Friday, August 14, 2009

Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981) review


Tricia O'Neil (Anne Kimbrough), Steve Marachuk (Tyler Sherman), Lance Henriksen (Steve Kimbrough)

Directed by James Cameron (Ovidio Assonitis uncredited director)

"The bastards fly...."

***WARNING! This review contains pics of nudity and bloody violence***

Club Elysium, a summer resort, becomes a feeding ground when a secret military experiment is unleashed on the unsuspecting populace. Flesh eating piranha have been cross bred with various other species including flying fish to create a superior killing organism. Nestled below the oceans depths within a wrecked naval supply ship, the eggs have hatched and the mutants begin their hunt for fresh food. A diving instructor, her estranged husband and a man who worked on the covert project attempt to stop the ravenous pack of piranhas before the peaceful resort becomes a graveyard.

James Cameron helms his first movie after several years of ambitious work on a handful of Roger Corman classics where he performed 2nd Unit Direction, Set Design and Effects work on movies such as BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) and GALAXY OF TERROR (1981). Cameron quickly became one of the hottest directors Hollywood had to offer during the 1980's and 1990's. Seeing PIRANHA 2, there is very little, if anything that denotes something recognizable in one of his later works. One could say that the generally well defined characterizations were evidence of his work, but this could be levied at any decent directorial effort.

Furthermore, in an interview, Cameron states that he was fired after two weeks of filming and the producer, Ovidio Assonitis, took over. This wasn't the first time the enterprising producer pulled a stunt like this on one of his movies. Apparently Cameron's preferred version was recut as well. Assonitis had intended on mounting a PIRANHA 3 in the 1990's, but this never materialized.

Nothing outside of the premise really stands out, but the film accomplishes everything that one of these 'Animal Attack' movies are supposed to do. The audience is introduced to a plethora of personalities that act as potential meals for the killer fish later on. You get to know some of them just enough to get a feel of who they are. However, towards the end when it's time for the requisite 'mass vacationer assault', the fate of some of these characters isn't revealed which is essential in one of these 'killer animal' movies. However, there is the mandatory military involvement resulting in all the chaos.

This shot, like those mentioned and shown below, is not in the US release of PIRANHA 2

PIRANHA 2 has little to no connection to Joe Dante's original outside of the oceanic setting which is threatened at the conclusion of the first movie. For the sequel, it is learned that experimental piranha eggs sank into a wrecked ship that is frequently used as a diving exhibit. Who, or exactly how they sank into that location is never specified. The creatures hatch and attack anyone who is swimming nearby. But at night, the creatures leave their sunken lair and attack their victims on land.

The notion of flying killer fish might sound right hysterical and probably is why people say this is a cheesy movie. Genetic Engineering and gene splicing are real scientific practices so the idea that various species of fish could be used to create a mutant strain is not fantasy at all. Even with the large size of the mutant fish, their wingspan is of an equally large dimension. It would seem feasible that, just like the Sailfin flying fish found in every ocean, these creatures would be able to maintain flight at least for a limited amount of time.

This shot, as well as the following nude shots are not present in the US cut of the film

Possibly the most curious aspect of PIRANHA 2 (1981) would be the different cut present on the R2 DVD. For the US theatrical version, the film begins with the opening credits sequence which then segues into the couple diving at night around the wrecked ship. The R2 has an opening scene with the couple having a brief conversation before making their dive. There's also some additional nudity during this sequence both before and after the couple are attacked by the piranha. There are also numerous scene extensions and dialog scenes that aren't present in the American cut. Some of these extra scenes involve additional exposition such as the horny older woman who has the hots for the younger male lifeguard. Another is a brief comedic dialog scene from the goofy dentist immediately after the big slaughter sequence.

This rather gruesome sequence is not present in the US version of the film

One such added scene involves the two snobbish women, Loretta and Beverly both topless on their boat, having a conversation about their plans for the evening. There's also additional gore footage. The big attack at the finale is longer and there's a nicely gruesome sequence wherein a guard emerges from the water looking for all the world like an Italian zombie (the effects were done by Euro ace Gianetto De Rossi). His flesh falling off as well as an eyeball hanging out, the man desperately tries to reach for his walkie talkie to alert for help. Suddenly, he's pulled back into the water and quickly dragged out to sea by the mutant fish. The death of Gabby also contains some additional gore. The scene where Anne and Tyler dive into the hull of the wrecked ship to blow up the nest of piranhas is also longer in the European cut.

