Bradford Dillman… where are you buddy at the reported age of 82? My friends, Mr. Dillman helped raise me considering he was on virtually every single Quinn-Martin television show as a guest star back in the seventies… including ‘Sword of Justice’, all ten episodes I watched voraciously as a little kid. Somebody somewhere put those ten episodes on DVD will you? Not to mention he usually showed up in the occasional B-Movie, which were the only movies my brother went to see so they were only movies I got to see. ‘Bug’ anyone? He’s probably most famous for being a blowhard dick Captain to Clint Eastwood in a couple of Dirty Harry movies, but the true Bradford Dillman connoisseur will always remember him for his stellar work in the Roger Corman / Joe Dante Jaws’ ripoff ‘Piranha’.
Barb and David are a couple randy kids going on a hike when they stumble upon an abandoned army outpost guarded by a rusty fence that clearly says ‘KEEP OUT!!!’. Which of course translates in teenage speak to ‘Please Enter’. At this place these kids spy a pool of festering, stagnant water so the kids jump in for a skinny dip. Piranha done got ‘em.
Apparently these kids are missed so Maggie the Master Skip Tracer (Heather Menzies) has been dispatched to rural Texas to find them. There she meets up with drunken stumblebum Paul Grogan (Dillman) who will serve as her guide while she searches for these kids. Being the master locator that she is, Maggie has determined these kids must be up at that abandoned base somewhere. I have no clue how she came to that conclusion. So Maggie and Paul check out the place, find some clues that indicate the kids must be there, Maggie figures they are at the bottom of the pool and decides to drain it. Maggie is an idiot. Out of nowhere crazed scientist Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) tries to stop her, I mean this dude was yelling and screaming and scratching, desperately trying to stop these loons from draining his festering pool, but did they listen? No, they bopped him on the head and set the Piranha free to terrorize the world.
Now we have a situation. The piranha are free, they are eating everything and everybody that crosses their path, plus Dr. Hoak has engineered these things to be smart, breed rapidly and to withstand salt water so if they make it out of their little lake to the sea… that’s all she wrote. Col. Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and his callous assistant Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele), the loons who designed the ‘Piranha as an WMD’ program, are on the scene to clean up this mess, with their cleaning up style being complete ambivalence. Besides, if they clean up this menace then there would be not one… but TWO unwise fun summer events that organizers refuse to shut down. Why do these dastardly water creatures only attack during summer fun events?
First there’s the fun summer camp to attack, which just so happens to have Paul’s baby girl as played by young actress Shannon Collins… okay, hate to get distracted but I clicked on Shannon’s name to see if the young lady, who’d be about forty now, is still working today. No she’s not, but she did show up eighteen years later in a cheesy sci-fi movie with Michael Pare in a movie called ‘Carver’s Gate’ playing the character of Nympho. Guess what Go Hastings is delivering to my door in a couple of days? WooHoo! Back on point, our piranha also have to attack some wacky water event hosted by the scurrilous Buck Gardner, as played by the legendary Dick Miller. The question is can Maggie and Paul race to the scene and save the day? The answer is ‘no’, oh hell no. Maggie and Paul completely suck at racing to the scene and saving the day. Worst Day Savers Ever. That’s cool though because we like watching piranha eat sunbathers and children.
‘Piranha’ was directed by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles and that in itself is some pretty heavyweight talent right there, though at this point in their careers back ’78 I’m sure their main concern was trying to pay their rent and eat. The thing is, Dante and Sayles involvement in this product is probably its biggest detriment when watching this movie almost thirty five years later. You see ‘Piranha’ is well written, competently directed and tightly edited. Who wants to see that from a thirty five year old ‘Jaws’ exploitation knockoff? We want cheese and flubbed lines and terrible dialog and poorly designed rubber fish. Come on now.
Still, ‘Piranha’ manages to contain a lot of goofy fun despite how competent it is. While the movie is called ‘Piranha’, the piranha in the movie got precious little screen time since I’m sure animating schools of tiny piranha can get pretty expensive back in ’78, so Dante relied a lot on the reactions of folks in water, who usually emerged from this water all f’d up, which was a very effective an economical approach which had to make papa Corman very happy. Bradford Dillman was legendary in his ability to overact, and he did not disappoint here yelling and screaming all through gritted teeth, and then watch Mr. Dillman have to run a virtual marathon to convince the Dam Operator not to vent the dam. That wasn’t overacting. That was a truly exhausted fifty year old man who I’m betting was pissed at hell at his director.
We also enjoyed that the Summer Fun Event wasn’t called off, not because the organizer didn’t believe there was a piranha menace, but it wasn’t called off because the organizer didn’t give f@#k. Of course one of the organizers was the scurrilous Col. Waxman who thought the event would launch him to riches, but he also knew that piranha were in the river, which would make Col. Waxman kind of dumb. And tell me that wasn’t the late Jerry Orbach, uncredited, playing a twangy TV reporter interviewing Barbara Steele at the end of the movie. It has to be Jerry.
To be honest with you I really only watched this to get to the real cheese, that being ‘Piranha II: The Spawning’. A movie that is reported to have erased all of the good will that was laid by this far superior original. We can’t wait.