Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) Retrospective

SUMMARY
A Caribbean coastal resort, Hotel Elysium, is menaced by a series of vicious marine animal attacks originating from a nearby sunken shipwreck. Diving instructor Anne Kimbrough’s student is one of the victims, but her estranged police officer husband Steve refuses to let her see the corpse. The death does not seem to match the attack pattern by any of the marine life in this area, which as a former marine biologist she knows better than anyone. For her not to know what killed a diver is a dangerous sign. Soon after, two women and a man are killed by piranha which has developed the ability to fly.

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Worried about what is going on, Anne finds that she is being frequently bothered by tourist Tyler Sherman, so she takes him with her to the morgue to get a look at the body. A nurse comes in and kicks them out, unaware that a piranha was hiding in the body and escaped from it. Armed with the power to fly, it kills the nurse and escapes through a window.

In her hurry, Anne left her credit card behind at the scene. Anne and Tyler have a one-night stand, but in the morning, while he sleeps, she begins to study the pictures of the corpse, and is horrified by what she discovers. Steve arrives, throwing the card at her, angry first that she went to the morgue in defiance of him, and secondly that she has a man in her bed. She tries to warn him of what she has discovered, but he ignores her and thinks she is a murderess.

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Anne tries to tell the managers that she is canceling the dives because it is not safe. He at first pretends to be concerned, but swiftly fires her, thinking she is crazy. Attempting to capture one for further study, or at the very least take some pictures so she can prove what she is trying to tell Steve and the manager, she is intercepted by Tyler, who swiftly informs her that he is a biochemist and member of a team which has developed the ultimate weapon: a specimen of genetically modified piranha, with some other fish’s genes intermixed, capable of flying. Earlier, and unfortunately, the team mistakenly deposited (or lost) a cylinder full of these fish in the water where the dead couple were found.

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Gabby provides the proof Anne needs to Steve, calling him and showing him, not merely some flying piranha he has recently caught, and never seen before, but also that they are a serious danger, because they are turning on each other. This is a sign that they are running out of food and will soon attack whatever they come near, including humans. At a meeting, Anne tries her best to reason with the manager, to no avail. Steve surprises her, standing up for her and proving her case for her a piranha wing in a bag onto the table. Steve tells her that she cannot trust Tyler, because the army says he is crazy. She argued that Tyler has just been using her to get the message of the piranha out for him, to protect both himself and the residents of the hotel.

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Later on, a piranha attacks Gabby’s son and kills him, leaving a bereft Gabby to vow revenge by killing the fish in the wreck in which they hide. Anne tries to dissuade him, but it is too late. Having ignored Anne’s advice, the manager, Raoul, hosts a nighttime fish party to capture grunion, who come up to the beach to spawn at this time, making them easy prey for humans to capture and kill. Unfortunately for the residents, the piranha are also partially grunion and share the same instinct. Anne gets a man named Aaron to patrol the beach but he is lured to the sea where the piranha mutilate and kill him. During the fishing party promoted by the resort, the piranhas fly out of the water and attack and kill some of the guests on the beach and at the hotel’s courtyard pool. Anne leads those who survive into the hotel, where they shut the doors and windows. Gabby tries to attack the flying piranha, but they easily overwhelm and kill him, while the guests watch helplessly.

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In the morning, the flying piranha withdraw back into the ocean, for Anne had discovered that they are not fond of daylight. Tyler and Anne decide to undertake Gabby’s plan, and blow up the ship to destroy the predators. Meanwhile, the situation gets even tenser, for not only can the piranha fly, but Anne and Steve’s son Chris has been hired, against their wishes, by a local ship ‘Captain’ Dumont and his lovely daughter Allison. They sail away and strand themselves on an island, leaving them vulnerable to piranha attacks that never actually happen. Getting lost at sea, they try to set sail again, heading straight toward the wreck.

