The F*cking Black Sheep: Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!



Yo, who’s at the beach right now? Yeah, well I’m jealous. But hey, as far as aquatic summertime horror flicks go, it’s high time someone tough it out and stick up for the indefensible. It’s time someone gives a voice to the voiceless. Goddamn it, a stand must be made. Friends, no more f*cking around, it’s time to express our unbridled love for the ferocious flying fish of Jimmy Cameron’s PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING!

Seriously, I never understood why this movie got such a bad rap. A bad movie, yes! But come on, we’re talking about a zero-budget ($145,000) D-grade sequel to a B-movie original. It’s not as if Joe Dante’s predecessor was anything other than a cheaply made, ersatz JAWS knockoff to begin with. Why then would expectations for a sequel be high – one helmed by a directorial tyro who replaced another midway, only to find himself removed by the producer shortly after that? Straight up, given the nightmarish production woes (that nearly claimed the lives of Cameron and star Lance Henriksen during a finale stunt), it’s a mini-miracle the movie was ever completed and released at all.

And yet…and yet. For as risibly chintzy the overall aesthetic is, for as laughably ludicrous as much of the dialogue is, even given the sheer lunacy of flying killer fish – you know what, THE SPAWNING is better than you think. F*ck a Black Sheep, let us tell you why y’all need to hook, bait, reel, gut and flay the F*cking Black Piranha... Part 2!

First, let’s contextualize with the story setup. At Club Elysium, a resort on the Caribbean island of St. Ann’s, a scuba diving instructor named Anne Kimbrough (Tricia O’Neil) lives with her son Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin). Her ex-husband is the island Police Chief Steve Kimbrough (Lance Henriksen), and her new budding beau is a biochemist named Tyler Sherman (Steve Marachuk). After the preamble of a nondescript attack that totally betrays what is to come, it soon becomes clear an uncouth school of mutant piranha have made their home out of a sunken US supply tanker.

Upon taking her students on a dive to investigate the ship, one of Anne’s students is gorily eviscerated by the swarming school of voracious flesh-eaters. Intent on seeing the body and studying the mortal wounds, Anne and Tyler bust into the morgue, where they discover a mutated breed of flying killer fish that shreds through human flesh faster than a f*cking tattoo-gun. Of course, Tyler turns out to be a government pawn harboring secret information. Turns out, in an attempt to create the most lethal organism the army could use in the waterways of Vietnam, a genetic mutation of spliced genes lead to a baleful breed of winged-carnivorous-craniates!

Look, we all know PIRANHA 2 is unabashedly bad movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely meritless. For one, if Cameron hadn’t chosen this as his directorial debut, he never would have come up with the idea for THE TERMINATOR. Word is, during the Rome release of the film, Cameron fell ill and dreamt about a metallic torso dragging itself out of the fire with knives in its hand. By this measure the subtitle THE SPAWNING takes on a whole new meaning. Indeed, if it took PIRANHA 2 to get to T-2…then goddamn it, more love ought to be shown!

Really though, the reasons why I’m always overjoyed and entertained to the gills when THE SPAWNING hits cable are as follows: there are three or four genuinely jaw-dropping stints of graphic carnage that rival anything the JAWS franchise ever put out; and there are two solid performances (O’Neil and Henriksen) amid a sea of eye-rolling amateurism. Together, they total a sum far greater than the disrespectfully grim 15/100 Metascore and the lowly 3.5/10 IMDB rating. Hell, I’ll do one further and boast loudly…I like PIRANHA 2 better than JAWS 3D, which props similar marks of 27/100 and 3.6/10. Flying fish or 3D sharks…you make the call!

Boiled to its essence, there are three or four standout scenes of abject carnage in THE SPAWNING. The first comes right after we catch a glimpse of the gnarly skeletal remains of Anne’s diving student. Inside the island hospital, an unsuspecting nurse is the first person to receive the wicked wrath of the flying piranha. In an obvious nod to ALIEN, which probably had more than a little to do with Cameron directing its sequel, the nurse nearly faints when a chest-bursting piranha comes flying out of the corpse’s torso – Johnny Hurt style – before digging into her face, squirming its way deep into her orbital cavities and ultimately into her grue-seeping brain. Shite’s nasty, relentless, and as graphic as one can hope for.

Same goes for the following death, in which a fisherman’s son is savagely attacked by not one, but two ferocious flying fish. The buildup works well, giving a sense of suspense before a bout of abject butchery. The kid drops his watch into a water-well, reaches his hand in and successfully retrieves it. Lulled into a false sense of security, the kid turns over a piece of clothing, and WHAM…the kid has a blood-eating, flesh-sucking monster burying into his jugular. Then he’s struck in the nape by another, until he fights and flounders in the well, ultimately sinking to his demise. I’m telling you, this is a decent death scene!

So too is that of the boy’s father, which comes a bit later. After trying to fend them off with a torch-light, he’s unceremoniously felled by a school of five or six toothy bastards that dig, carve, gouge, bury, suck, slither, and squirm their way into his throat and rapaciously feast until only a pile of bones remain. This scene, which comes in the middle of a fun shoreline assault of a finale (during an unwise grunion run), in which even more victims are viciously vitiated. That’s three or four killer scenes whose parts are greater than the movies total sum.

And I’d argue that it’s because the movie was made in 1981 that it benefited from such graphic onscreen violence. Remember, 1981 gave us such brutally violent horror gems as FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, THE HOWLING, THE BURNING, EVIL DEAD, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, THE FUN HOUSE, HALLOWEEN II, etc. etc. Had PIRANHA 2 been made after the Reagan-era MPAA crackdown, perhaps it would be a lesser film in terms of the unflinching brutality.

And not for nothing, but if weren’t for Lance Henriksen and Tricia O’Neil putting in such respectable performances, not even the aforementioned killer-carnage could redeem the picture. Put it this way, there’s a reason why both leads worked with Cameron again (Henriksen in ALIENS, O’Neil in TITANIC). The acting chops of these two are starkly noticeable in contrast to the supporting players, most of who belt out lines with such obvious amateurism that it’s hard not to chuckle. At least Lance and Tricia know what the hell they’re doing, and dedicate themselves to material that is beneath their talent, but elevated because of it. If the violence sells the horror, the acting of the leads sells the drama…just enough!

Black Sheep, Piranha…how about the goddamn elephant in the room! James Cameron was hired to direct THE SPAWNING at the last minute to replace Miller Drake, Roger Corman’s longtime postproduction man. Cameron was then fired after the first week of filming, and replaced by producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (TENTACLES). However, word has come out since that Cameron shot the entire film, but was locked out of the editing room to shape the cut. Cameron’s name only remains as credited because an American name was contractually obligated to be named.

Whatever the truth of the matter is, the production of PIRANHA 2 was a giant clusterf*ck from jump-street. Therefore, that there is any redeeming value whatsoever ought to be celebrated, rather than ripped in comparison to Dante’s original. THE SPAWNING is a F*cking Black Sheep because, in spite of the efforts to derail Cameron’s vision, there is still more than a modicum of truly horrific graphic carnage. Hell, as for flying killer fish, just ask Alexandre Aja about the final shot in PIRANHA 3D and whether or not he has as much love for the SPAWNING as we do!





Extra Tidbit: The original PIRANHA turns 40 next month. PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING will be released on Blu-ray July 31st!
Source: AITH



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