Some of you might have noticed that I failed to get anything posted last Sunday. I wish I had a good excuse for this, but I don’t. The reality is I was simply uninspired. I tried watching a half dozen movies over the course of the long weekend and couldn’t find one I felt compelled to write about. Today, however, is different, so I am happy to be able to bring to you:
Piranha Part 2: The Spawning
A few years after a military experiment went wrong and a school of ultra-vicious piranhas were released into an American fresh-water river system, history repeats itself when a ship carrying an even more dangerous breed of the carnivorous fish (they can fly!) sinks near the Caribbean resort of Club Elysium. The first person to become aware of their presence is the resort’s (very) attractive scuba instructor, Anne Cavanagh, who is currently separated from her husband Steve, the island’s sheriff, and engaged in an enjoyable flirtation with Tyler Sherman, a mysterious New Yorker who may know more about the deadly fish than he lets on. Will the three of them be able to save the resort’s tourists from becoming fish chow? And, more importantly, will Anne and Steve’s teenage son, Chris, get some action from the super hot rich girl?
Okay, I’m confused. Based on everything I’ve read, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning is supposed to be atrociously terrible—laughably bad. Yet the experience I’ve just had watching it was one filled with genuine elation and delight. I didn’t just like this movie—I loved it! And not in any sort of ironic-bad-movie way. No, as the credits began to roll I felt the sensation of having seen a legitimately great B-movie. Is there something wrong with me? Do I have a fever? Did I somehow magically receive a copy of the film that is vastly superior to the one that remains so critically derided? Or are the rest of you a bunch of assholes who wouldn’t know a good piranha movie if it came and stripped the flesh off your bones in less than 60 seconds?
Guess which one I’m going with!
As a film The Spawning remains best known as an odd footnote in the filmography of the then-future King of the World, James Cameron. It’s the movie writers always bring up to show that even the most consistently successful director in Hollywood has a so-called stinker in his past. Cameron apologists defend their hero by insisting he was fired sometime during the production (versions of the story range from this happening just two days to several weeks into production) and either had no role in the post-production process or managed to take complete control of it, but could only work with what producer Ovido G. Assonitis shot in his absence.
Knowing what I know about writers (having been guilty of their crimes myself) I’m certain that the majority of those who have mocked The Spawning have never actually seen it and do so based more on the concept of killer flying fish than anything else.
That still doesn’t explain the hostility the film has engendered from fellow B-movie enthusiasts who actually have seen it and describe it as laughably inept. As I suggested above, I have to wonder if they’ve actually seen the same movie I have. Sure, the special effects are pretty cheap, but no cheaper or any worse than those found in Joe Dante’s 1978 original.
In fact, the main source of derision seems to be that The Spawning isn’t a direct copy of Piranha, insofar as it more resembles a Euro-schlock Jaws rip-off than the semi-comedic pastiche of 50s horror films and 70s eco panic movies Dante and screenwriter John Sayles threw together on the sly. It’s another case of critics deriding a film not for being what it actually is, but for not being what they expected. Yes, The Spawning is an outright Euro-schlock Jaws rip-off, but it also happens to be a very fun and exciting Euro-schlock Jaws rip-off that—shockingly to me—features far more likeable characters than those found in Dante’s acclaimed original.
I admit it doesn’t hurt that, like Cameron, I have a total hard-on for strong female characters. Perhaps the greatest injustice done to The Spawning by its critics is that by automatically dismissing it wholesale they fail to include Tricia O’Neil’s great performance as Anne Cavanagh with those of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley whenever describing Cameron’s most compelling female characters. She is easily their equal and I’m not just saying that because I’ve had a crush on O’Neil since I first took note of her while reviewing The Gumball Rally for Flick Attack last year.
The truth is, the question of how much of The Spawning Cameron directed is somewhat moot, since the credited writer, H.A. Milton, is actually a pseudonym for Cameron, Assonitis and Charles H. Eglee (who eventually created and executive produced Cameron’s post-apoc Jessica Alba TV show Dark Angel) and Cameron’s distinctive fingerprints can be found all over the script. Who else would write a sequence for a low-budget trash-horror sequel in which the sheriff (played by Lance Henrickson no less!) chooses to jump out of the helicopter he’s flying solo in order to rescue his son and the busty young strumpet with whom he’s stranded? That level of foolish ambition is what made Cameron’s The Terminator and Aliens stand out from the rest of the pack and it’s there to be found throughout The Spawning if you care to look for it.
That’s not to say the film is perfect. It is Euro-schlock, right down to some occasionally terrible dubbing and a few questionable comedic performances from the actors playing the tourists, but any genre critic who has ever praised the likes of Bava (be it Mario or Lamberto), Argento or (especially) Fulci has seen this all before and seldom done this well. And, yes, the effects are terrible, but the premise behind them isn’t anywhere near as ridiculous as others may suggest. Through just a few expository lines, the script explains that the piranha have had their gene’s altered with grunion (who can survive outside of the water) and flying fish, which to my ears sounds just as plausible as an enormous great white shark that spontaneously decides to exclusively dine on a form of prey the species traditionally avoids.
Speaking of sharks, the script’s devotion to ripping off Jaws is almost admirable in its lack of subtlety, but compared to Killer Fish, Great White and Orca, its mimicry is clever and never fails to entertain. As absurd as it sounds, I found The Spawning’s climatic last 10 minutes to be as thrilling and emotionally satisfying as Spielberg’s—the script literally adding a ticking time bomb to up the stakes of Anne’s thrilling escape away from the undersea predators (even if the thought behind the explosion doesn’t actually make much sense when you think about it).
The Spawning also proves itself to be very worthwhile for those of us who enjoy exploitation movies for their unapologetic use of extremely attractive actresses. Beyond O’Neil (whose amazing cheekbones made me recall a dark-skinned Jacqueline Bisset), the film also features the dark-haired beauty of The Rapture’s Carole Davis, as well as Leslie Graves (a former child actress and nude model, who appeared in a early 80s soap opera before fading into obscurity and dying of AIDS in 1995), all of whom will likely linger in the consciousness of any heterosexual man lucky enough to see them.
Suffice it to say, you can add Piranha Part 2: The Spawning to my list of nearly-universally despised sequels I love (which includes The Exorcist II: The Heretic and Warlock II: Armageddon). James Cameron has absolutely nothing to be ashamed about.
Except for maybe this.