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When Chris and Allison are stranded in a raft above the shipwreck, Anne and Tyler arrive in a motorboat and don scuba gear to dive down to the wreck to plant the timer charges that Gabby left behind. With only 10 minutes to get out of the wreck before the bomb explodes, Anne and Tyler are trapped in one of the sunken ships rooms by the murderous piranha who all return to the wreck. On the surface, Steve, piloting a police helicopter, ditches the chopper and swims to Anne and Tyler’s motorboat where Chris and Allison are. With minutes left to spare before the bomb explodes, Steve powers up the boat and takes off. Down in the wreck, while swimming through the vents, Tyler becomes stuck and is eaten by the piranhas. Anne escapes out of a porthole, then grabs the anchor, allowing herself to be pulled away by the motorboat on the surface. At the last second, Anne gets clear and the bomb detonates, destroying the sunken ship and all the piranha with it. With all the piranhas dead, Anne swims to the surface and is picked up by Steve, Chris and Allison in their boat.

DEVELOPMENT
After the release and financial success of Joe Dante’s Piranha, producers Jeff Schechtman and Chako van Leuwen immediately began work on a sequel film. Roger Corman, the head of New World Pictures which had produced and released the first film, did not sure either person’s interest, instead focusing on his own “underwater horror” film Humanoids from the Deep. Schechtman and van Leuwen purchased the sequel rights from Corman, first setting up an independent production company before developing a script with writers Charles H. Eglee and Channing Gibson, based on a treatment by New World producer Martin B. Cohen.

Because Dante was already attached to direct The Howling for New World, the producers approached Dante’s former colleague Miller Drake as prospective director. Drake had worked alongside Dante in New World’s trailer department and had essayed the role of “First Mutant” in Dante’s directorial debut, Hollywood Boulevard – before becoming Corman’s de facto head of post-production. With a tentative director in place, the producers’ sought financing and eventually struck a deal with Ovidio G. Assonitis.

Italy-based producer-director named Ovidio Assonitis had directed the 1974 supernatural horror movie Beyond the Door, a film that prompted Warner Bros. to file suit for copyright infringement because of its alleged similarity to The Exorcist. Assonitis claims the suit was ultimately resolved when he promised not to make a sequel to Beyond the Door and Warners entered an agreement that the producer oversee three movies for the company. One of those films would be Piranha II: The Spawning.

“We were looking to get a sequel to Piranha made,” says Jeff Schechtman. “Ovidio Assonitis said he wanted to finance it. I was very skeptical, but he put his money where his mouth was.” According to Assonitis, “Warner Brothers asked me if I was interested to produce the piece. My reply was yes, on condition that I could basically take over the whole operation, and do it myself.” Assonitis says the studio’s main stipulation was that this time, the fish in the movie should be airborne. “It was not really credible,” says the producer-director. “But they wanted, badly, the flying fish. They wanted to have piranha coming out of the sea.”

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The original director of Piranha II was Miller Drake. Drake was yet another Corman graduate who had labored alongside Joe Dante in the New World trailer department—and had essayed the role of “First Mutant” in Dante’s directorial debut, Hollywood Boulevard—before becoming Corman’s de facto head of post-production. “Jeff Schechtman said, ‘Would you like to direct this movie?’ and I said, ‘Sure,’” recalls Drake. “We met with Ovidio Assonitis and he said fine.” Drake set to work developing a script with writer Charles H. Eglee.

Miller’s intention was that Piranha II should hinge upon Kevin McCarthy’s scientist from Piranha, even though he had seemingly perished in the first movie. “I pitched this idea of bringing Kevin McCarthy back, all chewed up and mutilated from the previous movie,” says Drake. “He was on an abandoned oil rig and he was developing these flying piranhas out there to get revenge, or whatever. I think we were going to bring Barbara Steele back and have him kill her by smashing her head through a fish tank.”

Carole Davis and Connie Lynn Hadden
Carole Davis and Connie Lynn Hadden

Kevin McCarthy’s scientist did not return from the grave in the Piranha sequel. Apart from the titular monsters’ new flying abilities and the movie’s Jamaican setting, the plot of Piranha II would essentially repeat the dramatic elements of the first movie: tourists and teeth, babes and blood. Lance Henriksen was cast as a Chief Brody-esque cop, and TV actress Tricia O’Neil essayed the role of a plucky scuba instructor. Models Carole Davis and Connie Lynn Hadden supplied the bikini-clad eye candy.

To assist with the movie’s makeup, Drake approached special-effects legend-in-the-making Rob Bottin, who had done a small amount of work on the original Piranha and would go on to oversee the phenomenal creature effects on John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing. “Getting Rob at that time, because he was just up-and-coming, would have been a real coup,” says Drake. “He was a pretty talented kid, and he would have really brought something.”

