Jaws is the original “stay the hell out of the water” summer flick, but you really can’t count the Piranha series out in terms of cautionary tales about never going swimming again. Piranhas may be much smaller than great whites, but they’re fast, they travel in packs, they have tremendous teeth, and they love human flesh. So what if they’re not actually found in the wild here? There are plenty of (generally implausible) reasons why you might encounter some piranhas while, say, skinny dipping in your local lake — read on to find out what they are!
A programming note: we’ll be discussing the five movies that are part of the Piranha series that dates back to 1978, but not the other non-franchise movies that happen to have confusingly similar titles. Those include the Amazon-set Piranha (1972); Russian action flick Piranha (2006); Italian drama Piranhas (2019), which uses the title as a metaphor rather than a literal reference; and of course the Asylum’s mockbuster Mega Piranha (2009) and Jim Wynorski’s made-for-Syfy Piranhaconda (2012).
5) Piranha (1995)
The first remake of the 1978 original was this tepid made-for-Showtime flick directed by Scott P. Levy. Story-wise, it’s mostly faithful to the first movie, but it’s missing that film’s sneakily self-aware humour, and it feels way more mean-spirited as a result. (An heroic dog and a kindly father dying in agony within five minutes of each other? Just… ugh.) A pre-That ‘70s Show Mila Kunis plays an imperiled camper, with a post-Punky Brewster Soleil Moon Frye as one of her counselors — casting that adds a small shred of interest to what’s otherwise a skippable series entry.
4) Piranha 3DD (2012)
It’s a direct sequel to 2010 remake Piranha 3D, and the fact that there’s a boob joke in the title, really lets you know right off the bat what you’re in for. The setting this time is a water park whose cheerfully sleazy majority owner (Anchorman’s David Koechner) has seized upon the idea to add “adult” elements to the park (like a combination pool and strip club with a “cooch cam” for underwater ogling), to the disgust of his level-headed stepdaughter (Arrowverse star Danielle Panabaker). This jiggly entry in the franchise is directed by John Gulager (Feast); features supporting turns and/or cameos by Gary Busey, David Hasselhoff (“as himself”), and Piranha 3D’s Christopher Lloyd; and is most notable for the scenes in which a just-hatched piranha enters a woman’s vagina while she’s skinny dipping, then chomps off her boyfriend’s penis when they have sex. Have CG effects ever served a purpose so gross, surreal, raunchy, and gut-bustingly goofy?
3) Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
James Cameron’s directorial debut (yep, let that one sink in) shifts the fish-centric shenanigans to the Caribbean, making it more of a spiritual sequel since it doesn’t have much to do with the events of the first film, though they do get a passing mention. The action centres around a resort hotel whose guests are targeted by perpetually hungry, recently escaped mutant piranhas — much like the first film, only these critters can freaking fly.
Future Aliens star Lance Henriksen plays a boat-riding local cop whose estranged wife (Tricia O’Neil) is a scuba instructor. Their jobs, combined with the fact that their teenaged son works as a deckhand, puts them in the line of fire when you-know-which fish start to bite… and burst out of corpses Alien-style, rip the throat out of whoever’s unfortunate enough to be nearby, then soar out of a window chirping like a bat, an actual thing that happens in Piranha II: The Spawning! Ridiculous? Yes. Hilarious? Also yes.
2) Piranha 3D (2010)
This time, an earthquake’s to blame for unleashing prehistoric (rather than genetically altered) piranhas on Lake Victoria, a resort area that’s overstuffed with squealing spring breakers, including a cheesy Girls Gone Wild-esque film crew. Oodles of CG-enhanced carnage ensues, of course. Alexandre Aja (who also made the surprisingly good remake of The Hills Have Eyes, as well as cult French horror movie High Tension), knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making here, which means plenty of gross-out scares but also the sort of humour that comes with a story that isn’t taking itself too seriously (and a fair amount of sexism, but that comes with the territory).
Elisabeth Shue plays the heroic local sheriff tasked with keeping the body count as low as possible, with a strong ensemble cast (including Ving Rhames, Adam Scott, Jerry O’Connell, Christopher Lloyd, Eli Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss — the latter in a cameo that sends up his Jaws character) backing her up. Also, if you’re equipped for 3D viewing, you can’t really beat the sight of vicious, toothy fish trying to gnaw their way off the screen. Oh, and a piranha literally eats a dick in this one, but it’s still not as repulsively memorable as what happens in Piranha 3DD, as mentioned above.
1) Piranha (1978)
The original, Roger Corman-produced film in the series is still, unsurprisingly, at the head of the class. Joe Dante (Gremlins) directs what’s ostensibly a Jaws rip-off that also borrows elements from the disaster movies of the era (a large cast sprinkled with Hollywood legends, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Kevin McCarthy and Black Sunday’s Barbara Steele) and campy creature features (John Sayles, a future two-time Oscar nominee, wrote the script).
After mutated piranhas are accidentally unleashed from an abandoned military facility — the remnants of “Operation Razorteeth,” a failed scheme to turn the Vietnam War tide by using the killer fish as weapons — the surrounding community (which includes a summer camp full of little kids; a newly opened resort run by Dante favourite Dick Miller; and a river the locals rely on for food, transportation, and recreation) soon comes under attack.
Much like Jaws, it takes nearly the entire movie for anyone in authority to admit that there’s a deadly threat looming, which means that Piranha’s third act is basically one long gruesome (yet lo-fi; the budget on this is strictly B-movie) feeding frenzy. The plot doesn’t make a ton of sense and neither does the “science” — but it’s still an incredibly fun monster movie.