Review: Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #708

Also known as Piranha 2: Flying Killers
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: December 1981 (Italy), November 5, 1982 (United States)
Sub-Genre: Creature Feature
Country of Origin: United States, Netherlands, Italy
Budget: $150,000
Running Time: 94 minutes
Director: James Cameron, Ovidio G. Assonitis (uncredited)
Producers: Chako van Leeuwen, Jeff Schechtman
Screenplay: Ovidio G. Assonitis, James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee (all credited as H.A. Milton)
Based on characters by John Sayles
Special Effects: Giannetto De Rossi
Cinematography: Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli
Score: Stelvio Cipriani
Editing: Roberto Silvi
Studios: Brouwersgracht Investments, Brouwersgracht Investments, Chako Film Company
Distributors: Columbia Pictures, (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
Stars: Tricia O’Neil, Steve Marachuk, Lance Henriksen, Ted Richert, Ricky G. Paull, Leslie Graves, Albert Sanders, Tracy Berg, Phil Colby, Hildy Maganasun, Carole Davis, Connie Lynn Hadden, Anne Pollack, Arnie Ross, Lee Krug, Sally Ricca , Phil Mullins

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Céline Dion “My Heart Will Go On (Instrumental)”

[2] Miami Sound Machine “Bad Boy”

[3] Stelvio Cipriani “Main Theme”

[4] One Minute Silence “Fish Out Of Water”

When Canadian filmmaker James Cameron anointed himself “king of the world” at the 70th Academy Awards back in 1998 after pretty much sweeping the board, I’d imagine there were a fair few eyes rolling. That said, when you run your eye over his near-faultless résumé, you could argue that he’d somewhat earned his regalia. Most filmmakers, even the undisputed greats, have the odd trough amongst their peaks, whereas Cameron’s output has been consistently excellent.

Indeed, I would say that five of his motion pictures have scaled the giddy heights of perfection – The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and… wait for it… Titanic. Lest we not forget True Lies and Avatar, neither of which brought any shame to the game, although folk seem to get a distinct kick out of hating on the latter. He may not be the most prolific filmmaker on the circuit, but he’s sure as shit one of the most successful and over $7 billion grossed worldwide is nothing at all to be sniffed at.

However, dig a little deeper into his archive, and there exists one rather significant blot on his copybook. The film in question is his feature-length debut, Piranha II: The Spawning, released in the UK under the far more fitting title, Piranha II: Flying Killers. To be fair, he was actually fired from the shoot two weeks in after numerous run-ins with Italian executive producer and control freak, Ovidio G. Assonitis, and had precious little bearing on the final cut. But his name was not removed from the end product as the studio were contractually obliged to attach an American name to the project.

Thus it still remains the sole skeleton in Cameron’s closet all these years later, regardless of whether or not his input was minimal. Assonitis had already managed to rub one set of feathers up the wrong way after “creative differences” led to original director, Miller Drake (another of Roger Corman’s graduates), abandoning the sinking ship. Some movies are just doomed from the get-go.

It all could have been so different for Piranha II: The Spawning as Joe Dante’s 1978 original became a surprise theatrical success after cashing on the craze kick-started by Steven Spielberg three years earlier with his prototypical summer blockbuster, Jaws. $16 million in box-office receipts was not to be sniffed at and, while Piranha was effectively a parody of Spielberg’s big hitter, it played things straight down the line and was a splendid little movie in its own right. History therefore seemed destined to repeat itself, although a fair few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that the freshwater fish of the title were about to clock up some air miles.

As preposterous as it sounds on paper, it made perfect sense to a wide-eyed kid like Keeper and, while the whole world expressed their grave doubts, I simply focused on the benefits. Alas, it was met by a wave of disdain (laced with ridicule) upon its release and I’ve never seen another airborne piranha since. Hilariously Cameron has since gone on record to proclaim it “the best flying piranha film ever made” and there’s your scant consolation right there.

