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Piranha II: The Spawning
Tonight's Feature Presentation

PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981)

Starring: Tricia O'Neil, Steve Marachuk, Lance Henriksen, Ricky G. Paull, Ted Richert, Leslie Graves

Written By: H.A. Milton Directed By: James Cameron

The Short Version

Ever wonder what would happen if James Cameron wasn’t allowed to throw money at a project?

Cameron doesn’t like to admit that he directed this.  What a shock, but he’s got some points.

No sense of horror + no sense of humor + poor pacing = dull.

It’s almost too dull to be worth lampooning.

You only watch Piranha II: The Spawning deliberately as a challenge; either that, or you hate James Cameron and need fuel.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AMERICAN.

A poor excuse for cheese that the rest of the world calls “wax.”  It has next to no flavor and often leaves an oily aftertaste.


Pairs Well With...

A TWELVE PACK OF MILWAUKEE'S BEST.

James Cameron suggests that this movie is much better by the second half, assuming a six pack of beer is involved.  I don’t think a sixer is enough.  Better make it cheap; better make it Beast.

“It’s an excuse to get drunk and rowdy, basically.”


Once again, Roger Corman displayed his exploitation filmmaking genius when it came to the sequel to his latter day drive-in classic, Piranha.  Specifically, he knew to sell the rights to make the inevitably crappy sequel to someone else.  That someone else was fellow B movie hotshot Ovidio Assonitis, whose name could be the punchline to many jokes that I will resist brining up here.  Assonitis, in turn, decided to give the director’s chair to a first-timer who had previously done work for Corman by the name of James Cameron.

Yes, that James Cameron.

This is where things start to get dicey.  After a week of allowing Cameron to behave like a normal director, Assonitis decided that he didn’t like the newcomer’s style and started to go the bully route.  He still let Cameron do the filming, but that was it.  Assonitis banned Cameron from the editing room and didn’t even let him have a look at the footage he shot once it was in the can.  Cameron tried to sneak into the editing room and splice his own cut anyway, but Assonitis caught him and undid Cameron’s edits.  As a result, even though this is his first feature directorial credit, Cameron likes to contend that he didn’t really direct the film.  Technically, he has a point, but some of his style is still there anyway.  Not that I can blame him for distancing himself from this flick, mind, even if Cameron good-naturedly calls it the best flying killer fish movie ever made.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of credit, “H.A. Milton,” the alleged screenwriter of Piranha II: The Spawning, doesn’t exist.  That is instead a collective pseudonym for Olivio Assonitis, James Cameron, and Charles Eglee.

I’m sure you’ve already guessed that behind the scenes politics that involved locking doors to prevent the director from doing his entire job are not a good sign of things to come, and your guess would be correct.  With that in mind, let’s have a quick look at this fish before we fry it…

Our story begins very oddly to say the least.  We focus in on a couple in an inflatable boat, and the first line we hear is “You’re just trying too hard, that’s all,” which sounds suspiciously like secret code for “you’ve got whiskey dick.”  Since Plan A doesn’t seem to be working, they decide to go with Plan B, which involves strapping on scuba gear over their string swimwear and diving to a wrecked Navy ship just below where they’ve anchored their boat.  Once they’re at the wreck, the woman decides to give it another try, removing her string bikini (‘A’ cup, if you’re wondering) and using her dive knife to cut off the man’s swimming briefs.  She then mounts him right there on the wreck, and – this has got to be a WTF Hall O’ Fame move right here – they take their regulators out of their mouths so they can play tonsil hockey while trying to hold their breaths and screw underwater.  (Apparently, she was placing bets on him being a fast finisher, if you know what I’m saying.)  Alas, we never get to find out whether or not they’d be able to come to a satisfactory conclusion before they ran out of breath, because that’s when the funny shapes we’re supposed to assume are killer fish arrive to eat them dead.  Sigh…

I’m going to pause for a moment here while the opening credits roll.  Had the rest of Piranha II: The Spawning lived up to the promise of this opening sequence, it would have easily won a spot in the Awesomely Bad Movie Hall Of Fame.  Yes, the scene is mind-bendingly stupid, but it’s also so utterly absurd that it’s hilarious.  Come on, folks; that’s a popcorn moment if there ever was one.  Unfortunately, it also happens to be the very best scene in the entire movie, and I truly wish that I was kidding.  Transformation from Awesomely Bad to Just Plain Bad in 3… 2… 1…

Once the credits are done rolling, a whole lot of incoherently strung together introductions are made.  By far the creepiest of these is when a young man we’ll come to know as Chris Kimbrough (future soap opera star Ricky Paull Goldin, here called Ricky G. Paull) teases his mother, Anne (Tricia O’Neil, who did lots of other TV), with a fish… while said mother is lying in bed naked.  Yes, she’s got a sheet over herself, but just barely (to the point where one suspects that gaffer’s tape was involved), and the next few minutes just reek of Oedipus complex.  Anne will be our heroine, by the way, as well as the general object of lust for several males (which may or may not include her son), though we never will get to see under that damn sheet.

