Sunday, October 21, 2018

HubrisWeen 2018, Day 16: Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

When you're delivering a sequel, you really need to give the audience something they haven't seen before instead of just repeating the first film. James Cameron has rather keenly understood this throughout his career, and that is even true of the first feature film he ever directed, which is today's entry.

Of course, how much of the film he is actually responsible for varies wildly from source to source and also from cut to cut. It was a troubled production, where Cameron apparently butted heads a lot with producer Ovidio G. Assonitis and ultimately was locked out of the editing room. Legend has it that Cameron actually broke into the editing room, but was caught before he could complete his cut. Sadly, that part seems entirely apocryphal, but it makes for a fun story.

Cameron did get to edit the film for some markets, however, but the version that Scream Factory released on Blu-ray (which has the hilariously direct title card Piranha II: Flying Killers) is the European cut, which is more in line with what Assonitis wanted.

If that strikes terror in your heart, you are obviously familiar with the producer's work.

We begin in much the same manner as the first Piranha, with a horny couple who are about to deliver themselves to the killer fish on a platter. In this case, a couple decide that sex in their dinghy isn't working so they put on their scuba gear and head down to a shipwreck to explore. They ignore the sign warning that the ship is off limits by order of the navy, and go inside. They get separated and the woman surprises the man with her fully naked body before she uses his dive knife to cut his speedo off.

For some reason they have both decided that underwater sex in a filthy, rusted wreck isn't good enough, they also need to ditch their scuba gear and masks. I mean, nothing gets you in the mood quite like a serious risk of drowning, huh?

Not that it matters, since a roving POV camera sneaks up on them and then they are both devoured by a school of piranha. I might add that while the piranha in this film will never be anything but obviously rubber, the scenes of the schools swarming are actually pretty effective--even if it is occasionally obvious that they are just flopping as they swim.

"I call dibs on the thigh meat!"
The next morning, we are introduced to our central characters going about their early routines at Club Elysium, a rather scummy island resort. Teenager Chris Kimbrough (Ricky G. Paull) thinks it is hilarious to surprise his mother, Anne Kimbrough (Tricia O'Neill), by holding a live fish in front of her face to wake her up. She takes this in good stride, even when he drops the fish in her bed by accident. That Anne clearly sleeps in the nude makes this a lot more Freudian than it might otherwise have been.

Anne is the dive instructor for the hotel, so she and Chris get to stay in a room there free of charge. One of Anne's students, Tyler Sherman (Steve Marachuk), is a guest down the hall and he is clearly hot for teacher. Chris is a bit sick of all the men hitting on his mom since she separated from his dad and thinks if they were still together it would stop happening, but Anne isn't about to patch up their troubled marriage just for that minor benefit.

She's also a little uncomfortable that Chris only now reminds her that he accepted a job assisting a rich guy on his sailboat for a few days. However, she does reluctantly agree to to let him go--weirdly after a bit where it seems like he suggests that staying might turn him gay. No, I don't get it, either.

Of course, it's hard to blame Chris for being excited about this job when we learn the buffoonish boat captain brought along his busty teenage daughter, Allison (Leslie Graves), and she is very happy to have Chris along on their boat trip. Like virtually every woman in this film, Allison also does not believe in bras--and I honestly don't know if that's a product of the male gaze or just the early 1980s.

Actually, in Allison's case we can safely blame the male gaze since the film will actually drop a blatant continuity error into the film at one point just to include a small bit of nudity from her.

We meet the last member of the Kimbrough family when Anne's estranged husband, police chief Steve Kimbrough (Lance Henriksen), pulls up on local lovable troublemaker, Gabby (Ancil Gloudon), as the latter is dynamite fishing with his son. Steve loudly threatens to jail Gabby for dynamite fishing, only for Gabby to literally toss a lit bundle of dynamite to Steve. Steve actually laughs it off along with Gabby and promises to swing by to enjoy some of the fish with Gabby later.

And then the film takes an unfortunate cue from Up From The Depths and introduces us to a lot of comic relief guests of the hotel. I won't even get into it lest it grind this review to a halt the same way as the movie, but at least a lot of these insufferable idiots will actually get eaten.

Speaking of insufferable idiots, one of the students of Anne's dive class is a bit of a loudmouth jerk, to the point that even Tyler calls him out on it. The guy also ignores Anne's warning that they are not allowed to go inside the wreck they are diving next to. When Anne goes to find him, she discovers his corpse and the guy has been utterly flayed.

Anne is obsessed with finding out what killed the man, since she has a background in marine biology and doesn't recognize any animal in the area that could have done it. Steve forbids her from looking at the body, however, so she resorts to breaking into the morgue that evening. Tyler ends up as her reluctant accomplice, since he keeps pestering her to go on a date with him and she ends up dragging him along. Anne gets the photos she came for, but they are caught by the nurse and Anne leaves the credit card she used to jimmy the lock behind when they make a hasty exit.

