Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 15, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (1981)

When it comes to cinematic science fiction, there are a few directors that come to mind as masters of the genre. Spielberg, for sure. Ridley Scott, probably. Likely to be near the top of anyone's list of "best sci-fi filmmakers" is James Cameron. People debate the artistic merits of his films and his personalty is certainly divisive. Though he's only officially directed eight narrative films, his impact on cinema is difficult to overstate. He's revolutionized special effects, fired imaginations all over the world, and managed to direct the highest grossing movie of all time twice. So let's leap into the ocean and explore a world full of killer robots, aliens, big explosions, and deep sea exploration.

1. Piranha II: The Spawning
Co-directed with Ovidio G. Assonitis

In 1978, Roger Corman’s New World Picture produced “Piranha.” What otherwise would have been a routine “Jaws” rip-off was elevated by a clever screenplay by John Sayles and lively direction from Joe Dante. The movie made some decent money and is rightfully regarded as one of the best flicks to follow in “Jaws’” wake. Sometime after the original’s release, the film rights ended up with Italian schlock-producer Ovidio G. Assonitis. The movie that followed is called “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning” on-screen but is commonly refereed to as “Piranha II: The Spawning.” Under normal circumstances, the sequel probably would have been forgotten by all but diehard horror/schlock fans. Except the movie’s director, a young newcomer who was originally hired just to direct the special effects sequences, would go on to become one of the most successful directors to ever live. That’s right. James Cameron got his start with a movie about flying, killer fish.

Once a year, a coastal island resort has a special event. Fish, migrating through the ocean to find a suitable breeding ground, gather near the beach, making for easy fishing. This event is called “the spawning” and it’s a big draw for tourist. The spawning is going to be rudely interrupted this year. A military boat containing the eggs of genetically engineered super-piranhas recently crashed near the island. Now, those eggs have hatched and a horde of flying, flesh-eating piranhas have been released. Only a diving instructor, her helicopter pilot ex-husband, and her CIA agent boyfriend can save the day.

“Piranha II” is a very loose sequel. The original “Piranha” was set in small, rural town. The story’s gimmick revolved around the piranhas being unleashed on the rivers and beaches of a tiny town. The sequel ejects all of that. Instead, the movie takes place on a Caribbean island. The local eccentrics of the first movie have been replaced with sun-fried beach bunnies and vacationing retirees. Plot wise, the connection between the two films is tenuous. The piranhas in this film are assumed to be the result of the same Project Razorteeth that produced the first movie’s threat. A single line of dialogue confirms this, briefly mentioning the first movie’s events. However, the line is short enough that it’s easy to miss. The lack of returning characters, a totally different tone, and a barely connected story makes “Piranha II” seem less like a sequel and more like a low budget rip-off of the original. Which, considering the first movie’s root, would make this a rip-off of a rip-off.

“Piranha II” doesn’t have the all-American cheese flavor of the original. The movie, instead, stinks of Italy. There’s a good reason for this. The sequel had a troubled production. Cameron was actually the second director hired. He was a last minute replacement for original director Miller Drake, another former Corman employee. Cameron frequently butted heads with producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, who wouldn’t approve anything he shot. After two weeks, Cameron was fired and the producer took over the director’s chair. Despite this, Cameron was still given the final credit. Interviews give inconsistent information over how much of the final film he shot. Assonitis was a director himself and previously made “Tentacles,” another “Jaws” rip-off, and “Beyond the Door,” an “Exorcist” rip-off. Like Assonitis’ previous films, “The Spawning” is languidly paced, poorly constructed, and peppered with random burst of nudity, gore, and rubbery special effects.

The most infamous difference between “The Spawning” and “Piranha” are the piranhas themselves. In the first film, the fish were engineered to be smarter and deadlier then your average fish. Deciding this was insufficiently intimidating, “The Spawning” gives the titular fishies the ability to fly. Yes, the rubber piranhas now have silvery wings on their backs that allow them to leap, hover, and fly through the airs. Isn’t the primary gimmick of a killer fish movie the threat mostly being underwater? Doesn’t giving the fish the ability to fly negate that central premise? Yes. Yes, it does.

Even stranger then that, “The Spawning’s” plot revolves around a love triangle and a troubled marriage. Anne is a diving instructor who is currently separated, but not divorced, from her husband Steve. The two don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company much but are linked by their teenage son, Tyler. The strained relationship is further strained when Anne falls into the arms of hunky CIA agent Chris, who is on the trail of the killer fish. Steve even walks in on the two of them in bed together. Conveniently, the movie ends with Chris sacrificing himself to destroy the piranha and save Anne’s life. This allows the two protagonists to patch things up and get back together, which the ending heavily hints at. Was a movie about flying, flesh-eating fish the right place to tell the story of a marriage on the rocks? Well, it was certainly a strange place to tell that story.