Set shortly after the conclusion of the first film, the sequel relocates its audience to the sun and sand of a Caribbean resort, where divorced single mom, Anne (Tricia O’Neil), is putting her vast marine biology experience to sound use by working as a scuba instructor at an upscale resort hotel called Club Elysium. When one of her pupils goes missing whilst diving in a forbidden area and is later found chewed up almost beyond recognition, Anne’s estranged husband and local police chief, Steve (Lance Henriksen), is none too accommodating, even though the attack pattern doesn’t match any of the marine life she is aware of.

Meanwhile another of her students, Tyler (Steve Marachuk) soon reveals himself to be a biochemist and goes on to admit his involvement in a top-secret project entailing the splicing of genes from various types of fish to create “the ultimate killing machine.” To his credit, Tyler is keen to make amends, when not attempting (and succeeding) to weasel his way into Anne’s bikini bottoms that is.

Elsewhere, the remainder of the cast comprise the usual stereotypes. We have a pair of barnacle babes who like to bathe topless, a frisky slut who practically molests her boyfriend underwater, a Jamaican dynamite fisherman whose best defense against the incoming horde is to stand perfectly still and hope they don’t see him, a sex-starved cougar whose main claim to fame is that she killed her ex-husband by fucking him to death, a geeky cook with a speech impediment, a frizzy-mopped New Yorker who pretends to drown just to snag herself a rich dentist husband, a delusional millionaire who insists on being called “Captain” even though he doesn’t know his port from starboard, his ample-bosomed teenage daughter, and of course, an eccentric resort owner who flat-refuses to cancel the planned midnight “fish fry” event despite the fact that flying piranha are taking chunks out of the spring breakers. There’s even time for an impromptu Mr. Muscle contest just to drop the limbo bar even further.

Wanna know what all the above characters have in common? That’s right, lambs to the motherfucking slaughter every last one of them. In addition, while O’Neil, Henriksen and Marachuk can’t be accused of not putting in a shift, the acting quality dips considerably whenever they’re not on-screen. Things aren’t helped particularly by the fact that most of the voices are badly dubbed; although you could actually argue that this benefits the experience markedly.

However, there’s only one reason we laid out our beach towels and we are more than adequately catered for on that count. You see, Piranha II: The Spawning is a film in possession of but a single gimmick – flying piranha – and fly they bloody well do. Ambushing in schools as large as the budget affords, they flap their iddy biddy wings, leap out of water like the proverbial salmon, and curiously can survive long periods on dry land, making them one helluva potent threat.

If you forget for a second how ridiculous the whole kit and caboodle is from the ground up and hone in on the shameless entertainment it will provide you, then there are oodles of guilty pleasures to be had at its sole expense. We all know it is going to end in mass carnage, and when that moment comes (and goes a little too fast for my liking), it’s everything you’d want from a midnight movie about flying piranha.

But what amuses most with Piranha II: The Spawning are the conflicting reports of Cameron breaking into the editing suite and recutting the entire movie out of frustration and the fact that Assonitis, refusing to be beaten, then went through the exhaustive process of editing the whole thing over as a parting “fuck you” (although $1.7 billion in net worth suggests that it was Cameron who enjoyed the last laugh). The result is a B-movie in the truest sense of the word that did well just to escape the cutting room floor and achieves precisely what it sets out to. Say what you will about Cameron’s maiden voyage, but I concur with his bold suggestion that it is indeed “the best flying piranha film ever made”. I’d advise taking from that what you will.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: The thing about piranha is that they’re vicious little buggers and could strip a bullock to its marrow in the time it takes Justin Bieber to fill a mop bucket, perhaps even faster. Some of the effects may be a little on the crude side and the flying killers themselves resemble something you’d pick up for a buck at the local novelty store and still feel diddled, but their appetite for destruction is certainly not in question. Another reason for fellow Corman students to be cheerful is good old-fashioned harmless nudity and fans of eighties bush will be too busy admiring the groin mullets to spot any falling coconuts. In my neck of the tropics, we like to call that one “the easy win”.

Read Piranha (1978) Appraisal

Read Piranha (2010) Appraisal

Read The Terminator Appraisal

Read Aliens Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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