Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cinematic Dregs: Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

(1981) Directed by James Cameron and Ovidio G. Assonitis (uncredited) ; Written by Ovidio G. Assonitis, James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee; Starring: Tricia O'Neil, Steve Marachuk, Lance Henriksen and Ricky Paull Goldin; Available on DVD.

Rating: **

Is Piranha Part Two: The Spawning as bad as its less than stellar reputation suggests?  In a word, yes.  It’s not really a direct sequel to Joe Dante’s amusing 1978 Jaws rip-off, but a blatant attempt to ride the coattails of that former movie’s status as a minor B-movie classic.  First-time feature film director James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron) was fired from this Italian production early in the filmmaking process, and replaced by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis.  Cameron allegedly broke into the studio to edit the film, but probably nothing short of burning the negatives and starting over would have helped this mess.  Judging by the finished results, it’s no surprise that Cameron wanted to distance himself from this production in later years.

In the opening scene, a young scuba-diving couple frolic beneath the waves, unaware of the terror that lurks in a nearby shipwreck.  As their impromptu amorous encounter turns deadly, and the water turns red with blood, we’re promised 90 minutes of good trashy fun, but alas, those hopes are dashed early on (or vindicated, depending on your point of view).  The film is mostly populated by characters that you don’t care about, who are simply being set up to be the mutant piranhas’ next meal.

Considering the fact that virtually every choice made by the filmmakers was a bad one, I’m probably splitting hairs by taking issue with the title, but not much spawning goes on, except from the humans.  Most of the story, such as it is, takes place on a Caribbean resort.  Anne Kimbrough (Tricia O'Neil), a recently divorced scuba instructor for the resort, is one of the first to discover the piranhas.  She lives with her teenage son Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin), who appears a bit too close to his mother.  In one particularly uncomfortable scene, he sneaks up to her in bed with a wriggling fish – evoking some unintentional Freudian imagery.  It’s supposed to be playful, but just comes across as intensely creepy.

 Long, lost relative of Napoleon Dynamite, perhaps?

Lance Henriksen, who went on to have memorable roles in future Cameron flicks The Terminator and Aliens, does what he can with what little he has to work with as Police Chief Steve Kimbrough.  He seems eternally pissed off; sort of an angrier version of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody.  His mood isn’t too surprising, considering that his ex-wife is running around with handsome male tourist Tyler Sherman (Steve Marachuk).

But Tyler isn’t who he seems to be.  We eventually learn that he’s a U.S. government scientist, responsible for this new breed of piranha.  They were the result of an experiment to produce a hybrid species, genetically engineered for their ferocity.  Of course, describing them as a cross between piranha and flying fish doesn’t really explain why the fish are seen flapping their pectoral fins like bat wings, since flying fish don’t exactly fly, so much as glide.  I’m willing to concede that the hybrid piranha, a freshwater species, could live in saltwater thanks to the flying fish DNA, although I doubt the filmmakers were concerned with scientific veracity.

The unintentionally silly scenes work better than the film’s deliberate attempts at humor (such as a horny middle-aged woman prowling the beach for younger conquests and two nubile, and poorly dubbed, young women tricking a dimwitted hotel chef).  There’s something sublimely funny about watching the actors hold on to the killer fish as they’re being attacked.  In one of the movie’s most mind numbingly idiotic scenes, Chief Kimbrough unnecessarily jumps out of a helicopter and into the water to save Chris, even though his son could have easily rowed to safety on his own.  In another scene, one of the mutant piranhas suddenly flies out of a body in a morgue to latch onto a nurse’s neck.  The film is riddled with plot holes the size of the Bermuda Triangle – I never understood why the piranhas used the sunken ship as a base when they had the whole ocean to explore (although it becomes a convenient point for the film’s climax).

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning doesn’t provide very much for those seeking insight about Cameron as a young filmmaker, except for a crumb or two.   The underwater scenes, a familiar environment for Cameron, are at least competently shot.  The DVD is presented in pan and scan, which alters the original compositions of the shots, but don’t expect a director’s edition anytime soon.  Piranha Part Two: The Spawning falls into the category of so bad it’s nearly good.  In its defense, the movie works better as a comedy than many actual comedies, but you need to watch it in the right frame of mind (or state of inebriation) to appreciate it.  You can almost feel your brain cells dying off one by one as you watch this.  Two out of five stars is probably generous, but it’s hard not to feel at least a smidgen of affection for this level of ineptitude.


  1. I love reading about the actors having to hold onto the Piranha as it kills them. Funny stuff. I can understand why James Cameron would not want ot be inolved with this, but at the same time should learn to laugh at himself and be greatful Roger Corman gave him a job

  2. Well said! At least it was an entertaining 90 minutes!

  3. I think that it would be interesting to see how James Cameron would approach this material now.

    I'd love to see him re-shoot the film to see whether he could turn an obvious turkey like this into gold.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Gavin! It would certainly be an interesting experiment. Knowing how Cameron works, he'd probably bio-engineer his own species of fish specifically for the project.