Trying to stay more focused than the movie does, we’ll keep our eye on Anne, and soon discover that she works for a seaside resort called Club Elysium, where she leads diving tours for guests.  As it so happens, the resort just recently got permission from the Navy to allow tourists to dive around their nearby wreck, though no divers are actually allowed inside it.  As she explains this prohibition to her newest group, one of them expresses disdain, and sure enough, once they’re all under, he slinks behind and enters the wreck by himself.  Alas, he wasn’t watching before the credits rolled, so he doesn’t know about the killer fish that live inside and that are happy to start feasting on his guts.

Once she realizes that someone’s missing, Anne doubles back, but of course she’s too late, and all she can do is bring the dead body back up with her.  This, in turn, leads to an argument with the local police chief, Steve (Lance Henriksen, Aliens), who also happens to be Anne’s estranged-but-not-yet-ex husband.  It also piques the interest of another member of the ill-fated dive tour, Tyler (Steve Marachuk, Eyes of Laura Mars), though he pretends that his real interest is just getting into the pants of Anne, which may be true enough, too.

So, does anyone think that the killer fish are going to stay near the boat?  Yeah, me neither.  Indeed, it turns out that one’s already hitched a ride topside, and it’s still alive, and hungry…

To call Piranha II: The Spawning a complete disaster is an understatement.  Whereas with the original Piranha, Joe Dante had the good sense to make a movie that remembered to laugh at itself with still providing a few genuine creep-out moments, somewhere between James Cameron and Ovidio Assonitis, Piranha II: The Spawning forgets to be either fun or creepy.  (No, the Oedipus complex scene does not count; that’s the wrong kind of creepy.) 

There’s no question that somewhere along the way, someone thought to try to inject some fun into the script – the quirky list of throwaway characters proves that – but the presentation falls completely flat.  When the desperate cougars show up, they’re not at all funny; they’re just annoying.  When two young thieving women who immediately bare their breasts show up, they’re annoying, too.  Naked chicks: annoying.  Folks, this is supposed to violate a law of physics or three in a film like Piranha II: The Spawning.  And yet there they are.  What’s more, most of these characters are introduced to us without any real linearity or context (or decent pacing, for that matter), and the confusion that brings makes them still more annoying.  Even our heroes suffer from the same taint; by the time they separate themselves from the pack, it’s just too much trouble to give a damn about them.

Poor Lance Henriksen.  He deserves so much better than this.

As does the audience, really.  The annoying characters aside, the plot manages to rip off both Jaws and the original Piranha at the same time, and to be a dull failure at both tasks.  Even worse, the “new” elements added to the story in an effort to up the ante are beyond ridiculous.  Voracious, poison-resistant piranha that can handle warm saltwater are one thing.  But flying piranha?  I don’t just mean short distance flight, either.  I mean coming totally out of the water and falling into formation well inland.  (Why, yes; they can breathe normal air, thank you!)  Come on, guys.  Really?  But even this doesn’t compare to the piranha that manages to stow away inside the body of one of its victims, survive there for most of a day, and then suddenly jump out, snack on a nurse, break through a window, and fly away.  You might think that this could be played for laughs, but unfortunately, someone in the back room didn’t, and so instead of a good chuckle, you get a facepalm and a quick search for the next beer to wash down your aspirin with.

And getting back to that whole “voracious” thing…  The scary thing about a piranha attack is that they’re supposed to rush in and eat and eat and eat until there’s nothing but bones left.  This cadre, however, seems to be all about wasting food; either that, or they’ve watched too many Dracula movies.  They’re content to go right for the throat and maybe nom a few holes elsewhere and then leave as soon as the victim’s dead.  These aren’t creatures; these are tiny little slashers with wings.  What’s up with that?  And why do they look like really bad rubber dog toys?  Oh, right.  Nevermind.

Why yes, the creatures effects are in fact much worse in this movie than they were in the original (though the same annoying sound is used; think of a bee swarm recorded on an audiotape and played back at the wrong speed), which is sad, considering that the original fish were either taped to the actors or held up with sticks.  The gore effects on the victims are pretty decent, but quickly forgotten in the face of these awful, awful fish.  It doesn’t help that the same visuals keep getting reused over and over again, either.

James Cameron has suggested that Piranha II: The Spawning plays better with the aid of a six pack.  I don’t think six beers are enough.  I think you need to be on at least number seven in order for the helicopter ditching scene to make any sense, for one thing.  (Being able to piece together the writer’s logic does not equal “making sense,” by the way.)

By the time it’s all said and done, Piranha II: The Spawning is too awful even to sit on the couch and make fun of.  Despite having a vast amount of comic potential, this movie just takes itself far too seriously to be able to laugh at properly, and what could be funny often turns out to be just plain annoying instead.  Replace Ovidio Assonitis with Roger Corman in the Executive Producer’s seat, and I think this ship could have been righted, but as it stands, without mincing any words, this movie just plain sucks.

Bottom line, Piranha II: The Spawning is a dreadful follow-up to one of the all-time drive-in classics, and it takes itself far too seriously to be any fun.  With its ridiculous fish, annoying characters, and dishwater dull pacing, this is the kind of movie you only watch on purpose if you take the phrase “that was one of the worst movies ever” as a personal challenge… or if you just really don’t like James Cameron for some reason and need some more fuel for your ire.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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