The last couple of Retro Reviews I have written for Last Movie Outpost sort of accidentally ended up having a very similar theme. Having already covered Piranha, and then a few weeks ago talking about the fondly remembered Lee Majors vehicle Killer Fish, there was only one place to go next. It seemed only fair that I round out this trilogy of Retro Reviews with Piranha II: The Spawning.
Piranha II: The Spawning
Released as Piranha II: Flying Killers everywhere else in the world outside the US, the story of the creation of this movie is one of those times that it is more interesting and entertaining than the finished product.
Piranha was a big success. A typically low Roger Corman budget meant it was well in profit. It was already on the way to cult status straight after release and it was Steven Spielberg’s own favorite Jaws rip-off. So it was all systems go on the sequel.
Remember that Piranha ended with a sequel set up. After the hero is nearly killed releasing so much pollution into the river that the murderous shoal cannot possibly survive, one of the scientists responsible for creating the mutant strain gives a television interview, downplaying any danger. As she tells the journalist “…there’s nothing left to fear” we cut to a beach and hear the piranha’s characteristic trilling sound coming from the sea. End movie.
Producers Jeff Schechtman and Chako van Leuwen immediately began work on a sequel, but Roger Corman was not keen. As he was head of New World studios he needed to be persuaded.
He decided that his current project, Humanoids from the Deep, was enough aquatic action for him, so Schechtman and van Leuwen purchased the sequel rights from Corman. They set up an independent production company and set to work with writers Charles H. Eglee and Channing Gibson on the script.
Dante was out. He was busy already on The Howling. The producers went back to where Dante came from, the trailer department at New World. They found Dante collaborator Miller Drake. Drake had become the Head Of Post Production for Corman almost by accident, as nobody else would do it. Miller spoke once of the plans, saying that the plot of Piranha II would be based around Kevin McCarthy’s scientist from the first Piranha. He had seemingly been devoured about halfway through that first movie:
“I pitched this idea of bringing Kevin McCarthy back, all chewed up and mutilated from the previous movie. He was on an abandoned oil rig and he was developing these flying piranhas out there to get revenge, or whatever. I think we were going to bring Barbara Steele back and have him kill her by smashing her head through a fish tank.”
Now they had a story, they had a director, and they just needed money.
Enter The Italian
Ovidio G. Assonitis was a Greco-Italian filmmaker who had produced and directed several successful low-budget rip-off / cash-in movies for the American import market. Movies like Beyond The Door (ripping off The Exorcist) and Tentacles (ripping off Jaws). Back in the glorious 80s those vaguely familiar, same but different movies on VHS that you had never heard of that littered the shelves of your video rental store… that was him!
He would eventually go on to chair Cannon Pictures. So immediately you know the level we are dealing with here. It is also said that he came from the Dino De Laurentiis school of interpersonal relationships with those working on his productions. To get what you want, just shout louder!
Neither McCarthy nor Steele were available, so the script was massively re-written. Most ideas were jettisoned, although not the central idea that the piranha should be able to fly this time around. Kind of feels like they missed an opportunity here. Although then we wouldn’t have got the goofy slice of silliness that we ended up with, so maybe it is for the best.
Miller Drake made the mistake of disagreeing with Assonitis about something, probably the strength of coffee served in a meeting, and he was fired by the producer.
The rest is history, as the opportunity to direct the movie went to somebody already on the production. The special effects supervisor and another New World recruit – James Cameron. His feature film directorial debut was Piranha II – The Spawning. A movie he would disown for many years before eventually accepting it onto his resume and referring to it as:
“…the best flying piranha film ever made…”
Even with Cameron notionally at the helm, the production had issues. The Mallards Beach-Hyatt Hotel in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, was the main location for filming the beach and exteriors. Underwater scenes were filmed off Grand Cayman, while interiors were shot on a sound stage in Rome. All of this is on a measly $146,000 budget.
To keep this budget locked down tight, Assonitis brought in his standard crew, mostly Italians with no grasp of English. Many of the team came from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 and were able to do the best they could with what little they had.
Even back then James Cameron was strong-willed, and this led him directly into conflict with the shouty Greco-Italian producer. Open warfare broke out on set as Assonitis tried to take de facto control of day-to-day activities, arguing with Cameron’s choices every step of the way.
In Assonitis’ mind, Cameron was there only to shoot. Everything else was under his creative control. Cameron was denied access to the footage he had shot, and was locked out of the edit suite. It is here that a cinema legend is born. Cameron apparently broke into the edit suite at night and edited the movie as he wanted. This activity increased with Assonitis away at Cannes.
Eventually, Assonitis realized and was furious. He edited the movie back the way he wanted it. Cameron himself denies this story, without actually denying it. He always plays coy when asked, detailing hypothetically what he would have done, if it were true, which he refuses to confirm.
Sometime later Cameron would make a deal with a distributor to buy his footage, which he then re-cut and restored. This “Cameron Cut” was released on home video in some regions and is out there, if you can find it.
So with all that drama behind the scenes, what on Earth do we end up with? A movie that maybe combines its own legendarily troubled production with the notoriety of the directing debut of a man who would go on to be one of our generation’s greatest living movie directors.
This, perhaps, pushes it to be more famous than it deserves. It does not quite clear the “So bad, it’s good” hurdle bar we demand of this kind of hilarity. However, it is filled with notable scenes. The hand of Cameron can be felt.
It starts with a good old slasher movie staple. A courting couple decide to get their freak on underwater. Scuba sex! They slide out of their gear on a sunken wreck when they are suddenly attacked by something. This movie is quite a sexy film, but more on that later.