The gore and prosthetic effects designed by Gianetto (LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND, CONAN THE DESTROYER, DUNE, HIGH TENSION) De Rossi are good and the flying piranha are pulled off well. No doubt propelled by wires, you can't see the strings and the creatures fly in a convincing manner; little to no shaking or wobbling while airborne; not that you get a long enough look at them to notice. There's a few nicely done shots of the fish attacking underwater in packs and one gruesome sequence where one of the man eating monsters hides in the carcass of a human victim only to emerge from the dead mans stomach and attack an orderly before exiting through a window. There's several mutilated corpses, a shot of a group of piranha feasting on a severed head and a number of ripped out throats complete with spurting blood.

The spunky and attractive Tricia O'Neil is convincing as the diving instructor who learns first hand that something is terribly wrong below the ocean's surface when one of her students is found horribly mutilated inside the wreck. This leads to a dialog exchange that is very similar to a line spoken by Richard Dreyfuss in JAWS (1975). When confronted by the police chief regarding the dead man, Anne states, "It wasn't a shark and it wasn't a barracuda and it wasn't a moray eel and it wasn't a jealous lover!" Another scene that is slightly familiar to JAWS sees O'Neil going into the Fitzgerald wreck to locate said missing (but dead) diver. The man's ravaged corpse drops down on top of her in a similar fashion to the severed head gag from the Spielberg film. O'Neil was a strikingly beautiful presence in the obscure and rare blaxploitation western, THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972) starring Fred Williamson.

Lance Henriksen is the most famous and recognizable face in the movie and the one that went on to get the most work in the film industry. He plays Anne's husband and the chief of police assigned to the case. His character is one of the best developed and Henriksen plays Steve a bit high strung and one gets the impression he still loves his wife deeply. This nuance shines through during a scene where he catches her bed with Tyler and his subsequent reaction reveals anger and distress while trying to do his job and keep his composure at the same time. Henriksen has appeared in some choice horror classics such as ALIENS (1986), NEAR DARK (1987) and PUMPKINHEAD (1988). Two of his earliest horror roles were in the low budget drive in gore feature, MANSION OF THE DOOMED (1976) and the big budget DAMIEN: OMEN 2 (1978).

The pulsing score by the prolific Stelvio Cipriani (billed as Steve Powder) is a good one featuring a number of violin themed cues. The thumping and energetic opening theme has minor bits that recall JAWS (1975), but for the most part, the score is very listenable and accentuates the on screen action effectively. It also bears that distinguishable European sound that is recognizable in so many Italian genre pictures. PIRANHA 2 (1981) is an interesting curiosity piece with a troubled background from a director who would soon go on to much bigger enterprises over the course of the next two decades.

I think this movie gets a raw deal and is nowhere near as bad as people say it is. It has a gallery of interesting and goofy characters, an unusual premise (which really isn't scientifically impossible) and a nice collage of gore effects from the effects wizard responsible for some of the most mortifyingly memorable moments of Italian horror. If you're a fan of 'Nature Gone Amuck' movies, you'll want to check this one out as well. It's an average, yet enjoyable movie that delivers on its title. If you're a fan of the original, seek this one out, but know that the sequel is shot with a different approach so if you're expecting a self aware sense of tongue in cheek mixed with bloody violence, you may be disappointed.

The sequel is shot straight and operates on the same level as other similar movies. That could be part of the reason this film divides fans the way it does. Nonetheless, I have no qualms stating I am a fan of the picture having seen it years ago on tape then later on television. If you can, definitely get your hands on the remastered R2 edition. The US disc from Sony is fullscreen and apparently sourced from the previous VHS release. While it isn't perfect and doesn't try to be, PIRANHA 2 offers some good entertainment and deserves a few more fans.

This review is representative of the (unfortunately non-anamorphic) Columbia Tri Star R2 DVD.
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