“In the beginning, the package that I got from Chako and Jeff included also this director,” says Assonitis. “But I didn’t like Drake. I didn’t think he was right for the movie.” Miller Drake remembers things somewhat differently. “It was one of those things that kept going on forever,” he says. “We waited and waited. Then finally we had some big meeting in a hotel. Schechtman was with me, and we’re meeting with Ovidio. It was basically, ‘Are we going to do this movie or not? I’ve got Bottin and I’m going to lose him.’ And, you know, Assonitis is hemming and hawing, and it got a little heated up there. I got a call from Schectman about two days later. He said, ‘Come by, I want to talk to you.’ And I went to his office and he said, ‘Look, Ovidio is kind of upset about the other night, so you’re off the picture.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine.’”

The decision got made—let’s make Cameron the director.” Miller Drake says that he was the one who hired Cameron to work on the movie’s effects after getting to know him when the Canadian was working on Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars. “I brought him onto the picture myself,” says Drake. “Then, a couple of days after Drake left Piranha II Jim said, ‘Could I buy you a drink? I want to talk to you about something.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So we went over to this bar and he said, ‘Look, I’ve just been offered the chance to direct the picture. Do you have any problems with that?’ And I said, ‘No, go for it.’”

Due to budget limitations the crew was composed essentially of Italians, none of whom spoke English. Some however did have prior experience on horror/fantasy movies so they were, to some extent, able to satisfy Cameron’s requirements. Among the crew was veteran horror cinematographer Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli (whose name is misspelled “Roberto D’Ettore Piazzoli” in the opening credits). The special effects were designed and supervised by Giannetto De Rossi, who had previously worked on Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 and The Beyond.

The primary location for the film was the Mallards Beach-Hyatt Hotel (presently Moon Palace Jamaica resort), in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, which served as the film’s fictional Club Elysium resort. Most of the underwater scenes were filmed off Grand Cayman. Interior scenes were filmed on a sound stage in Rome.

There was at least one person connected to Piranha II who wasn’t thrilled with Cameron carrying on as director, and he was the only one who mattered: Ovidio Assonitis. After a couple of weeks, the producer fired Cameron and set about finishing the film himself. Last year, Cameron alleged on 60 Minutes that “the producer wanted to take over the movie and direct it himself, especially the scenes with Penthouse pinups. It was extremely sleazy.” Assonitis furiously denies this accusation. “That was absolutely wrong,” he says. “It’s not my style. And besides, I don’t need to do this just to get laid.” Carole Davis confirms the producer’s account. “Ovidio was a gentleman,” she says. “He was never out of line.”

Assonitis himself says that he fired Cameron because “he did a lot of terrible, stupid things that are typical of a person that has not the experience.” Pressed to give an example, the producer recalls that when Cameron failed to get a close-up of an actress, he and his crew sailed off the next day to secure the shot. “He took the whole crew on an incredible cruise trying to get under a cloud to reproduce the lighting,” says Assonitis. “We had to spend the whole day running after the cloud on several kinds of boats.” The producer also says that after two weeks of shooting the film was “heavily over budget.”

James-Cameron-Piranha-II-The-Spawning“I was replaced after two-and-a-half weeks by the Italian producer. He just fired me and took over, which is what he wanted to do when he hired me. It wasn’t until much later that I even figured out what had happened. It was like, “Oh, man, I thought I was doing a good job.” But when I saw what they were cutting together, it was horrible. And then the producer wouldn’t take my name off the picture because contractually they couldn’t deliver it with an Italian name. So they left me on, no matter what I did. I had no legal power to influence him from Pomona, California, where I was sleeping on a friend’s couch. I didn’t even know an attorney. In actual fact, I did some directing on the film, but I don’t feel it was my first movie.”
— James Cameron on “directing” Piranha II: The Spawning.

One of the scenes Assonitis filmed after sacking Cameron was a major set-piece in which characters gather on a beach at night to await an annual fish spawning, only to have hungry piranhas fly from the water and start attacking them.

Once shooting was over, Assonitis agreed Cameron could assist with the editing of the film back in Rome. According to legend, Cameron would break into the editing suite at night and recut the footage to his own liking. Cameron recently denied to a Canadian TV interviewer that he had done this—but in a way that suggested he had.