If the overly earnest plot wasn’t strange enough, “Piranha II” features an utterly bizarre collection of supporting characters. In the opening minutes, we are introduced to some of the folks staying at the resorts. There’s the homely, middle-aged woman who is desperate to meet a man. By standing in shallow water and screaming, she attracts the attention of an effeminate life-guard who looks and sounds a lot like Charles Nelson Reilly. The chef of the hotel is a young man with a stutter, who is taken advantage off by two frequently nude female sun-bathers. Tyler, the teenage son, is learning how to sail from a stuck-up, British gentleman who is just a monocle short of being the perfect stereotype. How about the horny old lady who cluelessly hits on the hunky pool boy, who is obviously disinterested in her advances? Or the dynamite fisherman who sets out to avenge his son after he’s killed by the piranhas? Most of these characters end up dead by the end, making their odd, grating personalities seem like an even odder decision.

The original “Piranha” tempered it’s somewhat cheesy story and effects by being intentionally funny. The sequel, on the other hand, has to settle for being unintentionally funny. While sneaking into the morgue to investigate a dead body, Anne encounters a jive-talking black nurse. The movie treats the concept of the spawning, a bunch of horny fish swimming up stream and being eaten by hungry tourists, with a bizarre amount of pomp. In the film, it’s a huge tourist attraction, an odd proposition. The hotel owners trump it up all night. The beach goers, holding torches, descend on the ocean, shouting “We want fish!” This is, in case you didn’t guess, hilarious. In the last act, Lance Henriksen leaps from his helicopter into the water, in order to get to his stranded son. Meanwhile, the helicopter spins off, exploding to the side, dejected and sad. Well, that’s one way to settle that. All of this is overlooking the hilarity of the flying fish and the rubbery, stiff effects that bring them to life.

So does “The Spawning” hold up as a cheesy exploitation flick? The movie certainly doesn’t lack gore and sex. The first scene is two divers swimming into the sunken boat. The woman slinks out of her suit, the two having sex while underwater. They are, naturally, immediately torn apart by the piranhas. The aforementioned sun bathers also provide some plentiful T&A, if that’s what you’re looking. As a gore flick, “Piranha II” is not as compelling. The rubber fish do tear into people’s necks and bodies. One slithers out of a dead body, flying across dry land. Another leaps out of the water, grabs an innocent bystander, and cause him to fall into even more water, which quickly becomes red with blood. The piranhas leave an entire beach full of tourists dead. However, the gore sequences are never that exciting. They are shot in a plain fashion and there’s nothing creative about the way the movie throws its blood around. The results is a cheap thrills flicks relatively short on cheap thrills.

“Piranha II” is barely a James Cameron film. Given Assonittis’ attitude towards his work, it’s difficult to know how much of his work actually made it into the final film. However, if you squint hard enough, you can spot a few elements that would quickly become Cameron trademarks. The film has a female lead. Like Ripley and Sarah Conner, she’s also a mother. Despite protecting her children being her main motivation, Anne is still a strong woman, willing to swim into danger and fight back against a swarm of killer fish. If Cameron’s career has taught us anything, it’s that the dude is fucking obsessed with the ocean. Naturally, “Piranha II” features plenty of underwater photography and diving. The film doesn’t bother much to mine the sea for either grandeur or terror. It’s easy to assume that Cameron’s interest in water is what drew him to the ill-fated project in the first place.

If we’re talking Cameron trademarks, “Piranha II’ has another: Lance Henriksen. The gravel-voiced, leathery character actor had already be in three genre movies, the first few of many, by this point. He gives a fairly standard performance as Steve, Anne’s estranged mother. He gets to leap out of a helicopter and be heroic and does just fine at that. Lance also has solid chemistry with Tricia O’Neil as Anne. “Piranha II” is hardly the type of material to provide any great depth for an actor. However, O’Neil does good work with what she’s given. She’s a likable screen presence. An early scene where she’s bitching out the hotel owner provides some insight into her personality. Her romantic subplot is mildly diverting. Unlike most everyone else in the film, her performance is never goofy, ham-fisted, or laughable. That’s a low bar to clear, sure, but O’Neil winds up being one of the best things about “Piranha II.”

While the soundtrack for “Piranha II” can’t stand up to Pino Donnagio’s surprisingly lyrical work on the first film, it’s not bad either. Stelvio Cipriani, credited as “Steve Powder,” was a veteran composer of the Italian film industry, providing music for many giallos and poliziotteschi flicks. Cipriani’s music has a certain pulpy appeal. There’s some lounge-worthy saxophone, a grooving guitar that wouldn’t be out of place in a vintage porno, lots of pulsating strings, and some sparse piano and synth clattering. The opening credits music, for example, is funky enough to sway too but also provides more tension then the rest of the movie that follows.

By all accounts, Cameron had an awful time making the movie. He seemed suitably embarrassed by the movie and, considering he was outed early on, he does not consider it his directorial debut. From time to time though, he’s shown some good humor about the movie, calling it the “best flying piranha movie ever made.” For fans of Joe Dante’s “Piranha,” this misbegotten sequel doesn’t provide much. For Cameron fans, the movie is a bit of trivia, a very odd place for a hugely successful director to start his career. “Piranha II: The Spawning” is most likely to be enjoyed by fans of sleazy Italian cheese, who can handle long stretches of tedium between bursts of unintentional humor. [Grade: D+]

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