Hungry for You

Heather Menzies plays Maggie McKeown, a skip-tracer sent to track down two missing teens who disappeared while hiking one night on a mountain in Texas. And as is the case in most of these pictures, the youngsters in question met with foul play while more or less naked. The Powers That Be have always feared teenagers, never more so than the late ‘70s, and movie studios have obliged by gleefully killing them off. In order to justify their irrational bloodlust, directors would rub out the adolescent punks in question after they’d committed some possibly illegal and definitely boneheaded infraction. In the case of the two Brainiacs in “Piranha,” not only do they break into a top secret military installation, but they decide to take a dip in a tank surrounded by weird machinery and containing things that look suspiciously like cages. I won’t be violating any international spoiler accords by reporting that the tank does, in fact, contain piranhas. Darwin would’ve been proud.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s rent-a-Jeep has broken down on the way to the teenagers’ last known whereabouts. Fortunately for our intrepid reporter, she has fetched up at the doorstep of the mountain’s resident drunk, Paul Grogan. Paul is played by Bradford Dillman, also of Corman’s talent stable (typically, just about every significant actor in the film has some prior connection to New World). Why is Paul a drunk? It seems his wife left him. That’s it…his wife left. Nowadays, our movie heroes have to suffer some sort of dismemberment or devastating psychological trauma in order to dive into the bottle, but back in the ’70s, divorce was apparently still sufficiently shocking. Happily, all Paul does is drink, fish, and drink, so Maggie has little trouble convincing him to accompany her on her search.

Our plot has to move along, so the pair soon finds the military base – obviously not as well hidden as the Army would like to believe. Since nothing must get in the way of investigative journalism, they break in to the base’s laboratory, which has sound effects straight out of “The Far Out Space Nuts.” Only instead of Bob Denver they’re set upon by Dr. Hoak (“Innerspace’s” Kevin McCarthy). Hoak tries to prevent their interfering, but to no avail (he’s Kevin McCarthy, after all; one look at him and you know he’s a raving maniac). Dispensing with the good doctor, Paul and Maggie drain the tank to search for the teens’ bodies, conveniently flushing the piranhas into the local river.

Our felonious duo (for a couple of people who’ve just broken into a government installation and assaulted a scientist, Paul and Maggie are remarkably blasé) jump aboard a raft to head down the river and continue their investigation. Fortunately, for a possibly confused audience, Dr. Hoak has been dragged along. After they discover the suspiciously gnawed corpse of the mountain’s *other* resident drunk, Jack (Keenan Wynn, who should’ve learned to avoid water after “Orca”), the good doctor finally spills the beans.

In a Dam Down by the River

It seems the military was funding a project to genetically engineer a vicious new strain of piranha – capable of surviving in both salt and fresh water – in order to sabotage river traffic in North Vietnam. After the war, the plug was pulled on “Operation Razorteeth,” as it was called, and Dr. Hoak was left on his own to tinker with the fish and lie in wait for horny teenagers. Shortly after we learn this, Hoak manages to thwart the justice system by sacrificing himself to save a young boy on the river, who really didn’t need saving, possibly to atone for his crimes. More likely just to spare us his babbling.

ASIDE: I’m sorry, but Operation *Razorteeth?* Did this start the whole trend of non-imaginative names for American military projects (culminating with last year’s “Operation Infinite Justice”)? What happened to cool names like “Operation Grubworm” or “Operation Mincemeat?” What name did they come up with for training attack dogs, “Operation Release the Hounds?”

Anyway, Paul and Maggie realize that there is little to stop these toothy bastards from swimming all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico (where, presumably, they’d be killed by refinery pollution from Freeport and Pasadena, but let’s not get bogged down in reality here), unless they can warn the unsuspecting campers at the dam downriver. Campers that include, wonder of wonders, Paul’s daughter Susie.

Inexplicably, Paul and Maggie stay on the raft even after they learn of this sinister scheme. If not for the fact that the evil fish start to eat the raft itself, the two might have slowly drifted all the way to the coast, making pithy comments about all the skeletons lining the river. Unfortunately for the fish, the two investigators make it to the shore and Paul is free to run to the dam and warn the operator not to release water into the lake, outstripping the raft’s ETA by a good 30 minutes in spite of the fact that he runs with roughly the same grace and athleticism as Julia Roberts.

Crisis averted, right? Think again chumps, because now the Army shows up (including walleyed Italian horror film diva Barbara Steele as the mysterious Dr. Mengers). And while they’re blundering about trying to wipe out the fish and keep the whole thing quiet, the piranhas have found a side route into the lake. Paul and Maggie now have to convince the Army and the local authorities, including sleazy real estate magnate Buck Gardner (Dick Miller, doing his best Murray Hamilton riff) of the threat. This proves to be somewhat difficult, thanks to Paul’s apparently legendary status as an alcoholic.

Keep fishin’ in part three of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “PIRANHA”>>>

Posted on November 15, 2002 in Features by

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