Cameron #9 – Piranha II: The Spawning

Counting down the James Cameron Project, starting exactly where he started:

Intro: Before he could create new worlds, pioneer technologies, and collect his golden statues, Cameron first had to pay his dues on this Italian fish-sploitation number with random nudity, buckets of blood, and no clear reason to exist. (minus the nudity and the blood….)

Cameron originally came aboard the project as a special effects guru, fresh from his work with Roger Corman. After the original director bailed on the production (details are fuzzy as to why), Italian mega-producer Ovidio G. Assonitis called Cameron in from the bullpen to finish the job. The down side: Not even a budding master could save this clunker. The up side: Thanks to this film and a bout of virulent fever, Cameron went on to slightly better things.

And now… The Spawning!

The Movie: Welcome to Club Elysium, home of surf, sand, and the best dynamite fishing in the Caribbean. Oh, and a freshly sunken navy vessel filled with experimental biological weapons. Anne (Tricia O’Neal) is the club’s resident diving instructor with baffling guidelines to let her students swim around, but not inside, the wreck. Good call, because lost in the ship’s cargo is a batch of experimental mutant piranha eggs. Navy scientists crossbred the little buggers with grunion and flying fish to create the perfect fishy predator. Why? Why the hell not?

You may ask why the military hasn’t sent someone to retrieve this dangerous and presumably expensive cargo. After all, if a team of novice diving students can get to it, why can’t the professionals? Why is Anne allowed to swim her students anywhere near this fresh wreckage in the first place? The answers must have been saved for Piranha III: The Apology.

Back at Elysium, Anne prepares for the summer tourist season under the watchful eye of her estranged husband, and local boat cop, Steve (Lance Henricksen.) It isn’t clear why Anne and Steve split up, but the lack of a father figure has clearly done a number on their teen son Chris. Check out this still from his first scene in the movie.

That’s just a healthy American male, right? Except that’s not a sexy Italian strumpet he’s slapping with a live fish – that’s Mom. Poor, confused Oedipus Chris spends the rest of the movie romancing a teen sexpot with a bra allergy, but his heart seems committed to Mom’s apple pie.

After we’ve mingled with a few of the club’s oversexed and underhot clientele, the fish start doing their thing and it doesn’t take long for the little guys to rack up some impressive kills. Anne and Steve plead for the beaches to close, but they get the stock Jaws runaround about causing a needless panic. Of course, the situation builds to the annual Fish Fry, where tourists race to the beach to catch mating grunion, tragically forgetting the club’s brochure slogan – “Club Elysium: Where the Fish Eat You!”

Enter Tyler (Steve Marachuk), a government biochemist hiding out as a tourist to investigate the piranha problem he started. Want to bet he’s an asshole? Allow me to present the following – Tyler’s reaction when Steve catches him in bed with Anne.

Folks, Tyler is a super asshole. Thankfully he has the decency to become piranha chow down in the wreck after he and Anne rig it to explode. Anne swims away, the boat (And the fish? I guess?) goes boom, and her dysfunctional family reunites.

The Scene: No scene quite sums up the experience of Piranha II: The Spawning like Anne and Tyler’s late night dinner date at the morgue. One of Anne’s students became piranha kibble so she breaks into the hospital, intending to prove the culprit was not a barracuda or an eel. A nurse shoos her out, but just a few moments later we get…

“Como esta, putas!”

That’s right! A piranha has been nesting inside the corpse — for hours, in cold storage – and has chosen this dramatically appropriate moment to kill again. After ripping out the nurse’s throat, the fish MAKES ITS ESCAPE by busting out the window. People, I can’t make this up. Piranha II: The Spawning. It’s a real movie.

The Line: I can’t remember any dialogue worth repeating, so instead I will quote the man himself. James Cameron, tongue firmly in cheek, from the Terminator 2 commentary: “I believe The Spawning was the finest flying killer fish horror-comedy ever made.”

With incest.

Horror-comedy? Mr. Cameron, just because we’re laughing, please don’t pretend you knew there were jokes.

The Production: There’s a lot of myth and legend over the production of The Spawning, due largely to the power play between the young Cameron and the producer Assonitis. Unbelievably, there was a major struggle for creative control of this turkey. Rumors persist that Assonitis, a noted control freak, smothered Cameron’s creativity and challenged or changed every major decision the director made. It’s unclear who wrote the screenplay, credited to the pen name ‘H.A. Milton’, but it was Assonitis that insisted on the large cast of wacky supporting characters and their useless miniature dramas. The first twenty minutes of movie is spent introducing potential piranha victims such as the nerdy dentist and his gold-digging love interest, or the horny widow and the doofus pool boy, but when the fish finally swoop out of the water to cull the herd, they attack all-new, nameless characters. We never even see the other folks again. Decisions like this must have driven Cameron, a screenwriter and a perfectionist, out of his young mind.

“No, just hold the fish to your throat and scream.  We’ll cut around it, nobody will know.”

My favorite rumor about the film’s production has Cameron breaking into the editing room one dark and stormy night to cut his own version of the film, while Assonitis was away at a film festival. Unfortunately, Assonitis cut it back as soon as the changes were discovered. Sometimes I mourn for the brilliant James Cameron Piranha II: The Spawning cut we’ve been denied.

…A James Cameron Film: Many Cameron trademarks make their first appearance in The Spawning. Of most interest are the lingering shots of the wrecked navy boat on the ocean floor, foreshadowing — or perhaps launching — Cameron’s obsession with underwater scenery and exploration. The film also features a strong female lead in Anne, technology run amok (bioengineered flying killer fish is something I would call very amok), and Lance Henricksen in the first of several collaborations with the director.

Lasting Impact: For trivia buffs, this is the film equivalent of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball squad, making it a lasting, easy punchline.

A fish escaping through a window is EXACTLY like a missed free throw.

More importantly, while Cameron was filming this movie off the Grand Cayman islands, he reportedly caught a nasty virus. While sleeping off the resulting fever, he had a dream about a vicious robot emerging from fire to kill him. He woke up, started writing, and soon left all this behind with The Terminator.

Reason for Ranking: Flying piranha.

The James Cameron Project:

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9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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