Case Number 19401


Shout! Factory // 1978 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // August 2nd, 2010

The Charge

Whitney: "The piranhas..."
Buck Gardner: "What about the Goddamn piranhas?"
Whitney: "They're eating the guests, sir."

Opening Statement

When Piranha was about to be unleashed on theaters back in 1978, Universal Studios considered suing New World for ripping off the plot of their 1975 blockbuster Jaws. Fish chomping down on people, terrified resort guests, and screams to "Get out of the WATER!" all seemed far too familiar. The man who stopped these threatened legal proceedings? Steven Spielberg saw an advance screening, and proclaimed the spoofy killer fish story was good fun and he "loved it." And so Joe Dante (Gremlins) got to see his horror comedy sent out without a hitch, and even got a blessing from the blockbuster director he was stealing from. Piranha remains one of the best rip-offs of Jaws, and it is a little cult film that refuses to die with a new incarnation in each decade. James Cameron (Avatar) directed the 1981 sequel which featured flying fish, there was an updated 1995 television adaptation starring William Katt (The Greatest American Hero), and a 2010 3-D remake stars Jaws alum Richard Dreyfuss. Piranha even hits Blu-ray before its inspiration gets official release in high definition. Jaws may not be on the shelf, as of this writing, but this one is out as part of the Roger Corman's Cult Classics line of Blu-rays from Shout! Factory.

Facts of the Case

Two teenagers go missing after skinny dipping in the wrong pool. During an investigation the local town drunk (Bradford Dillman, The Swarm) led by a a lady skip tracer (Heather Menzies, Sssssss) drain a mysterious cement pond and accidentally unleash mutant piranha that were being developed by the army. "Operation Razorteeth" is now heading downstream, and the killer fish are going to eat their way through resorts filled with unsuspecting tourists and wreak havoc on a summer camp. Can anybody stop the man-eating school of fish before they ravage the river and make it to the ocean?

The Evidence

This movie is pure and simple fun B-movie cheese without any trace of pretension. Part of the charm of Piranha is director Joe Dante seemed fully aware he was making a cult flick, and cast it appropriately enough with legendary horror stars and unknown Playboy models. Appearances are made by Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), Belinda Balaski (The Howling), Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood), and Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000). Supporting them are quite a few nubile young ladies willing to take off their tops before they sleep with the fishes. To make sure they died spectacularly Rob Bottin (The Thing) and Phil Tippett (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) were on hand to make plastic fish look scary. You'd think with all this talent the film would be pretty good, and it certainly works better than it ever should. Still, it's a ridiculous horror movie that won't make anybody afraid to jump in a river. Thankfully, Piranha knows where it's heading the whole time and gleefully goes there with tons of blood and sly winks at the audience.

This is a brand new widescreen 1.78:1 transfer for the Blu-ray. A previous 1999 DVD featured a full frame look at the film, and this restores Piranha back to a theatrical look and feel. It is overly grainy, but that's surely a result of the source print and true to the original presentation. The 1080p details ensure this is the best way to see Piranha outside of getting in a hot tub time machine and heading back to 1978, and even then it would be debatable if you would see the colors this vibrant or the image this clear. The colors pop convincingly, and there's killer contrast between the blue water and the crimson blood. Sound is a two channel stereo which is pretty close again to the first incarnation. Shout! Factory has avoided creating a false five channel mix for a film that was basically in mono back in the day it was made.

There are only one or two new extras that have not appeared on DVD, but it remains a strong package. First up is a brand new for Blu-ray twenty minute "Making Of" featurette with recent interviews from Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, and other key players from cast and crew. The documentary is in HD, and offers us the history and explanation of Piranha. Another notable extra is twelve minutes of additional footage that was part of network television showings to pad for length when nudity and gore were excised by censors. Some of these scenes actually appears in the film proper, but there are extra beats that are fun. These are shown in a pretty rough looking full frame giving us a nice reference to how well the feature was restored. Also included are a blooper reel, behind the scenes footage which consists of home movies shot by producer Jon Davison, stills from effects master Phil Tippett, TV commercials, radio spots, and a theatrical trailer with Davison commenting over it. Also ported over from a previous release is an eleven-year-old commentary track featuring director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison. They make an entertaining pair, and the discussion provides a guide on how to make a killer fish movie cheaply and quickly.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

There are a couple of things to consider when looking at this film on high definition players with widescreen televisions. Piranha was designed for a drive-in screen and probably not the clarity of 1080p resolution. Apparent now more than ever are rods, strings, and the obvious plastic nature of the swarming fish thanks to the visual upgrade. I suggest smearing vaseline over your television screen in order to faithfully replicate what audiences saw in 1978. And if you are thinking this "oh so superior in widescreen" transfer shows you more information than the previous full screen release, consider this. In the commentary director Joe Dante reveals the film was shot in full frame as if it were heading straight to television, so it was the widescreen version that was cropped. They never had to "pan and scan" to format this one for cable or network showings. So if you have that old twentieth anniversary DVD it might be worth holding on to as a visual reference for the original print.

Closing Statement

Movies don't come much more fun than Piranha, and this B-movie thriller delivers just fine on Blu-ray. This killer fish tale offers just as many giggles as screams, and the blood flows freely to keep your mind off the primitive effects. Some of the seams may show, but you can't imagine it ever looking better. They've added an insightful round of interviews with cast and crew, as well as kept every extra offered from various DVD releases. Another nice touch is the packaging is reversible with two possible covers thanks to a double sided insert featuring different poster images. There is even a substantial booklet with more photos and an essay from Michael Felsher. There's a lot of fish to feast on in this one, and its certainly offers a school of extras as well as a nice clear transfer.

The Verdict

Guilty of featuring man eating sushi in a Texas river!

Review content copyright © 2010 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 92
Audio: 84
Extras: 98
Acting: 72
Story: 68
Judgment: 83

Perp Profile
Studio: Shout! Factory
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary
* Bonus Scenes
* Featurettes
* Bloopers/Outtakes
* Photo Galleries
* Radio/TV Spots
* Trailer

* IMDb