Growing up in the Eighties, you quickly learn trends in movies. There were the teen romantic comedies, the overnight adventures, and, of course, this month's topic: the you should be afraid of summer camps genre. To the average kid, camp was scary enough: you had to go away from home for a minimum of a week, potentially without knowing anybody at said camp (introvert anxieties activate), and forced to do activities that you loathe (Why must I swim? Why is it not acceptable to read a book under a tree as a camp activity?). Let's face it, camp was easy for outgoing kids or those who could at least adapt like a chameleon to different situations. For the rest of us, anxieties crept up in some form or fashion, because we were being forced outside of our comfort zone.
Enter the horror camp movie genre, which highlighted the simple fact: you do not want to be trapped at a camp in the middle of the wood with a psychopath, and we are not talking about the pushy counselor of your cabin. Camp horror movies are big followers of the horror movie rules, which should not surprise you. Camps operate on rules, and when any of those rules are broken, then your chances of death increase. We will go over this more, including the most common camp horror movie stereotypes, in the weeks to come.
Today's selection, however, is an interesting hybrid, and in my opinion an underrated film not only in the camp horror movie sub-genre, but summer horror genre as a whole. It has the unique aspect of being three types of summer movies in one: the camp horror, the creature in the water (like Jaws), and the living in the middle of nowhere/cabin in the woods factor (à la Evil Dead) (you can additionally add a fourth element of government involvement, but that speaks to the whole oeuvre, not just summer films). That's right, we are kicking off "Happy Horrific Summer, Campers!" with Joe Dante's Piranha (1978).
The film starts out with a couple who decide to ignore "No Trespassing" signs and enter an apparently abandoned facility near Lost River Lake (Texas). They assume a body of water is a pool, but oddly not one I would want to swim in - not very appealing in my opinion. What happens next leads the slightly reckless investigator Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies-Urich) on their trail. They really do not explain why she chooses Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), apparently known as the local alcoholic, to assist her; she just stops by his cabin, knows his name, and does not back down until he agrees to help. He takes her to the abandoned government facility, where Maggie impulsively decides to drain the "pool." Enter Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) in a crazed state trying to stop her, but it's too late. There you have it all the factors needed to kick off a summer horror movie: genetically modified piranha have now been released into the river.
For this film, you will not "need a bigger boat," but it will equally keep you a little weary in the water. Do not get me wrong, Jaws is a masterpiece, but the difference between one large carnivorous fish and a plethora of tiny carnivorous fish, is simple. A shark only goes after one person at a time. When it comes to piranha, your chances of survival in the water are very slim. They travel in packs. They swarm. They are relentless killers.
Which brings us to the camp scene. This scene especially will leave you on the edge of your seat. It is one of the best of the horror camp genre, though it has a few other storylines (the Lost River Lake Resort grand opening - enter Dick Miller, the government cover up, the many potential victims along the river). Not only does Paul's daughter, Suzie (Shannon Collins), attend the camp after all, but you realize, even though the head of the camp is a bit of a pompous jerk, the female counselors (Belinda Balaski and Melody Thomas Scott pictured above) are compassionate, and caring. Yes, the children have intertubes, but no one is prepared for what happens and that adds a layer of fear and anxiety to the scene. For this scene alone, I hope you will give Piranha a viewing this summer season.
Though, if you do want to go into the water, you might want to wait a while. Check out the trailer below and be sure to stop by next Friday for another installment of "Happy Horrific Summer, Campers!" There are five Fridays this month, which means we have four excellent films to go.