BR: Piranha 2 – The Spawning (1981)

September 12, 2018 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Scream Factory / Unobstructed View

Region: A

Released:  July 31, 2018

Genre:  Horror / Eco-Horror

Synopsis: A beach resort in Jamaica is threatened by genetically modified flying piranhas determined to feast on dumb tourists and half-naked sun bunnies.

Special Features:  2 Interview Featurettes – “One Moment in Time: Ricky Paull Goldin on Piranha Part II: The Spawning” (15:54) + “The Sky Has Teeth: Brian Wade on Piranha Part II: The Spawning” (14:09) / Theatrical Trailer.

 


 

Review:

The differing versions of Piranha 2 are almost as fascinating as the making of James Cameron’s first feature as director, and Shout’s new Blu-ray rights a lot of wrongs for a sequel that’s almost as fun of the 1978 original (itself a spoof of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws), written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante.

While producer Roger Corman retained the rights to the original film, knocking out a cheap 1995 TV movie that adding nothing new, the 1981 sequel was produced by veteran schlockmeister Ovidio Assonitis, whose own directorial efforts include the earlier Jaws rip-off Tentacles (1977), and a blatant rip-off of The Exorcist (1973), the ridiculous Beyond the Door (1974).

Door is significant because of the strange luck that enabled Assonitis to survive the wrath of Warner Bros. After the studio sued and received a settlement that included a percentage of Door‘s future profits, P2’s distribution was shared by Columbia and Warner Bros., giving the project a good push in cinemas, and later home video.

According to available lore, the original story was conceived by Miller Drake, a visual effects editor who, like Cameron, cut his teeth in filmmaking at Corman’s New World Pictures. Drake had done second unit work on Corman’s other Jaws rip-off Alligator (1980) – also scripted by Sayles – and P2 was supposed to be his first theatrical foray as director, but after Warner Bros.’ voiced disinterest on the script, Assonitis brought in Cameron, who’d worked on the visual effects for Corman’s Star Wars riff, Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and production design of Galaxy of Terror (1981).

Cameron’s rewrite pleased Warner Bros., and the production was scheduled to film in Jamaica. Pretty much all of the action takes place in and around the same resort, and in spite of a limited budget and Assonitis filming nude-flavoured material for the film’s European release, Cameron shot P2, as supported by co-star Ricky Paull Goldin in Shout’s lengthy filmed interview. Effects man Brian Wade also validates Cameron’s role as lead director, and helping design the film’s killer fish, reformulated as flying carnivorous hybrids, courtesy of the U.S. Military.

Cameron disliked Assonitis’ intended interpolation of breasts and topless bodies – the pre-credit underwater sex secene / piranha feeding frenzy is completely contrary to Cameron’s tough woman archetype – and as the lore continues, the director broke into the editing room to cut his own version until the producer fired him. It seems unlikely newly scripted material or reshoots followed; if Assonitis’ intention was to deliver two versions under a tight budget, extending production, especially with effects material, would’ve been too costly.

For the film’s U.S. and U.K. release, at least as evidenced by the DVD editions, the pre-credit nudity remains because it leads straight into the solarized red-blue Main Title sequence. Whereas the film was released somewhat in widescreen in the U.K., the U.S. DVD from 2002 is full screen, and features a grainy transfer that isn’t helped by the soft, diffused cinematography by Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli, who lensed several of Assonitis’ weird films (Tentacles, Sony Boy, and Curse II: The Bite).

As evidenced by these two frame grabs, it’s clear Shout’s HD transfer (made from a print titled Piranha 2: Flying Killers) is gorgeous and contains additional visual information than the badly cropped R2 DVD:

 

Frame grab from (presumably) R2 matted widescreen transfer, excerpted in the Brian Wade interview on Scream’s Blu-ray.

 

Frame grab from Scream’s properly framed widescreen Blu-ray. All heads and bodies are (relatively) intact.

 

Diffused lighting was en vogue in several exploitation films of the period, and Assonitis mandated the same soft, creamy look for his dreamy production of the batshit crazy The Visitor (1979). The colours in P2 aren’t quite pastel, but they’re soothing, especially beach and ocean footage with sand & flesh tones.

