Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

[Aquaphobia] Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981)

Piranha II: The Spawning - VHS Cover Image
VHS Cover Image
This sequel starts off the way that most great films do—with erectile dysfunction. After a husband can't get sufficiently aroused in the hotel, on the beach, or out at sea, he and his wife don diving gear and attempt to make the Beast With Two Backs on the ocean floor. Unfortunately, their sexual shenanigans land them too close to an old shipwreck, where some decidedly dangerous fish have taken up residence. Before you can say crimson tide, the water is awash with blood and bits.

The next day, would-be-marine-biologist Annie Kimbrough is leading a diving class at the exclusive and all-inclusive Club Elysium, where she works. She forbids her students from venturing into the shipwreck, but there's one rebel in every group, and this one wanders away from the others and enters the forbidden zone. Annie chases after him, only to find his half-eaten corpse.

This attack brings on an investigation by Annie's estranged husband Steve, a local police officer. Knowing her marine life, she is sure that no local animal could have made those bite marks, so she launches an investigation of her own. Tagging along for the ride is one of her students, Tyler Sherman, who knows more than he is letting on.

Turns out that he is actually a biochemist who was involved in the creation of the killer fish—an ungodly genetic crossbreeding of piranha (for their ferocity), grunion (for their ability to survive on land), and flying fish (for their be fish that fly). The army had previously lost four canisters of fertilized fish eggs in that exact spot, and only three were recovered. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out the rest.

The spawning of the title actually refers to the grunion's natural instinct to beach themselves on shore to procreate. This makes them easy prey for lazy fishermen, and the Club Elysium hosts an annual cookout to celebrate. Being part grunion, these piranha have the same instincts, and as the tourists storm the beach, chanting "We want fish! We want fish!", we're chanting back at them "The fish want you! The fish want you!" This leads, of course, to the largest attack in the film, comparable in scope to the resort attack in the original movie.

The next morning, Tyler and Annie head off on a dangerous mission to eradicate the fish by blowing up the shipwreck where they live. It turns out to be a suicide machine for Tyler—the inevitable price he must pay for his involvement in their creation—but at least he goes out a hero.

There's a minor subplot involving Annie and Steve's teenage son Chris, who gets a job as a deckhand on the boat of the incompetent "Captain" DuMont. He falls for the Cap's comely teenage daughter Allison, and they strike up a romance that leads them to sneak off to an island at night—the perfect setting for a piranha attack that unfortunately never actually happens. The whole scenario is just a contrived way of getting the two youngsters into harm's way at the explosive climax in an attempt to up the emotional ante.

Speaking of emotions, mine were muddled and confused early in the film when we were first introduced to Chris. He practically crawled into bed with a seemingly-nude older woman and woke her up by wagging his fish in her face (that's not a euphemism). They giggle and wrestle around a bit, but just as we're about to give him some machismo kudos for bagging an attractive, experienced woman, it's revealed that this is not a romantic relationship that we are peeping on. This is a creepy and uncomfortable interaction between mother and son.

There are a small handful of other piranha attacks not covered here, but for the most part, they were against sacrificial lambs that were introduced solely to up the body count, and their importance was minimal at best. Nor were they very memorable, at least not for good reasons. But the same can be said for most of the movie.

Piranha II: The Spawning - Deadly Fish Hickeys
Deadly Fish Hickeys
There are some pretty solid gore effects, which makes it all the more disappointing how ridiculous the piranha look. While the original was never going to win any awards for special effects, the fact that the fish were confined to the water helped to obscure them from sight when the panic kicked in and the blood started flowing. The sequel doesn't have that advantage, and although the piranha are occasionally shown fluttering about like bats, when they go in for the kill, they fly into frame like little missiles and latch onto their victims, appearing stiff and lifeless during the struggle as the actors hold them to their throats, rather than attempt to pull them off.

There is also a drastically different tone at play here. Its predecessor planted its tongue firmly in cheek and kept it there for most of the running time, however THE SPAWNING takes itself too seriously, as if it believes that Jiminy Cricket has conspired to turn it into a real live horror film. This more straight forward approach to the material may have worked had it not been conceived as a follow-up to the much-beloved 1978 film, but as it stands, it only serves to distance itself needlessly from the original.

Another way in which it distanced itself was by completely ignoring the fact that the original readily opened
Piranha II: The Spawning - Fish Fodder
Fish Fodder
itself up for a sequel—it implied that some of the piranha did indeed make it out of the river and into the ocean. And yet it is not these piranha that we have here, but a whole different batch of them whipped up in another laboratory. I understand the need to make the monster bigger and badder than before, but surely the filmmakers could have found a way to do so while still tying the sequel into its predecessor—a natural (or unnatural) mutation of the surviving fish, for instance; or they could have bred with the other species in order to repopulate their ranks. It might not have been scientifically sound, but I'm fairly certain that we already checked our disbelief at the door.

This movie has a bit of a troubled backstory, some of which may account for the weaknesses in the film. Although Roger Corman is the producer most identified with the original film, he was not the only producer—there was also Jon Davison, Chako van Leeuween, and Jeff Schectman. It was, apparently, Leeuween and Schectman who held the most control of the title, as Corman (and presumably Davison) had signed on for only a one-picture deal, meaning that when the sequel came around for Warner Brothers, they were free to pull behind-the-scenes talent from elsewhere.