The poor nurse, meanwhile, goes to put the body back in the drawer--only for a piranha to reveal that it had been hiding inside the corpse this entire time. The fish leaps out of the body, tears the nurse's throat out, and then smashes through a window to fly away into the night.

Yeah, that's something you don't see every day.

*gasp* "Oh thank God you found me! I thought I was going to suffocate in there!"
Well, outside of this film, of course. We'll be seeing something just like it very soon, since earlier in the film we made the acquaintance of two spoiled rich girls who have taken the sailboat that belonged to one of their fathers and are saving money by simply stealing supplies from any resorts they encounter as they sail from island to island. At Club Elysium they prey upon the gullibility of a particular dumb staff member to get what they want and then humiliate him before departing.

Now that night has fallen, the ocean near their boat churns and the blonde is attacked by a flying piranha while she is on deck. She falls into the water, where the rest of the school swarms her. The brunette attempts to rescue her friend with a pole, but then another piranha goes for her throat. So she ends up dead on the boat, while her friend is devoured in the water.

I guess the navy trained the fish to go for the jugular?
Anne, meanwhile, is studying the photos of the corpse in her hotel room, and she mentions to Tyler how she had heard about the events of the first Piranha and wonders if that could be similar to what happened here. The only mistake is she claims those piranha couldn't survive in salt water, when the entire crux of that film's climax is the piranha were adapted to salt water and needed to be stopped before they got to the ocean to breed.

At any rate, she is distracted from her investigations when she decides to go ahead and have a fling with Tyler. Unfortunately, a very irate Steve barges in on her in bed with Tyler the next morning. Steve has a reason to be angry beyond seeing his wife in bed with some schmuck, though. See, Gabby called Steve to the scene of the crime when he found the dead brunette in her now adrift sailboat, only when Steve got her body to the morgue he found the dead nurse with Anne's bloodied credit card next to her.

Steve tells Anne, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from the investigation. Anne is not going to give up that easy, though. She tries to tell her boss at the hotel, Raoul (Ted Richert), that there is something dangerous in the water that they need to keep guests away from, but he just fires her for daring to bring up such a possibility. I mean, the annual fish fry where guests catch the grunion fish as they come up on shore to spawn is set for that very evening, so he can't risk anything interfering with that!

Anne decides to go investigate the wreck again--and she stumbles upon the piranha eagerly gnawing at a flayed skull. One tries to eat her flipper, but luckily they dislike the sunlight and don't give chase once Tyler suddenly appears and drags her away from the wreck. Once they are safely back on Anne's boat, Tyler comes clean: he is actually a biochemist who worked on a project to create a species of weaponized piranha that could not only survive in salt water, but could survive out of the water. These piranha were combined with DNA from both the amphibious grunion and the flying fish.

That wreck that has been giving Anne so much trouble? It was carrying four canisters of these piranha eggs when it sank, and only 3 were recovered. Tyler has been hanging around in case the lost eggs ever hatched, and it sure looks like they have.

Anne, Steve, and Gabby meet with Raoul to try and convince him to close the beaches. Steve surprises Anne by backing up her story by producing a piranha wing that Gabby had found in one of his nets. That wing is especially bad news, because it means that the piranha are so hungry that they are turning to cannibalism. Raoul still scoffs, of course, and goes ahead with getting the grunion run set up.

To both Steve and Anne's alarm, Chris and Allison have stolen the dinghy from the rich idiot's boat to go off on their own adventure and Steve can't locate them now. They'd be even more concerned if they knew that Gabby's son has just been ambushed by the piranha in his boathouse and killed.

And this is where the jarring continuity error occurs, since Gabby's son is killed at night--but then we cut to Allison and Chris fooling around in a waterfall and on a beach in broad daylight. Even more jarring, we immediately cut back to Gabby finding his son's body and it's full dark again. Clearly the producers were much more interested in working in some bare breasts than in making sure their film didn't look like it was edited by Ed Wood.

Shocking, I know.

Steve searches for Chris in his helicopter while Gabby crafts a time bomb. Tyler then appears in Gabby's boathouse and apparently offers to take down to the wreck in time for it to go off at 6:30am. However, the timeline then gets screwy because Gabby goes from this covert meeting with Tyler to taking his son's body to the hotel so that Anne can see it, while everyone else is preparing for the grunion run. While Gabby swears he is going to kill all the fish, we never actually get the sense that he bothers to tell Anne about his plan with Tyler and yet we will soon see that she knows about it, anyway.

The officer that Steve assigned to patrol the beach, meanwhile, gets devoured by the piranha before he can radio in a warning. His death is a comic highlight of the film, since his corpse is dragged backwards into the water after he tries to crawl back onto the beach. This leaves you with the mental image of a bunch of the fish grabbing onto his ankles and swimming in the opposite direction as fast as they can.

Naturally, the piranha then take flight and attack all the guests at the grunion run. It's a great bit of chaos and carnage, but is sadly much more truncated than the equivalent scene in the first film.

