Saturday, August 4, 2018

Retro Review: PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1982)

(Italy/US - 1982)

Directed by James Cameron. Written by H.A. Milton (James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee and Ovidio G. Assonitis). Cast: Tricia O'Neil, Steve Marachuk, Lance Henriksen, Ted Richert, Ricky G. Paull (Ricky Paull Goldin), Leslie Graves, Carole Davis, Connie Lynn Hadden, Arnie Ross, Tracy Berg, Albert Sanders, Ward White, Aston S. Young. (R, 95 mins)

A tangentially-related sequel to Joe Dante's 1978 hit for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING was instead produced by Egyptian-born Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis, best known for his 1974 EXORCIST ripoff BEYOND THE DOOR and his 1977 JAWS knockoff TENTACLES. Assonitis has a bizarre history of hiring rookie directors just to fire them during production so he can take over himself, and the most infamous example of this tactic is indeed PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, which would likely be a forgotten footnote in drive-in exploitation history lost somewhere in your 1980s video store memories were it not the directing debut of one James Cameron. Though he logged time on the visual effects team of John Carpenter's 1981 classic ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the 27-year-old Cameron was hired for PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING because of his association with Corman productions in various capacities as art director (1980's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) and production designer (1981's GALAXY OF TERROR), as well as his oft-expressed eagerness to start directing his own movies. He got his chance when Assonitis fired Miller Drake--a New World trailer editor who shot the US inserts for SCREAMERS, the 1981 re-edit of Sergio Martino's 1979 H.G. Wells-inspired ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN--during pre-production after a disagreement over the direction in which Drake wanted to take the story.

With his friend Drake's blessing, Cameron jumped at the opportunity, but clashed with Assonitis from the start. Working on location in Jamaica, with underwater sequences shot off Grand Cayman, and interiors done in Rome, and forced to use an Italian crew with whom he couldn't communicate, a miserable Cameron had to run every decision by Assonitis first and was almost always overruled. Cameron was fired at some point--exactly when depends on who's telling the story--but was at least around for some of post-production in Italy, as he was eventually locked out of the editing room and reportedly kept breaking in after hours to undo all of the changes Assonitis was making to the film. Cameron has frequently told this story over the years, sometimes standing by it, sometimes saying he was only kidding, but one thing is certain: his mercurial nature and uncompromising defiance in sticking to his vision was apparent even on a junky B-movie like PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING. Once Assonitis kicked him off the movie for good and finished it himself--hopefully after shouting "You're through! Finished! You hear me? I'll see that you never work in this town again!" while furiously chomping on a cigar--Cameron used his sudden downtime to begin outlining and fleshing out a script idea he had brewing in his head for a while, which of course became his 1984 breakthrough THE TERMINATOR. You were right, Ovidio--this kid's going nowhere. Well-played, sir. Well-played.

It shouldn't be a surprise that PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (shot as PIRANHA II: FLYING KILLERS and shown in some parts of the US as simply THE SPAWNING) isn't a good movie. It's professionally made, with some nice cinematography by Assonitis regular Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli and an effective score by Stelvio Cipriani, hiding behind the Americanized alias "Steve Powder." The script--the combined efforts of Assonitis, Cameron, and Cameron's buddy and fellow Corman gofer Charles H. Eglee, who would go on to a prolific career in TV--is credited to the pseudonymous "H.A. Milton," and while it references its predecessor in one throwaway line, it's largely a standalone work. At a Club Med-type resort called Club Elysium, two divers are devoured by a school of piranha while engaged in the act of deep-sea fucking. More divers are killed, and a nurse at the morgue is attacked by a flying piranha that burrows out of the remains of one of the victims. Local police chief Steve (Lance Henriksen) is irate about the body count, but he's more pissed off about the time his estranged wife and Club Elysium diving tour guide Anne (Tricia O'Neil) is spending with new hire Tyler (Steve Marachuk). Anne turns out to be a former marine biologist who gave up her career when she married Steve and gave birth to their now-16-year-old son Chris (future daytime soap regular Ricky Paull Goldin), so she knows something is in the water, and so does Tyler. He's a biochemist who worked on a secret government gene-splicing project that resulted in the creation of a piranha/grunion crossbreed that has the ability to fly and survive out of water. Tyler believes a container of flying piranha eggs was on a boat that sank off the coast of the Elysium resort. Of course, he's right, and they've hatched and bred and with nothing left to eat in the water, it's only a matter of time before they attack the resort at its busiest time of the year.

It's your classic JAWS scenario, with Anne in the Roy Scheider role once she can't convince anyone there's piranha in the water and decides to cancel her diving tours, only to promptly get fired by asshole resort manager Raoul (Ted Richert as Murray Hamilton). The first hour of PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING is spent with annoying, "wacky" characters at Club Elysium and player Tyler's tireless attempts to get in Anne's pants. The film has some unintended laughs and WTF? moments that are seemingly inherent with Italian trash movies (like the strange physical interaction when we're introduced to Anne and Chris, where it takes an unusually long time to finally conclude that they're mother and son and not, as it would initially seem, in a PRIVATE LESSONS scenario where a hot teacher has seduced a horny student), and the eventual flying piranha attack on Club Elysium is pretty entertainingly bonkers. It also certainly indulges in gratuitous gore (courtesy of the great Giannetto De Rossi) and plenty of T&A, knowing exactly what kind of movie it is. But whether it's the material or his lack of control over the whole project, there's absolutely nothing here to indicate that Cameron would go on to be the visionary trailblazer we know him as today, other than Goldin, in an interview on Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead), reminiscing about how "methodical" he was on set. It may not have established him in the way he'd hoped, but had he not been fired, he might not have been inspired to finally sit down and write THE TERMINATOR when he did. And it did establish his working relationship with Henriksen, who brings his usual intensity and gravitas to the film and puts forth far more effort than was really required. Henriksen previously worked with Assonitis on 1979's THE VISITOR, but became fast friends with Cameron, eventually appearing in both THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS. O'Neil never broke out despite a lot of TV guest spots in the '70s and '80s, but Cameron never forgot the star of his first movie and gave her a small role in TITANIC. Cameron also worked with Eglee further down the road, with the pair co-creating the Jessica Alba series DARK ANGEL for Fox, while Eglee carved himself a niche as a busy TV writer and producer on shows like ST. ELSEWHERE, MOONLIGHTING, NYPD BLUE, MURDER ONE, THE SHIELD, DEXTER, THE WALKING DEAD, and most recently, Netflix's HEMLOCK GROVE.  Everyone has to start somewhere, and to his credit, Cameron has never tried to pretend PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING doesn't exist and has always had a good sense of humor about it, even referring to it as "the very best flying piranha movie ever made" in a 2009 60 MINUTES interview with Morley Safer.

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