The Goldin interview interpolates footage from a grainy widescreen transfer – perhaps the U.K. version – which interestingly includes a darkened ‘nude’ waterfall scene between Goldin and Leslie Graves that’s absent in the U.S. disc. Shout’s HD transfer of P2 is both the longer European edition which seems to include all of Assonitis’ nude material, and the aforementioned waterfall whoopee is timed back to its original daylight setting, revealing wet T-shirt boobery.

As trivial (and perhaps ludicrous) as this mammary apocrypha may sound, it’s significant because when the film was released on laserdisc in 1984 by Nelson Entertainment, whether approached with an offer by the American label or the result of an image-concerned, post-Terminator Cameron, the director supervised a re-edit, knocking the running time down from 94 to 85 mins., and adding ‘piranha-vision’ effects – basically solarized colours similar to the Main Titles sequence.

Lopping off everything he hated necessitated re-ordering material to ensure a tight flow, but it’s worth pondering whether Cameron would even bother to fiddle with such a marginal cult film today, and accept P2 for what it was always supposed to be: an exploitive B-film designed to cash-in and develop a new franchise.

The shorter recut (which is available on YouTube as well) is quite inferior to Assonitis’ release version partly because Cameron’s rewrite of Drake’s concept is a compromise between generic exploitive elements and serious drama. The marital discord between the two leads is a stark portent to a similarly strained relationship within The Abyss (1989). That weird shift from idiotic material (nude and comedic) to serious drama (and forceful performances from underrated actress Tricia O’Neil and Lance Henriksen) ultimately adds to the film’s fromagerie.

The story is typical of any killer [insert arbitrary ocean creature] movie: a man butts heads with disbelieving police and ignorant local officials and greedy corporate figures, unearths nefarious governmental design and complicity in the creation of the mutant [arbitrary ocean creature], and through brawn and bits of fast reasoning, saves some lives and utterly shames those responsible… until a lone surviving and possibly bigger mutant [arbitrary ocean creature] emerges for the next franchise installment.

Cameron’s rewrite of Miller’s concept is noteworthy for some (presumed) major character upgrades which, deliberate or not, enhance the film’s pro-marine ecology stance (which is, admittedly, essential to the motivations of heroes & heroines within ocean creature features).

The Cameronesque script has hotel diving instructor Anne Kimbrough (O’Neil) living with her son Chris (Goldin, in his feature film debut) in one of the rooms after recently separating from husband Steve (Henriksen), the local police chief. The feuding couple have their own storylines – Anne is wooed by pushy tourist Tyler Sherman (Steve Marachuk), while Steve investigates the recent deaths of the aforementioned underwater lovers in a wreck. The two strands collide when the police chief discovers a piece of evidence validating Anne and Tyler snuck into the local morgue to prove the deaths were related to a nasty, invasive species.

Instead of the woman tagging along with the lead male, Anne is the hook that drags people to action, and in the process reveals Tyler as one of the government eggheads who co-created the killer fish for an experimental bio-weapons program. Steve is jealous of Anne’s new attraction, and their amiable son bounces between his parents, kidding and cutting down his mom while teasing his dad with the slightly irresponsible decision to act as a guide for one of the many stupid tourists who’ve flocked to the resort for sun, rum, sunbathing, sailing, and the midnight grunion run.

Like Jaws and P1, the mass gathering of dumb bathers & tourists will become the magnet that attracts the killer flying fishies; in Spielberg’s film, deaths are due to the negligence and greed of local government & businesses for reopening the beach and restraining their police chief; in P1 it’s a mix of greedy resort owners who refuse to heed warnings that send many kids into the digestive track of the fishies; and in P2 it’s a midnight grunion run that’s transformed into a chumfest.

The main massacre is also the film’s most enjoyably ridiculous, because Cameron plays it completely straight: after losing his son to the fishies, Steve’s fishing pal takes the bombs he’s been using to blast fish from the water and attempts to end the piranhas’ reign of terror, but before he can put Plant A into action, he stands his ground on the grunion beach, using fire & fists against wings & teeth – and (of course) loses. The score by Stelvio Cipriani (billed as “Steve Powder”) holds on grim chords and accentuates the tragic sacrifice, while Cameron intercuts shots as Anne crumples to the floor as she watches his death from behind a blood-splattered glass door.

