June 3, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

by Nick Schager

Piranha II: The Spawning [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the T&A-filled killer fish sequel Piranha 3DD.]

James Cameron may be credited as the director of Piranha II: The Spawning, but given his own rocky participation in the project—his Italian producers removed him from viewing or editing the footage he shot, and thus he had little to do with its final form—it's hard to slam the future "king of the world" for the legion of failures that define this sub-B-movie. A sequel to Joe Dante's smart and funny 1978 original (made with the legendary Roger Corman), Cameron's film is a misshapen mess that, unlike its cheeky predecessor, rips off Jaws to no appreciable effect, finding nothing but unintentionally corny comedy via its tale of a Caribbean resort terrorized by a school of flesh-eating fish... that can fly! Yes, the hook of Cameron's follow-up is that the military has bioengineered piranha with other animals' genetic material to create the ultimate airborne-aquatic killing beasts, which at the outset have fallen to the bottom of the ocean aboard a sunken supply ship. This carelessness doesn't seem to have brought the military out looking for the fish, however, which is as puzzling as the behavior of the intro sequence's couple, who out on a rowboat to try and fix the man's apparent performance-anxiety issues, decide to dive down to the submerged vessel for some sex—a carnal act that, as per horror dictates, naturally leads to grisly death.

Piranha II: The Spawning

The subsequent sight of teenage Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin) exiting the water with a phallic fishing pole in hand immediately foreshadows his own impending troubles with the feisty critters. Yet long before that can occur, Piranha II must first establish the rocky relationship between resort diving guide and marine biologist Anne (Tricia O'Neill) and her estranged police officer husband Steve (Lance Henriksen), as well as provide some "humorous" elements via an older woman's pursuit of a young resort stud and two topless beauties' mockery of a stuttering chef they trick (with false promises of threesomes!) into giving them free grub and booze for their oceanic fun. Considering the obvious forthcoming demise of these bimbos, this last subplot furthers the overarching portrait of sexuality as something that leads to peril and doom, but as with just about every element of the film, that notion is recycled from far better genre brethren. When not diligently rehashing familiar thematic ideas, though, there's even less going on here, as copious time is spent on Anne's dim budding romance with Tyler (Steve Marachuk), a student who, it eventually turns out, is actually also a marine biologist there to stop the piranha menace, which he helped create in the first place.

Piranha II: The Spawning

The fact that Anne and Tyler sleep together should mark them both as future fish food, except that Piranha II is—unsurprisingly, given its focus on Anne and Steve's gradual but inevitable reunion—happy to absolve people of their sensual sins so long as they recommit themselves to the nuclear family. These conservative values are of a dreary sort, and made even drearier by the proceedings' lack of suspense, which is so pervasive that it's hard to pinpoint where Cameron and his Italian overlords intended there to be scares. Certainly, it couldn't be the first real sight of the flying piranhas, which—with the creatures bursting out of a corpse to chomp on the neck of an anti-partying nurse, and then flying away by crashing through a window—is a moment of stupendous silliness. And that ludicrousness continues once Anne explains "the spawning," an annual phenomenon in which grunion crawl onto the beach (and are then caught and eaten by people), thus setting up a finale that finds the resort's callous director Raoul (Ted Richert)—the type of buffoon who scoffs at warnings despite in-his-face evidence of murder and calamity—going forward with a gala beach fish fry that puts his guests directly in harm's way.

Piranha II: The Spawning

While it would be a monumental stretch to suggest it foreshadows his The Abyss and Titanic (or even his Aliens of the Deep IMAX doc), Cameron's underwater footage is surprisingly evocative, albeit in service of one insanely dull sequence after another, culminating with Anne and Tyler attempting to outswim the beasts through the ship's ventilation shafts. Such wannabe-tense moments are still preferable to plot-forwarding asides involving a random Caribbean fisherman who uses dynamite to catch his prey, although Piranha II does deliver at least one moment of stunning—and, apparently intentional—hilarity when Henriksen's cop opts to save stranded Chris (and his would-be teen lover) by leaping out of the helicopter he's piloting, thus sending the vehicle crashing and burning into the ocean. As for the piranha themselves, their screechy chirping and wing-flapping is almost intolerably grating. Moreover, their third-rate rubbery-puppet appearance is so cheesy that not only are the strings via which they're controlled often clearly visible, but upon their biting human necks, it's easy to see that—in a far cry from Cameron's later special effects triumphs—they're only moving back and forth thanks to the thrashing hands of the very victims whom they're attacking.

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Posted by ahillis at June 3, 2012 11:23 AM