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Review Bites Franchise Frenzy: Piranha

Piranha (1978)

The crazy thing about the entire Piranha franchise is that despite them being goofy horror movies they have many big name Hollywood stars, talents attached to them.

The original low budget creature feature was produced by King of the B-Movies and Hollywood legend:  Roger Corman. Corman had a knack for discovering diamonds in the rough. For Piranha, Corman hired Joe Dante. Piranha was Dante’s first solo directing gig. Dante would go on to become one of the horror genres most versatile directors with such films as The Howling, Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, Gremins 2: The New Batch and Burying The Ex. In Piranha, one can see many of the tricks of the trade, much of the humour and much of the tone we would later see in Gremlins.

In someone else’s hands Piranha would have been complete shlock but Dante elevated the material he was given making it better than it had any right to be.

An investigator (Heather Menzies as Maggie McKeown) and her unwilling partner in crime, a local backwoods layabout (Bradford Dillman as Paul Grogan), stumble across an abandoned military facility. They accidentally release a genetically-engineered species of piranha into the local river which empties into a lake where oblivious residents and tourists alike will be breakfast, lunch and dinner unless something can be done to stop the blood-thirsty school of carnivorous fish.

You have to admire Corman and Dante for having the balls in 1978 to put an entire children’s summer camp in danger as many of them end up as part of a piranha potluck.

Piranha is many things. It is silly. It is vicious. It is fun. What it isn’t though is ever boring.

Watch on: Tubi (free), Plex (free).

Piranha II: The Spawning (1982)

Piranha II not only has vastly improved the little buzzsaws making them even more of a threat than their predecessors but is James Cameron’s directorial debut.

Yes, THAT James Cameron. The man behind The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic, Avatar, etc.

How long Cameron spent on the film is in dispute. Some say he directed the entire film. Some say he was replaced early on by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis.

Although this is a sequel to Piranha the setting has moved from the United States to a holiday resort in the Caribbean. Divers disturb a new bread of piranha who apparently never thought to leave the comfort of their sunken ship wreck of a home. The angry fish begin munching on and picking off the locals and tourists while a bickering separated couple, police officer Steve Kimbrough (Lance Henriksen) and diving instructor Anne Kimbrough (Tricia O’Neil), investigate the curious attacks.

The difference with these troublesome piranha is…they can fly. Because of this, Spawning has more in common with The Birds than Jaws. The attacks escalate to a full-on assault on the resort with the flying fish tearing through people like hand-held chainsaws.

While the monster effects are light years better than the original there is a lot of really bad, really cheesy seventies-eighties humour you have to wade through to get to those moments including a bimbo who is in love with a doctor in a sub-plot torn right from The Love Boat or Fantasy Island. The dippy and outdated TV-movie-of-the-week soundtrack just makes the happenings even more featherbrained.

Lance Henriksen would go on to be a Cameron regular starring in The Terminator as well as Aliens.

Watch on: Amazon, itunes, The Darkside of the Internet.

Piranha (1995)

If you have seen the original Piranha there is absolutely no need or reason to watch this made-for-television, Showtime remake. Roger Corman produced this redo for the network using the same plot, script and even the same special effect shots as the original with very few changes.

Baywatch’s Alexandra Paul stars as Maggie McNamara and House’s William Katt is Paul Grogan. In her first movie role ever, a 12-year-old Mila Kunis is Susie Grogan, Katt’s young daughter.

Watch on: Amazon, Crackle (Free), Darkside of the Internet.

Piranha 3D (2010)

I never got to see the 3D version in theatres but I am sure it would have added another level to this already zany horror comedy.

Piranha continues its tradition of drawing upon talented directors to guide, shape and add some style and polish to its cheesy narrative. This time it is Alexandre Aja from High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes 2006 and P2 who gets the call-up and he too heightens and upgrades what is essentially a dopey story.

After fans are treated to one of the best in-jokes, best cameos in horror history as well as an earthquake releasing prehistoric piranha back into the world, we hit the shores of Lake Victoria, Arizona, where Spring Break is in full swing with booze, breasts…and yes, even blood…but that will come soon enough.

Nerdy outcast Jake Forester (Steven R. McQueen, the grandson of Steve McQueen) is in love with Kelly (Jessica Szohr) but finds himself in lust with porn actress Danni (Kelly Brook). Jake is hired by sleezy director Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) as a location scout. The actual porn movie must be an HBO or Showtime production because it the most tame, limp porn movie you will ever see. It is more like Girls Gone Wild than New Wave Hookers.

The rest of the cast is impressive. We’ve got Ving Rhames, Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd and even scream queen Dina Meyer joining forces to save Spring Break from those ravenous piranha.

The special effects, kills are the best of the series yet including a gruesome accidental death caused by the spinning blade of a boat motor.

Piranha 3D is pure, crazy camp and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Everyone involved seems to revel in the fact that they are in on the bad joke and senselessness and want nothing more than for you to come along on an absolutely ridiculous ride with them.

Watch On: Amazon Prime, Hulu and The Dark Side of the Internet.

Piranha 3DD (2012)

The franchise’s trouble with direct sequels continues as Piranha 3DD is actually much worse than Piranha II: The Spawning. All of the cleverness has evaporated and all we are left with is a water-logged swampy mess that isn’t even so bad that its funny. It is just plain bad.

Danielle Panabaker (The Flash TV series,  Friday the 13th (2009), The Crazies (2010), Time Lapse) is Maddy. This is a Piranha film so naturally Maddy is a marine biology student. She is at odds with her stepfather Chet (David Koechner) over plans for their mutually owned waterpark. Chet has added an adult section which features a bevy of naked entertainers and their breasts. Maddy is not amused by this.

The rest of the film unabashedly follows the Friday The 13th blueprint with dopey teenagers getting devoured by fuming fish in imaginative ways rather than a hockey-masked killer. The highlight (or low point depending on your point of view) is a sex scene which climaxes with a piranha latching onto and chewing off a horny teen’s penis as it bursts from another horny teen’s vagina. One would think the scene probably plays out better (or worse depending on your point of view) in 3D.

These outrageously gory scenes are all that Piranha 3DD has going for it though. Unless you are a die-hard completist, you can torpedo this soggy sequel.

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