One Too Many: Piranha Part 2: The Spawning (1981)

Written by Matt Bowes

One of the many funny quirks of pop culture is that a project specifically created to rip-off the success of an enormously popular work of art sometimes has a better chance of having a longer franchise shelf life than the work that inspired it. Whereas in the case of the original work, each inferior sequel and remake is seen as a desecration, the rip-off has the freedom to replicate itself ad infinitum in an atmosphere where no one really gives a fuck either way.

Compare, for example, the franchise life of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to that of Joe Dante’s Piranha, a Roger Corman-produced rip-off of Spielberg’s classic that was made to coincide with the release of its inevitable sequel.

The Jeannot Szwarc-directed Jaws II was judged by many as a major comedown from the first film—so much so that National Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons commissioned a script by John Hughes called Jaws 3, People 0 that satirized the franchise (and which—by most accounts of those who read it—was hilarious). Spielberg wasn’t amused by the idea of seeing his baby mocked onscreen, so he had it squelched in favour of the more conventional (but somehow even more ridiculous) Jaws 3-D. By the fourth film, the infamous Jaws: The Revenge (which appears to have been mostly made as a gift by Universal Pictures president Sid Sheinberg to his wife, leading lady Lorraine Gary) no one could take the concept seriously and the franchise was put to rest.

In the years that followed, the first Jaws has entered the pantheon of truly great films, while its sequels are largely regarded as something that just happened and are best left forgotten. Occasionally you hear talk about its being remade, but the general consensus is that this is never going to happen so long as Spielberg draws breath (and even not after that, since it’s reasonable to assume he’ll have his consciousness transferred into a remarkable robotic simulacra).

The Piranha franchise, on the other hand, has managed—as of this date—to produce five films to Jaws’ four, including one direct sequel, two remakes and a sequel to the second remake. And though none of the films involved come even close to being as good as Jaws, all but two of them are actually superior to all three Jaws sequels.

…though none of the [Piranha] films involved come even close to being as good as Jaws, all but two of them are actually superior to all three Jaws sequels.

The first Piranha is a classic example what could happen when a young filmmaker working under Corman was given the freedom to do his own thing, so long as the finished product featured all the necessary exploitable elements that drove the famed producer’s business. Written by future indie-auteur icon, John Sayles (who reportedly wrote another Jaws rip-off, Alligator,at the same time—switching between projects depending on which production most recently called insisting for more pages), the film established what would become one of Dante’s trademarks—the ability to invest genuine horror with sly comic overtones.

While not as overtly cartoonish as his biggest hit, the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, his Piranha bore the same cynical edge, especially in its depiction of Dick Miller’s Buck Gardner, the owner of the summer resort destined to be attacked by genetically modified carnivorous fish. The result was a hit, but not one Corman felt compelled to capitalize on himself. When it came time for a sequel, he sold the rights to a Greek producer named Ovido G. Assonitis, who had already made his own Jaws rip-off with a low budget giant octopus movie called Tentacles that somehow managed to star Henry Fonda, John Huston and Shelley Winters.

Assonitis assigned the project to another Corman alumni named James Cameron, who had made a name for himself as the uber-resourceful production designer on Galaxy of Terror and for his special effects work on Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars (also written by Sayles, who wrote it as an unofficial remake of both Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and John Sturges’ Americanized version The Magnificent Seven). Cameron co-wrote the script with Charles Eglee (who would later rejoin with Cameron to co-create the Jessica Alba TV vehicle Dark Angel) and was tasked to direct, but what actually happened during production is—even today—open to speculation.

According to most sources, Cameron was fired during filming (some say several weeks into filming, whiles others claim it happened after just a few days) and Assonitis took over behind the camera. Legend has it that Cameron got his revenge by sneaking his way back into post-production where he covertly edited the film behind Assonitis’ back, shaping the whole into something that at least resembled his original vision.

Because of this background history, The Spawning has made frequent appearances in articles dedicated to the subject of terrible early films by future filmmaking legends and because of articles like these the film has earned a reputation for being an unmitigated disaster—one often spread by people who have never actually seen it.

