Piranha (1978)/Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981)

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With a fun-looking 3D instalment due at cinemas in the very near future, it’s surely time to visit both of these movies. Okay, sane viewers may just want to watch the first one but I never claimed to be sane.

Piranha – I love Jaws. It is my favourite movie of all-time and I can’t see that changing. Movies that try to emulate Jaws, however, tend to somehow miss the essence of greatness that was contained in that movie. Oh, I really like Deep Blue Sea for what it is but it’s no Jaws. This movie, perhaps surprisingly, actually comes the closest to capturing the spirit and excitement of Jaws, despite major differences in the plot points. It’s probably no coincidence that writer John Sayles would go on to also pen the similarly entertaining Alligator.

This is a Joe Dante movie and, as such, you know what you’re going to get. A whole lot of loving references to movies past, a selection of great character actors who were never A-list (including the rightly beloved Dick Miller) and fun from start to finish.

The story? A school of mutant piranha are accidentally released into a river system leading through a kid’s camp, a grand gala day and then ultimately to the sea. If they make it all the way through then it could spell disaster. It’s up to plucky Maggie (Heather Menzies) and reluctant guide Paul (Bradford Dillman) to try and save the lives of those getting their feet wet, avoid the pesky military who are the ones responsible for the SNAFU in the first place (sort of) and survive the whole ordeal with the flesh kept on their bones.

It’s a creature feature and nothing more, really, but a hugely entertaining one with a nice balance of character moments amongst the razor-sharp teeth. The acting is all pretty good, and always entertaining even when it’s not up there with the best examples of the craft.

The titular nasty nippers? A good use of sound and flurried watery scenes make the most of things without showing too much but when we do see the fishy feeding frenzy in full effect (try saying that after a few pints) it’s all handled most competently and never breaks your suspension of disbelief.

With appearances from Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele and one briefly seen, yet lovingly remembered, little lab monster thrown in there at random, yet another great turn from Dick Miller and one of the best jail house escape sequences ever shown this movie remains a fun throwback to the 50s-60s monster movies, a fun Jaws “rip-off” and a genuinely entertaining movie in it’s own right.

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning – In many ways this sequel (even if it’s almost in name only) to the fantastic Joe Dante movie is a truly, truly dire movie. Yet, in some ways it has a certain goofy charm that can’t be kept buried underneath the awful premise and varied acting skills on display.

It’s even more fun to watch this nowadays as an interesting look at the very first feature effort from James Cameron (whom I greatly admire or his humour and acceptance of the movie being simply what it is), a man who would go on to become “king of the world” thanks to quite a different aqua-related movie.

The plot sees winged fish attacking some people who hang about at a Caribbean island resort. Those who start to put the pieces together include a scuba diving instructor (Tricia O’Neil), her ex-husband who happens to be the Police Chief (Lance Henriksen) and some cocky guy who may know more than he lets on (Steve Marachuk). As things become clear, our plucky leads realise that other people are more concerned with the impact on their finances than the people at risk. It’s a familiar pickle and leads to a familiar second half as the peril gets closer and closer to home.

What this movie lacks in talent, tension and impressive set-pieces it admirably tries to make up for with gratuitous nudity, some witty banter and the occasional attack by a flying fish (obviously). That’s definitely not enough to make this movie any good but it does stop things from being boring which, considering the silliness of the main premise, would have been a cardinal sin.

There’s really nothing here showing signs of Cameron’s talent (probably due to the film being taken over by Ovidio G. Assonitis, who also recut the footage after Cameron broke into the editing room and cut his own version) but the watery environment and the presence of Lance Henriksen at least provide a couple of accidental motifs. Hey, you have to work with what you’ve got, right.

DIRECTORS: JOE DANTE/JAMES CAMERON
CAST: HEATHER MENZIES, BRADFORD DILLMAN, KEVIN McCARTHY, DICK MILLER, BARBARA STEELE/LANCE HENRICKSEN, TRICIA O’NEIL
RUNTIME: 94 MINS APPROX/84 MINS APPROX

Piranha Film Rating: ★★★★☆
Piranha Part Two: The Spawning Film Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Like the reviews? Want the films? Buy them using the links below

Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981)

Piranha (1978)

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