Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
Directed By: James Cameron / Ovidio G. Assonitis
Starring: Tricia O’Neil, Lance Henriksen, Steve Marachuk, Ricky Paull Goldin, Ted Richert, Leslie Graves, Carole Davis, Connie Lynn Hadden, Arnie Ross, Tracey Berg, Albert Sanders, Anne Pollack, Hildy Magnasun, Phil Colby, Lee Krug, Sally Ricca, Ward White, Ancile Gloudon
1/2 (out of 4)
“I believe ‘The Spawning’ was the finest flying piranha movie ever made.” – James Cameron
Where, oh where, to begin with Piranha II: The Spawning. I suppose I should start by saying that it’s so very Italian – not Fellini-Italian, but Bruno Mattei-Italian. Oh, sure, the credits list mostly American actors and there’s a now-famous American director’s name attached, but the soul of this movie is still very much of the low-budget ripoff variety that has the fingerprints of one Ovidio G. Assonitis all over it. If you’ll recall, Ovidio G. Assonitis is the “rip-off king” who made it big in Italy delivering incomprehensible exploitation flicks like like the Beyond the Door, Tentacles, and The Visitor. A quick check of credits also reveals the cinematographer to be Assonitis-favorite Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli and that nice orchestral/prog piece you are hearing belongs to Stelvio Cipriani (whose music in Tentacles is also worth a listen). But they want to tell me that this is James Cameron’s baby? I don’t think so.
Not that I’m a massive Cameron fan or anything – frankly, I think his more recent work is overrated and that he peaked with Terminator 2. But if I had to guess, I would say that most of the underwater scenes and some of the scenes involving interaction of the main characters (Henriksen, O’Neil) are probably his. Rumor has it that Assonitis took over after about a week of filming, which seems evident when watching this glorious mess of a film. Piranha 2 not only rips off Jaws and Jaws 2, but it forgets that Dante’s Piranha was a parody of Jaws. This movie tends to play it straight (when not indulging in cringe-inducing comedy involving unattractive older women trying to get laid) – but it’s hard to play straight when you are dealing with mutated, flying piranha fish.
We start off with a couple going on a dive which leads to them getting naked and doing the deed next to a shipwreck – underwater. How it is possible to have a make-out session at the bottom of the ocean with no oxygen is beyond my knowledge, but this obvious disregard of self-evident truths seems to leave a school of angry piranha fish very disturbed. Soon enough, they are fish food, and then we have the opening credits. (I’m willing to go with the idea, however, that this is a clever takeoff on the cliche of couples having sex before being killed.) Then we meet Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin) and his mom Anne (Tricia O’Neil) in a hotel room at the local Caribbean resort called Club Elysium, and they’re just a little too close for comfort to be mother and son, if you get my drift. Anne is divorced (or maybe separated) from Chris’ dad – Police Chief Steve Kimbrough, played by the awesome Lance Henriksen, who does an impression of Roy Scheider’s Brody character until it comes time for O’Neil to do it (when the resort owner fires her for having the gall to warn him about killer piranhas). Working hard to win Anne’s affection is fellow diver Tyler Sherman (Steve Marachuk), who accompanies her to the local morgue after one of her diving students gets chewed up real good by an unknown sea creature. That will teach you to go diving near shipwrecks that say “Access Restricted by Order of the Navy.” The best part is when the morgue attendant later walks in and is attacked by a winged piranha that flies out of the corpse (looking suspiciously like the chestburster from Alien, which is funny considering that Cameron will do the sequel later). Later, Anne speculates about mutant strains of fish, making the only reference to the original film about the army experiment (and confirming that the piranha never made it to the ocean as the original film suggests).
Well, it turns out that Tyler isn’t who he appears to be, and some babes get eaten, and Chris gets lost at sea with his new girlfriend (the late Leslie Graves), and many of the resort guests get attacked on the beach. Anne, Steve, Tyler, and Steve’s trusty Jamaican friend Gabby (Ancile Gloudon) plot to blow up the wreck, supposedly killing all the mutated piranha, although I have no idea why they would assume that. There’s plenty of blood, but the impact is lessened considerably by the so-fake-it’s-hilarious effects, which mostly involve brief shots of rubbery, squeaky things (that remind me of vampire bats) biting into the necks of unfortunate victims. Whatever you do, try not to notice the strings or the victims holding onto the little monsters while they take away chunks of flesh instead of batting them away. At least Cameron/Assonitis doesn’t let the camera linger too long. Piranha 2 is not a good movie, but I suppose there’s enough boobs, blood, and stupid human behavior to make it appealing in a campy way.
There’s also the performances of main players Henriksen and O’Neil to think about, who are way above the material. They play their characters straight, but it works well here. Cameron would use Henriksen later in Terminator and Aliens, but poor O’Neil didn’t do much beyond TV guest star roles (although she did play the captain of the Enterprise C in Star Trek: TNG, which counts for something among us geeks). Piranha 2 is a stupid, beer-and-pizza flick all the way – it makes Piranha look like Jaws – but there is a certain goofy charm to it. There’s not much of Cameron’s touch here that you would see later, except for his preference for strong heroines and adequate underwater sequences (and maybe some of the dialogue). I would recommend it for Cameron and Henriksen completists. Another reason to recommend it – it’s still better than Titanic and Avatar.
- Bill Gordon
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