If there’s one thing we can say for certain about James Cameron, it’s that this dude fucking loves underwater shit. Of course we already knew this from having seen The Abyss and Titanic, but Cameron didn’t arrive at his H2O fetishism through years of careful refinement to his core auteurist themes. No—this dude was jacking off to saltwater aquariums from jump, as evidenced by the Oscar winning director’s weirdly entertaining 1981 schlock-cinema debut, Piranha II: The Spawning.
Sure, a lot of big time Hollywood filmmakers got their start in downmarket trash aimed at separating grindhouse mouthbreathers from their cum-soaked paper dollars. But not even Boxcar Bertha or Dementia 13 featured winged, razor-jawed fish leaping out of the ocean to feast on the soft, Banana Boat-flavored flesh of sun worshiping tourists. Then again, not many filmmakers made $3 billion forcing elongated CGI Smurfs to cosplay Fergully: The Last Rainforest, either.
I’ve never seen the original Piranha, so we’ll have to leave any discussion of The Spawning’s 1978 predecessor behind us at the docks. I should also say, I don’t really know a whole lot about James Cameron’s early life or what circuitous path led him to direct this project as his first film. But as a fan of Cameron’s later work, I was surprised to find many of the Terminator director’s signature touches already in place at the outset. True, I’m not sure I would have recognized these touches were I not under explicit orders from the Cinessential brass to evaluate Piranha II through the prism of it being Cameron’s first film. But I firmly believe they’re there, regardless.
Set “shortly after the events of the first film” (thanks, Wikipedia!) Piranha II is primarily set in- and around a large-scale Caribbean beach resort, where staff diving instructor Anne [Tricia O’Neil] is living with her teenage son Chris [Ricky G. Paull] while estranged from Anne’s no-nonsense beach cop husband [Lance Henriksen, the only actor in Hollywood history to have been killed by a Terminator, an Alien, and a Pumpkinhead]. There are other characters, too: a poor black dynamite fisherman, a horny old widow, two slattern grifters on a Duran Duran yacht, and a handsome marine biochemist who may or may not be in the area to investigate the sinking of a government research ship that may or may not have been breeding a weaponized strain of saltwater grouper, which may or may not have the ability to sprout wings and fly (!) on to dry land to feast on the soft, chewy flesh of any human being unlucky enough to wander into its deadly radius of skeltonization.
Needless to say, things go downhill in a big, big way, but only after about 30 minutes of charmingly doofy setup, which gives each of the ensemble’s broadly drawn archetypes just enough time to establish themselves as something slightly more than the usual monster-movie cannon fodder. In fact, this is one aspect of Piranha II wholly indicative of Cameron’s later films: the filmmaker has a unique and understated ability to quickly and efficiently individuate multiple characters and their motives. The doomed denizens of Piranha II’s unnamed maritime resort community really aren’t all that different than the space marines in Aliens or the passengers aboard the Titanic. These aren’t complicated characters per se, but they are good characters—memorable and well performed.
In structure, The Spawning is a little bit like Hitchcock’s The Birds mixed with Spielberg’s Jaws [1981 Lance Henriksen is nothing if not 1975 Roy Scheider’s slightly more badass younger brother]—but minus the production values, which results in some [likely knowingly] laughable attempts to articulate the attack patterns of plastic fish strung up on fishing wire and hurled at actors’ faces as they [the actors] scream and fall down. Let’s just say it’s not exactly the T-1000.
But the effort is there, as is Cameron’s default atmosphere of hearty, adventure-driven masculinity—even if that masculinity is embodied by a headstrong, problem-solving female [paging Sarah Connor and/or Ellen Ripley] like O’Neil’s Anne. For all his film’s macho posturing, Cameron is one of Hollywood’s most sneakily feminist filmmakers. I’m sure any one of his four ex-wives would agree.
Piranha II: The Spawning occupies an odd uncanny valley of quality, complicated by the foreknowledge of its director’s subsequent accomplishments. The movie has the patina of MST3K schlock, but it’s not quite so-bad-its-good, nor is it necessarily bad at all—especially for what it is. Piranha II is itself a sort of unholy hybrid creature: a freshwater carnivore in a saltwater ocean, just doing what comes naturally. Which, yeesh. Remind me to cancel my summer vacation.