A few days later diving instructor Anne Kimbrough takes a dive class past the wreck but warns them not to go inside. One student ignores her warning and while exploring the wreck is also attacked. When his corpse is recovered the movie does give us a truly excellent effect, where his whole body is mangled, chewed, and stripped except for the area around his eyes, protected by his mask.
His stripped-back jaw and exposed teeth juxtaposed against his staring, untouched eyes and surrounding area inside the mask is excellent.
Anne Kimbrough’s estranged husband is played by none other than soon-to-be Cameron-stalwart Lance Henriksen. Steve Kimbrough is the Chief of Police around whatever area the resort is meant to be in. The relationship with Anne is tense. Steve refuses to let her see the corpse. She knows the death is completely out of keeping with any known marine wildlife in the area – no shark or barracuda could have done this. She knows this because… well, of course… she used to be a marine biologist and is just slumming it as a scuba instructor.
There are numerous sub-plots now spinning up. One involves a woman who is on the cusp between gilf and milf pursuing a much younger man at the resort.
We are introduced to Kimborough’s hotel manager boss, Raoul, who will play the Mayor Vaughan role for this evening’s performance. He is played by Ted Richert straight off the truly awful American TV of the era.
We also find two absolute babes in the form of Penthouse Pet Connie Lyn Hadden and model Carole Davis. You may remember Davis as Andrew McCarthy’s spectacularly bosomed, bitter girlfriend in Mannequin. Whatever happened to Andrew McCarthy? He was going to be massive. Then he disappeared. Come to think of it, whatever happened to Carole Davis? She was stunning!
As a boy about to enter my teenage years, as I was when I discovered this movie, I was keenly aware that there was a lot of prime on display. This movie left its mark on me.
The two hotties seem to be manipulating a nice but dim chef at the resort, using their sexy powers to bewitch him into providing provisions for their boat.
Clearly not heeding the slasher movie morality rulebook that did for the two divers at the start of the movie, they abandon the chef as soon as they have what they want. Bad move ladies, you just sealed your fate. Sure enough, they are the first to discover you don’t need to actually be IN the water for these fishy terrors to get at you!
What’s that? Piranha? That can fly? Well, surely this is not a natural occurrence?
As Anne decides to investigate just what the hell is going on, she finds tourist Tyler Sherman taking an unnatural interest. Because it’s in the script, she decides to take him to the morgue where she is going to break in to take a closer look at one of the bodies.
This gives us one of the most infamous scenes in Piranha II. The scene is so incredibly dumb and awesome at the same time. Dumb-Awesome. Dumsome? Awumb? Fu*k it…
Anyway, the intrepid investigative twosome break into the morgue and examine the badly chewed up body of a diver. They are discovered by a nurse who shoes them out. When alone, the nurse hears a noise coming from the body.
A piranha wriggles out of the body of the diver, spreads wings, and goes straight for her jugular, like a fishy vampire bat. At this point, the audience starts to think it may be on drugs. The piranha that was hiding in the body escapes through a window and into the night.
Anne left her credit card behind at the scene because it’s in the script, so Steve knows his ex-wife was there and wants to know what she is up to. Anne wants to cancel the scuba diving lessons and the upcoming evening beach barbecue and fish fry. Raoul, of course, won’t let her because he’s got the Mayor Vaughan role to play, so he’s gonna damn well play it.
Bigger Fish To Fry
Anne decides to try and catch one of whatever it is that’s doing this to people, to prove her point and get the barbecue canceled. Tyler stops her and the truth comes out. He’s… gasp… a biochemist and member of a military science team that was working on the follow-up to Operation Razorteeth from the first movie. This time they have cross-bred piranha with flying fish and grunion to create the ultimate weapon. They lost a canister full of specimens near the sunken wreck. A specimen of genetically modified piranha that is fast breeding and will fly.
Even worse than that… the grunion spawning season is approaching when en masse millions of grunion will make their way into the shallows of the beach. It is these the guests would catch for the barbecue fish fry…. but what if the Razortooth’s gruniony DNA triggers their spawning instincts too? The only reason they won’t leave the wreck in the daytime is because they hate the light. Spawning happens at night.
Why… it would be a massacre! Well, duh! We’ve got a movie to make here!
And so the race is on to get the beach party canceled before the moon triggers the spawning. Along the way some piranha somehow hides in a bait pool and kill a local fisherman, dragging him physically into the bait pool.
They also manage to get a resort security guard who is only up to his ankles in water at the beach and drag him screaming into deeper water. Damn, these fish are devious and strong.
And so we get a massacre at a beach party, where we can literally see the wires as the fish swoop in to feed on the guests.
We get a plan to dynamite the wreck in the daytime. A subplot including Anne and Steve’s horny teenage son going sailing with some local teen jailbait and her father.
We get an unconvincing helicopter crash, people towed by anchors, divers trapped in wrecks with hungry piranha, and eventually we get to the end.
You know, writing this movie up has made me appreciate Piranha II more. It’s stupid. It’s very, very stupid, but its heart is in the right place. It’s got requisite 1980s sexy time and plenty of teased flesh. The gore is well done. It makes you jump a few times. However does it ever get to that mythical, treasured “so bad, it’s good” level? Sadly, probably not.
Damn it Cameron, you gave it your best shot! Can we suggest something with a killer robot next?
Actually, that is a fitting footnote to Piranha II: The Spawning. Cameron flew to Rome on his own dime, despite having limited resources, to try and take control of the edit. He didn’t succeed, he was very stressed, and he also got some kind of food poisoning while trapped in Rome, among the stress. He became very ill.
One night, while with a raging fever, Cameron had a wild nightmare about a robotic endoskeleton dragging itself through flames, while holding large knives, trying to get to him.
Cameron worked backward from there, and just a year after Piranha II he was working on The Terminator.