Less enjoyable are doses of unfunny dialogue and stale character actors playing goofy tourists: an older guest teases a young server with her chest; there are persistent cutaways to a nerd obsessed with taking photos of his dim wife; and there’s a slightly challenged assistant cook ridiculed by two ‘pirate’ babes (actress and former Playboy & Penthouse model Carole Graves + former Penthouse model & one-time actress Connie Lynn Hadden) who use sex appeal to score free food.

It’s these sequences, plus Chris’ waterfall session with Allison (Leslie Graves, a former nude model) that Cameron trimmed or removed entirely, and re-ordered remaining scenes into a tighter, more linear, and ultimately banal story that robs P2 of its fun factor.

In an ideal world, P2 should exist on Blu in both the Assonitis and Cameron edits, but Shout’s BR offers the film in its sharpest and most colourful transfer, with the standard mono sound slightly goosed with reverb to feign some aural depth. Left intact, one can watch the evolution of Cameron’s most popular archetype – the pro-active, no bullshit, working woman with blue collar roots – who takes command of a terrible crisis when all the men are too ignorant or careless.

Anne Kimbrough is The Abyss’ Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and Steve is a fuzzier Bud Brigman (Ed Harris); there are no kids in the Brigman’s fractured union – only the work, which could be indicative of Cameron’s union with Abyss co-producer Gale Anne Hurd (another graduate from Corman’s New World Pictures), with whom the director was formally splitting during production. The director also saves the revelation of each respective couple’s marital status for a sharp gag, especially in Abyss, when Bud’s ‘I hate that bitch’ is answered with a pal’s ‘Probably shouldn’t have married her then’ quip.

Bud and Lindsey have several brutal, frank exchanges that illustrate the ongoing friction between two smart headstrong people, sharing common goals but are locked in very different power positions: Lindsey is Bud’s boss and designer of the mining rig; Anne is an assertive working mom who becomes the equal to her investigative husband by doing the hard legwork, risking her life (especially in the finale) to save (ostensibly) the islanders, and tying crucial evidence that shifts theory to fact.

The Kimbroughs’ big fracas happens after Steven finds her in bed with Tyler, and Cameron tries to capture their deep divide in a sharp exchange with Steven in a closing elevator and Anne in the hallway; the scene feels like a rough draft of the Bud-Linsey head-butting which ends after Bud slams a hatch shut and throws his wedding ring into the toilet.

SPOILER ALERT

 

If the marital DNA of the leading characters isn’t indicative of Cameron’s auteurship, there’s the underwater footage which must have pleased Assonitis: the wreck is beautifully captured as a hulking diving trap, and Cameron establishes the geography of the vessel in several scenes to convey its canted corridors, rooms, and the terrifying ducts where Anne and Tyler find fleeting safety from the massing fishies.

This lengthy sequence is also where the film comes alive with a novel twist: hero Tyler is devoured by his creation, enabling Anne to escape, and in an end scene evocative of a Production Code movie, with the morally stained lover dead, the Kimbrough family is united and whole again.

P2 is a killer ocean creature thriller with its emotionless monsters – Dino De Laurentiis’ Orca (1977) would change the formula a bit, putting the big fish on a vengeance quest after a sailor murders its mate and unborn child – but Cameron also resolves the big conflict and mystery within the ruins of a sunken wreck, a crucial element in the suspense-thriller The Deep (1977).

 

END OF SPOILERS

Because it lacks aging major stars, P2 is arguably more enjoyable because relative newcomers Henriksen and O’Neil aren’t slumming their way through a quick paycheck; they gave their roles more oomph, which gives the drama more grounding than it deserves.

O’Neal returned to an already prolific career in episodic TV but has a small moment in Cameron’s Titanic (1997), while Henriksen appeared in Cameron’s Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986). Co-star Marachuck appeared in just a handful of TV and feature films, apparently retiring from acting after 1985. Goldin progressed from acting (The Guiding Light) to producing and directing, and former child actress Graves (TV’s Here We Go Again) appeared in Death Wish II  (1982) and the first season of Capitol (1982-1983) before substance issues halted her career, and she passed away in 1995.

Original director Drake worked on a series of effects-heavy productions, including The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2 (1991), True Lies (1994), and the Hurd-produced Virus (1999).

 

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack AlbumAlbum ReviewComposer Filmography
 
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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