more satisfying than the R1 fullscreen framing, and, for me, a chapter is closed. I’m very pleased to report that I honestly can’t imagine the film looking much better. Colours remain strong, but not artificially over-saturated as with the R1, grain is minimal (except in the night-time sequences, which is to be expected), detail is sharp and clear and it doesn’t have the overly digital-processed gloss of the R1. A superb catalogue transfer from MGM.
An adequate job – mercifully lacking the background hiss and occasional pop of the R1 track, everything comes through fairly well, though still slightly muffled and subdued, especially when compared to the far richer and less-compressed sounding foreign soundtracks.
Indeed, one is positively spoiled for choice when it comes to spoken languages here – French, Italian, Spanish and German are all options, and subtitles are available in English, German, Spanish, Dutch, French and Italian (closed captions for English and German are also available).
A sole theatrical trailer is offered here with an English soundtrack, but calling the film “Pirãna”, along with 16 chapters and static menus.
This R2 sadly misses out on the extensive and terrific extras of the R1 version – commentary, bloopers, behind-the-scenes footage, press book reproduction, the US trailer, talent bios and plenty of Corman trailers are all missing.
A superior audio/visual presentation, but a lack of extras means that if you have to buy one version, you should probably go for the entirely respectable R1 release, and casual fans may want to wait and pick the R2 up in a sale. Rabid fans, like myself, will want both. In any case, the film is highly recommended in any form. Buy it, watch it, and watch it again.