Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981)

It Started as a Vacation…

Poster image for 1981's Piranha 2: The Spawning

A new breed of killer piranha, this time crossbred with grunions (who can survive on land) and flying fish (who can, well, fly), is accidentally unleashed in the ocean around the Club Elysium, where our heroine Annie Kimbrough teaches diving classes. Her estranged husband Steve is a police officer who quickly jumps on the case, but she launches an unofficial investigation of her own, aided by diving student Tyler Sherman, who knows more than he’s letting on. The expected bloody beach mayhem ensues.

There are some pretty solid gore effects, which makes it all the more disappointing how ridiculous the piranha look. While the original was never going to win any awards for special effects, the fact that the fish were confined to the water helped to obscure them from sight when the panic kicked in and the blood started flowing. The sequel doesn’t have that advantage. The added element of the fish being able to fly was meant to instill a new level of terror, and it does lend itself to a memorable attack scene when a bunch of tourists are making a grunion run, but the special effects are always unable to keep up with the promise. There are plenty of other death scenes, but most of them are as unmemorable as the film itself.

Lance Henriksen as seen in 1981's Piranha 2: The Spawning

There is also a drastically different tone at play here. Its predecessor planted its tongue firmly in cheek and kept it there for most of the running time, however THE SPAWNING takes itself too seriously. This more straight forward approach to the material may have worked had it not been conceived as a follow-up to the much-beloved 1978 film, but as it stands, it only serves to distance itself needlessly from the original. But most disappointingly, it completely ignored the fact that the original readily opened itself up for a sequel, and gave us a whole new batch of piranha whipped up in a completely different laboratory. And really, where’s the fun in that?

This movie has a bit of a troubled backstory, some of which may account for the weaknesses in the film. Although Roger Corman is the producer most identified with the original PIRANHA, he was not the only producer—there was also Jon Davison, Chako van Leeuween, and Jeff Schectman. It was, apparently, Leeuween and Schectman who held the most control of the title, as Corman (and presumably Davison) had signed on for only a one-picture deal, meaning that when the sequel came around for Warner Brothers, they were free to pull behind-the-scenes talent from elsewhere.

Back in 1974, filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis had directed the possession film BEYOND THE DOOR, which was too close to THE EXORCIST for Warner Brothers, who filed an infringement suit. According to Assonitis, as part of the settlement, he agreed to not make a sequel to that film, and to work in a producer’s role for three films at WB studios. One of those three films was to be PIRANHA II. He had agreed to produce it so long as he was able to assume creative control, which the studio granted, with one minor stipulation: The piranha had to fly.

Neck bite, as seen in 1981's Piranha 2: The Spawning

Assonitis brought on Miller Drake to direct it, and he and screenwriter Charles Eglee set about crafting a script. In their original vision, Kevin McCarthy’s scientist character from part one was supposed to return, despite apparently dying the first time around. Badly scarred and mutilated, he was to be using these flying piranha as tools of revenge (which, admittedly, would negate the character’s development over the course of his short running time in the original film). Barbara Steele’s character was likely to return, as well.

Drake had also brought in James Cameron to assist with the art direction, and had set in motion the recruitment of Rob Bottin, who had done some work on the original, to provide special effects for the sequel. But before Bottin had begun work, and before the original script had gone much of anywhere, Assonitis fired Drake after an argument about how slow the preproduction side of things was moving.

Cameron was then promoted from art direction into the director’s chair. He, Eglee and Assonitis all hammered out a new script together—credited onscreen under the shared pseudonym of H.A. Milton. It was Cameron’s first feature film as a director, and he faced a number of unforeseeable challenges—the morgue where one key scene took place, for instance, was actually housing corpses piled three-deep, much to the cast and crew’s chagrin. The constant interference of Assonitis was even more challenging, though, as he questioned all of Cameron’s decisions and often overrode them with his own.