It’s a case of a film whose infamy has nothing to do with its actual quality, but instead our collective unwillingness to accept that such a turbulent production (and admittedly ridiculous concept) could actually produce something worthwhile.

The problem with this is that—regardless of who directed what—as low-budget exploitation horror b-movie sequels go, it’s actually pretty great and already features many of the touches that would later define Cameron’s work and allow him to become one of the most successful filmmakers the medium has ever produced. It’s a case of a film whose infamy has nothing to do with its actual quality, but instead our collective unwillingness to accept that such a turbulent production (and admittedly ridiculous concept) could actually produce something worthwhile.

Like all of Cameron’s best work, The Spawning centres on a strong female lead character. In this case a scuba instructor named Annie Cavanagh, portrayed by The Gumball Rally’s Tricia O’Neil. And, also like all of Cameron’s best work, Lance Henriksen is there too—in this case as Annie’s estranged husband, the local sheriff.

When a ship carrying an even more dangerous breed of genetically modified piranha than that found in the first film (these ones can fly and survive for long periods out of water) sinks not far from Club Elysium, the Caribbean resort where Annie works, it doesn’t take long for the victims to pile up and it’s left to her ingenuity to save the day.

There’s more than a little Sarah Conner and Ellen Ripley in O’Neil’s character, which makes the fact that most dismiss The Spawning as nothing more than a footnote in Cameron’s career all the more frustrating. Though the actual logic behind her final plan doesn’t bear close scrutiny, as presented—with the added element of a ticking time clock—the film’s climactic last 10 minutes prove to be just as thrilling (to me, at least) as Spielberg’s famous ending. The fact that she too is written as a maternal figure—this time with a teenage son who spends the film wooing a gorgeous young socialite—only makes her status as a defining Cameron hero all the more powerful.

That’s not to say the film is perfect. It has to be watched with an eye for forgiveness that many similar b-movies demand. While Dante’s film reads as unmistakably American, the sequel very much feels like the product of then-prevailing European schlock-cinema sensibilities—the lasting effect of Assonitis’ work on the film. Parts of the film are poorly dubbed, the special effects are extremely cheap (but—on the whole—no more so than the first film’s) and the camera occasionally treats its more attractive co-stars with a gaze that borders on the wrong side of creepy, but that’s all par for the course for Euro-exploitation of that era.

Following The Spawning’s failure to make an impact at the box office, it appeared that the franchise had played its meager course. But then—14 years after its release—Roger Corman signed a deal with Showtime to produce remakes of films from his back catalog. The resulting 1995 made-for-cable remake of Piranha was virtually a shot-for-shot recreation of Dante’s film, but one that drained it of all of its satire in favour of a straight telling of the story. Today, the only thing notable about the film is an early appearance by a very young Mila Kunis.

By 2010, that remake was forgotten by all but the geekiest of horror fans, which made the possibility of a new, edgier version of the film an appealing investment for the Weinstein brothers, who had picked up the rights to the franchise (presumably for a song). Alexandre Aja, who had found success with his 2006 remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes did right to the original by recognizing its covert irreverence and identifying how its structure was well-suited for an unapologetic tribute to the glories of exploitation cinema.

The resulting Piranha 3D was an instant cult classic—enough so that, despite its failure at the box office, a sequel resulted. But, as if often the case, Piranha 3DD made the mistake of ignoring the subtleties in favour of the obvious—amplifying 3D’s gratuitousness without its wit (while 3D featured a scene with Richard Dreyfus—coyly identified as his Jaws’ character, Hooper—getting taken down by the titular fish, 3DD expected us to be similarly amused by a context-less encounter between the piranha and Gary Busey).

By all rights, the creative and financial failure of Piranha 3DD, should be enough to end the franchise for good. But that’s not really how it works in horror movies—where name recognition often trumps all other factors. While the likelihood of another Jaws movie seems incredibly remote, I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more adventures of these tiny, toothy fish in the future.

Personally, I’d love to see James Cameron give it a second shot.

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