The Hour 2008 Canadian TV interview with James Cameron

Assonitis says the director did attempt to reedit the film. “He was basically breaking the door of my office at night, that’s true,” he says. “He admit it to me.”

“I don’t care if he is credited for the film,” Assonitis says. “He was my choice in the first place. Once Piranha II was finished, we sat and talked a lot. James had some great ideas, one of which was Terminator. I was actually the very first person to hear about it. At one point, we even considered doing it together, but he later resolved to submit the project to someone else. In the end, Orion liked the script and produced the film. James told me that they’d watched Piranha II and considered him suitable to direct Terminator—which is a compliment I’m deeply fond of.”

Lance Henriksen had the lead role of Steve, chief law officer of the Caribbean island which falls prey to the airborne, Cameron-designed flesheaters. Although the fish weren’t real, some of the dangers of shooting were. “I broke my hand jumping out of a helicopter,” Henriksen remembers. “I did about a 40 foot jump into the ocean, to save my kid in the movie. They had no stuntmen, so I jumped out of this moving helicopter. My hand hit my knee and it broke. I finished the movie with a busted right hand.”

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Henriksen says the production, which was based in Ocho Rios, was an underfinanced affair. “All they had for my costume was some chinos from Sears Roebuck, ill-fitting at that,” he remembers. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ Jim and I went to have a coffee, and a waiter walked by and he had a blue stripe down the side of his pants and blue epaulets on his shoulders. I bought them off him for $75.”

Other aspects of Piranha II’s production were less physically destructive, but more artistically so. The producers, Henriksen says, kept creating new problems. “They were really getting in the way of everything. They would come to the set with two full new pages of dialogue-monologues and stuff 15 minutes before we were going to shoot. It wasn’t Cameron’s fault, it was really the producer putting a squeeze on him, negotiating: ‘I’ll give you five more flying fish if you make the actors say this … ‘It became like that.

RELEASE/CONCLUSION
Eventually, Cameron returned to the States and held a screening of Piranha II for the man probably best placed to judge the film, and empathize with his traumatic experience—Piranha director Joe Dante. “I told him I thought he’d done a terrific job with his section of the movie,” says Dante. “I mean, what are you going to do with a flying-piranha movie? There’s only so much you can do with it.”

Cameron may not look back fondly on Piranha II, it was during his stint in Rome that he had a dream that would inspire so much of his subsequent success. “In March, 1981, I lay in bed in a cheap hotel room in Rome with a high fever,” he would recall in an essay he penned for the 1992 Terminator Collection video box set. “I had been fired from my first directing job, a ruinous production about flying piranha backed by an Italian horror film-producer, and I was pissed off at the world, isolated and alienated in a city where I could speak to no one. I dreamed about machines with glowing red eyes who walked among us like men, bent on turning the course of history to their own cold purposes. From this dream came the idea for a movie which was called ‘Terminator’ in my mind even before a single word of the story was written down.… Eleven years after my fever dream in Rome, I should kiss the feet of the scumbags who were responsible for me being in that dark and depressing state of mind.”

SCORE/SOUNDTRACK

CAST/CREW
Directed
James Cameron

Produced
Jeff Schechtman
Chako van Leuwen
Ovidio G. Assonitis

Screenplay
Charles H. Eglee
(as H.A. Milton)

Tricia O’Neil as Anne Kimbrough
Lance Henriksen as Steve Kimbrough
Steve Marachuk as Tyler Sherman
Ted Richert as Raoul
Ricky G. Paull as Chris Kimbrough
Leslie Graves as Allison Dumont
Albert Sanders as Leo Bell
Tracy Berg as Beverly

Makeup Department
Mirella De Rossi … hair stylist (as Mirella Sforza)
Maurizio Trani … makeup artist
Brian Wade … piranha sculptor / special makeup effects artist

Special Effects by
Gilberto Carbonaro … special effects
Mario Cassar … special effects technician: Rome
Antonio Corridori … special effects
Giannetto De Rossi … prosthetics designer / prosthetics supervisor / special effects designer / special effects supervisor
Gino De Rossi … special effects

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
ew.com
Fangoria#124
Fangoria#55

5 thoughts on “Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) Retrospective

  1. Love this insane film. Yes, it is not up to the standard of it’s predecessor, but it is miles ahead of the God awful “Up From The Depths.” I would rather watch this than anything that Cameron did post T2.

    Liked by 1 person

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