Two weeks into the shoot, Assonitis then fired his replacement director, James Cameron. Cameron, who has not had a good thing to say about the experience since, claims that it was because Assonitis had wanted to direct the film himself all along. Reports from the other producers declare that it was actually because of budgetary concerns—Cameron wanted to craft the best picture that he could, and was spending far too much time and money getting the perfect shot.

Whatever the true motivation behind it, Assonitis did step in to complete the film, though Cameron’s name was left in the credits for contractual and legal reasons. The finished film was eventually distributed by Saturn International Pictures, which, from what I can gather, was a minor arm of the Warner Brothers studio system.

Close up of the deadly fish from 1981's Piranha 2: The Spawning

There are rumors that once shooting had ended, Cameron would break into the editing bay at night to work on his own edit of the film—rumors that Cameron has alternately denied and promulgated. This Cameron Cut of the film, which may or may not exist, is said to convey Cameron’s original vision of the movie as best he could, with the footage that was available. It is highly sought after on the collector’s market, but I am yet to be convinced that it is real. There are alternate versions that exist—including an international and a television version—but these were the work of the studio and the producers, and not of Cameron himself.

On more than one occasion, Assonitis had plans to produce a PIRANHA III, going so far as to print up advertisements in order to drum up interest. One take on the new sequel was to be called THE CRAWLING MENACE, in which the piranha apparently lost their wings and grew legs instead, and another was THE INVISIBLE MENACE, where they had developed the ability to turn invisible. If the image on the advertisement is to be believed, they also move into a snowy climate, conceivably terrorizing ice fishermen or teenyboppers at a ski resort. Neither of these films were ever made, and likely never progressed beyond the conceptual stage. And yet some territories appear, at first glance, to have been privy to not one but two additional sequels that the rest of us did not see. In some countries, Corman’s own 1995 made-for-cable remake of the original was released theatrically and billed, not as a remake, but as PIRANHA 3, while the wholly unrelated Italian film PLANKTON was released in 1994 in its native country, but released at a later date elsewhere as PIRANHA 4.

I would much prefer a bunch of transparent snowfish over sitting through either of those two films again.

Director James Cameron shouldn’t require any introduction, as he is responsible for blockbusters like THE TERMINATOR (1984) and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991); ALIENS (1986); TITANIC (1997); and AVATAR (2009). He prefers to keep PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING off of his résumé, but nobody’s falling for that anymore.

Screenwriter Charles H. Eglee went on to script the killer rat flick DEADLY EYES (1982), and then concentrated mostly on television. He contributed as screenwriter and producer to MOONLIGHTING, MURDER ONE, THE SHIELD, DEXTER, THE WALKING DEAD, and James Cameron’s DARK ANGEL.

Annie was played by the attractive Tricia O’Neil, who also appeared in the infamous blaxploitation western THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLIE (1972); the madcap comedy THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976); the made-for-TV child abuse drama MARY JANE HARPER CRIED LAST NIGHT (1977), with Kevin McCarthy from the original PIRANHA; and the stalker semi-horror film ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? (1978). She would team up with James Cameron again in TITANIC (1997), though her role of “Woman” was doubtlessly much smaller than her role here.

Annie’s husband Steve was played by Lance Henricksen, who, with nearly 200 roles under his belt, should be no stranger to genre fans. He has appeared in DAMIEN: OMEN II (1978); the horror anthology NIGHTMARES (1983); cult-favorite vampire film NEAR DARK (1987); the unforgettable PUMPKINHEAD (1988); and the X-Files related MILLENNIUM (1996-1999); he worked for Assonitis again in THE VISITOR (1979), and was cast in James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR (1984), and ALIENS (1986). When you work as steadily as Henricksen, you’re bound to appear in your fair share of bad pictures, but even then his performance is usually the highlight.

The careers of the rest of the cast are much less expansive and much less impressive, so the truly curious will have to dig deeper for themselves. Might I suggest some back issues of Penthouse magazine? A few of the fish fodder can be found there on full display.

Bathing beauties from 1981's Piranha 2: The Spawning


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