"You came to eat fish and a fish ate you! That's irony for ya!"
Worse, once the survivors are all holed up inside, Gabby goes out by himself to confront the fish, armed with nothing but a torch to swat at the fish as they fly around like bats. I realize that Gabby is grieving deeply and is furious with the monsters that killed his son, but he already has the bomb to kill them all in their nest--what does he hope to accomplish with a torch?

Whatever his plan was, the reality is that he gets in a few token swings that fail to connect with the piranha at all, and the he gets his throat and face torn off while Anne watches sadly from the safety of the hotel lobby.

Somehow, though, Anne is able to get to her boat, where Tyler is already waiting. She radios Steve to tell him she is about to head down with the bomb and to make sure he is clear of it by 6:30. Steve tries to talk her out of it, of course, but she goes down with Tyler anyway so that they can plant the bomb in the wreck before the fish return at sunrise.

You can see the obvious flaw in going into the monsters' lair to deliver the bomb while they are on the prowl, instead of dropping it in during the day when you know they are there. Sure enough, Tyler and Anne find their exit blocked by the returning school of hungry fish and have to race to find an escape route before the fish get them.

Chris and Allison's dinghy ends up above the wreck just as Steve gets there in his helicopter. Hilariously, since Chris can't drive Anne's boat, Steve decides the solution is to jump out of his helicopter so he can drive it. Yes, the helicopter does turn into an obvious model before it crashes and explodes.

Steve gets the very confused Chris and Allison aboard the boat. Tyler gets himself eaten by the creatures he helped create, and Anne only just grabs the anchor as Steve speeds to a safe distance in her boat. Ka-Boom goes the wreck! We get a happy family reunion and roll credits.

Forget moth memes, show me the flying piranha memes!
There is no question that Piranha II: The Spawning is a mess. For the most part it holds together well enough that you might not even notice, but then something will happen to draw your attention to the fact that it is coming apart at the seams.

When I first saw the film, the annoying comic relief and the messy continuity really ruined it for me. However, watching it on Blu-ray, I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I remembered. That does not mean it was good, mind you.

There are occasional gleams of a good movie in here, of course. For starters, once you accept that the film thinks flying fish can actually fly and has them act like vampire bats, the creature effects are really neat. Honestly, there aren't very many bad creature effects. Yes, there is the occasional obvious wire and literally every scene that calls for the ocean to churn at the arrival of the piranha looks like the jets in a Jacuzzi just switched on, but it all holds up much better than the explosive model work in the film's climax does.

The main cast are also really good in their roles. Tricia O'Neill and Lance Henriksen, especially, are very engaging heroes, but that isn't horribly shocking. Ancil Gloudon isn't given nearly enough to do as Gabby, because he makes for a very charismatic rogue. Even Steve Marachuk imbues Tyler with the right amount of sympathy and sleaze, befitting his duplicitous character.

The annoying comic relief actors do their parts as best they can, so in all fairness they're awfulness seems very intentional.

Where the film falls down is ultimately in the shoddy editing choices, poor pacing, and a shocking failure to fully embrace its own premise. The climax of this film should have been on the level of Humanoids From The Deep or even The Great Alligator. Those films had budgets around the same level as this film and you can't say that they didn't build to dynamic climaxes where their aquatic menaces laid waste to huge celebrations or fancy resorts.

By the end of this film, Club Elysium should have practically been nothing but gnawed corpses and an attempt to destroy the piranha on land. Following close to the plot structure of the first Piranha after the Elysium attack doesn't make any sense because that film goes from the attack on the resort to the characters going to the smelting plant because they are trying to keep the piranha from continuing to follow the river and getting to the ocean. In this film, there is no reason for the destruction of the wreck to be a race against time except that the characters forced it to be.

Amusingly, though, the climax of this film along with the parents trying to find their missing teenage son means Piranha 3D owes way more to this film than the original.

The film definitely suffers in comparison to the film it's a sequel to, but that is to be expected. Piranha is one of the finest horror comedies ever made, while this film is so terrible at the comedy aspect that you're glad it leans more into the horror aspect.

Had this film had John Sayles on screenplay and Joe Dante as the director, it surely would have been wonderful. New director James Cameron under Ovidio G. Assonitis's oppressive oversight never had a chance to reach the same level. Honestly, it's fairly impressive that this doesn't end up on the level of another Tentacles, but it is a very near thing.

That said, James Cameron has joked that it is the best movie about killer flying fish ever made and, well, you can't argue with that!

This has concluded Day 16 of HubrisWeen 2018! To see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for P, click the banner above!


  1. I remember reading a comment from Cameron where he said it was PROBABLY the best movie about flying piranha ever made. At one point, he had a sense of humor about himself.

  2. Lance Henriksen really is the latter day John Carradine, isn't he? By this point he may actually have appeared in more cheap horror films than Carradine.