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We spliced in genes from different species to create the ultimate killer organism.

Piranha II: The Spawning
(1981)

(SPOILERS) James Cameron’s first movie, except he protests that he was replaced after two-and-a-half weeks (or was it eight days?), shut out of the editing room, and generally disabused of any notion he had a say in the finished picture. And yet, he can’t escape this sequel to Joe Dante’s cheap and cheerful original as his generally cited debut, however divested of it he may be. Jimbo also cared enough to (apparently) produce his own edit for a little-seen laserdisc version. I had next to no desire to revisit this particular scene of a crime, but in the interest of fairness to his oeuvre and a thorough exploration of the works of the Jim-meister, I steeled myself and… Piranha II: The Flying Killers, or Piranha II: The Spawning, as you will, is a very long 90 minutes.


Piranha II plays less as a horror movie than a combination of bad ‘70s porn, where every other scene anticipates a major unfurling, and bad ‘80s vacation comedies, where the holiday makers have only raunchy antics on their minds and you’re dreading the arrival of Rodney Dangerfield. As for the salient respective ingredients of those genres, there is nudity in Piranha II, but not nearly enough to be a selling point. And in terms of laughs, they are there, but only of the unintentional, flying fish variety, since they go straight for countless jugulars and produce fountains of spectacular rouge.


In its vague defence, however, Piranha II is blessed with Lance Henriksen in a not-quite lead role. In the early scenes at least, he’s looking like he’s going to wrestle the movie singlehanded from the rubbery airborne poissons, passing through the proceedings entirely unblemished, and exuding cool in the way only a guy with a receding hairline who has made the most of bit parts throughout the previous decade can.


Lance might seem overly dismissive towards the views of estranged wife Anne (Tricia O’Neil, the very definition of a yummy mummy, so much so their son Chris, Rick G Paul, seems worryingly enamoured of her, at least until he finds someone his own age), but we have to stack up the evidence here. Anne is evidently a prototype for Cameron’s tough bitches, I mean strong women, albeit without the muscles and weaponry and desire to act in as disconcertingly masculine a fashion as possible to prove how highly competent a representative of her gender she is.


But she’s also unscrupulously reckless in her desire to prove herself right, and there’s absolutely no consequence or repercussion from this. It’s directly down to her breaking into the morgue that an attendant is killed (in admittedly hilarious fashion; but still, that’s no excuse) and there’s a general sense that everything she does is because she’s a wilful, headstrong heroine who must be right, rather than because there are good sensible reasons for her behaviour. So she’s your basic Cameron leading lady, just marginally less finessed than usual. Her travails are ultimately in aid of the restoration of the family unit, something we’ll see more of in Aliens, Terminator 2 and True Lies.


Also present and correct is some decent underwater photography, another of Cameron’s great devotions (and likely to be revisited once again in one of the Avatar sequels, if rumours are true). Steve Marachuk offers a solid turn as a stud-come-weasel working for unscrupulous corporations, who are yet again responsible for a scientific experiment gone awry (they’re all alike, unless they’re providing backing for your next movie that is , eh Jim?) And, also as per the first Piranha, the event organiser refuses to listen to the warnings of imminent peril.


Along the way we meet a yacht owner straight out of Magnum (Ward White) and an obnoxious hotelier (Ted Richert). There are some occasionally gruey moments (notably a half-eaten character stumbling from the ocean), and some downright abysmal interludes (anything involving Arnie Ross’ Mal the Cook), but the main fault of Piranha II is that it’s so soporofic, even though it’s over before most Cameron movies properly begin.


Cameron came aboard after the original director, Miller Drake (who provided second unit on Alligator, and is mostly known as a visual effects guy) was nixed; it’s ironic that he started out on a “series” built on a firm sense of humour, since his subsequent movies illustrate, if nothing else, that this isn’t his forte. Not to say he can’t come up with decent gags (as Hudson in Aliens illustrates) or that “the finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made” isn’t a good way to turn the movie’s failures into a self-deprecating positive (minus the comedy bit). But True Lies proved that going wholeheartedly down the comedy route announced his deficiencies for all to see, as does the comic business in something like this. The only way for Piranha II: The Spawning to have (ahem) flown would have been to embrace its absurdity the way Joe Dante could, and Jimbo just isn’t that kind of guy.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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