Back in 1974, filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis had directed the possession film BEYOND THE DOOR, which was too close to THE EXORCIST for Warner Brothers, who filed an infringement suit. According to Assonitis, as part of the settlement, he agreed to not make a sequel to that film, and to work in a producer's role for three films at WB studios. One of those three films was to be PIRANHA II. He had agreed to produce it so long as he was able to assume creative control, which the studio granted, with one stipulation: The piranha had to fly.

Assonitis brought on Miller Drake to direct it, and he and screenwriter Charles Eglee set about crafting a script. In their original vision, Kevin McCarthy's scientist character from part one was supposed to return, despite apparently dying the first time around. Badly scarred and mutilated, he was to be using these flying piranha as tools of revenge (which, admittedly, would negate the character's development over the course of his short running time in the original film). Barbara Steele's character was likely to return, as well.

Drake had also brought in James Cameron to assist with the art direction, and had set in motion the recruitment of Rob Bottin, who had done some work on the original, to provide special effects for the sequel. But before Bottin had begun work, and before the original script had gone much of anywhere, Assonitis fired Drake after an argument about how slow the preproduction side of things was moving.

Cameron was then promoted from art direction into the director's chair. He, Eglee and Assonitis all hammered out a new script together—credited onscreen under the shared pseudonym of H.A. Milton. It was Cameron's first feature film as a director, and he faced a number of unforeseeable challenges—the morgue where one key scene took place, for instance, was actually housing corpses piled three-deep, much to the cast and crew's chagrin. The constant interference of Assonitis was even more challenging, though, as he questioned all of Cameron's decisions and often overrode them with his own.

Two weeks into the shoot, Assonitis fired his replacement director, James Cameron. Cameron, who has not had a good thing to say about the experience since, claims that it was because Assonitis had wanted to direct the film himself all along. Reports from the other producers declare that it was actually because of budgetary concerns—Cameron wanted to craft the best picture that he could, and was spending far too much time and money getting the perfect shot.

Whatever the true motivation behind it, Assonitis did step in to complete the film, though Cameron's name was left in the credits for contractual and legal reasons. The finished film was eventually distributed by Saturn International Pictures, which, from what I can gather, was a minor arm of the Warner Brothers studio system.

There are rumors that once shooting had ended, Cameron would break into the editing bay at night to work on his own edit of the film—rumors that Cameron has alternately denied and promulgated. This Cameron Cut of the film, which may or may not exist, is said to convey Cameron's original vision of the movie as best he could, with the footage that was available. It is highly sought after on the collector's market, but I am yet to be convinced that it is real. There are alternate versions that exist—including an international and a television version—but these were the work of the studio and the producers, not Cameron himself.

On more than one occasion, Assonitis had plans to produce a PIRANHA III, going so far as to print up advertisements in order to drum up interest. One take on the new sequel was to be called THE CRAWLING MENACE, in which the piranha apparently lost their wings and grew legs instead, and another was THE INVISIBLE MENACE, where they had developed the ability to turn invisible. If the image on the advertisement is to be believed, they also move into a snowy climate, conceivably terrorizing ice fishermen or teenyboppers at a ski resort. Neither of these films were ever made, and likely never progressed beyond the conceptual stage. And yet some territories appear, at first glance, to have been privy to not one but two additional sequels that the rest of us did not see. In some countries, Corman's own 1995 made-for-cable remake of the original was released theatrically and billed, not as a remake, but as PIRANHA 3, while the wholly unrelated Italian film PLANKTON was released in 1994 in its native country, but released later elsewhere as PIRANHA 4.

I would much prefer a bunch of transparent snowfish over sitting through either of those two films again.

Director James Cameron shouldn't require any introduction, as he is responsible for blockbusters like THE TERMINATOR (1984) and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991); ALIENS (1986); TITANIC (1997); and AVATAR (2009). He prefers to keep PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING off of his résumé, but nobody's falling for that anymore.

Screenwriter Charles H. Eglee went on to script the killer rat flick DEADLY EYES (1982), and then concentrated mostly on television. He contributed as screenwriter and producer to MOONLIGHTING, MURDER ONE, THE SHIELD, DEXTER, THE WALKING DEAD, and James Cameron's DARK ANGEL.

Annie was played by the attractive Tricia O'Neil, who also appeared in the infamous blaxploitation western THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLIE (1972); the madcap comedy THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976); the made-for-TV child abuse drama MARY JANE HARPER CRIED LAST NIGHT (1977), with Kevin McCarthy from the original PIRANHA; and the stalker semi-horror film ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? (1978). She would team up with James Cameron again in TITANIC (1997), though her role of "Woman" was doubtlessly much smaller than her role here.

Piranha II: The Spawning - Officer Henricksen
Officer Henricksen
Annie's husband Steve was played by Lance Henricksen, who, with nearly 200 roles under his belt, should be no stranger to genre fans. He has appeared in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977); DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978); the horror anthology NIGHTMARES (1983); cult-favorite vampire film NEAR DARK (1987); the unforgettable PUMPKINHEAD (1988); and the X-Files spin-off MILLENNIUM (1996-1999); he worked for Assonitis again in THE VISITOR (1979), and was cast in James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR (1984), and ALIENS (1986). When you work as steadily as Henricksen, you're bound to appear in your fair share of bad pictures, but even then his performance is usually the highlight.

The careers of the rest of the cast are much less expansive and much less impressive, so the truly curious will have to dig deeper for themselves. Might I suggest some back issues of Penthouse magazine? A few of the fish fodder can be found there on full display.


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