Piranha II: The Spawning – James Cameron – 1981

James Cameron is a master manipulator, and one of the key tools in his box is the ability to create likeable characters. Piranha 2: The Spawning is no exception. What could and should have been a D-grade, rubber monster, camp-fest, instead is transformed into a transfixing human drama with the invasion of flying, carnivorous fish at its’ center.

Curious divers explore a sunken navy ship and discover mutated piranha. Which brings me to point one. This movie is so dang Camerony. The opening and closing sequences are beautifully photographed scenes featuring a sunken battleship. We didn’t really know it at the time but underwater photography is one of the things that Cameron does best, later exemplified in the Abyss, Titanic, Ghosts of the Abyss, and Aliens of the Deep. This lasting fascination serves well the narrative claustrophobia of a Piranha film. Keeping his characters trapped in small spaces, and sharing respirators he achieves a suffocating effect. One amazing bit toward the end pre-dates the tunnel scene from Aliens. The killer fish are actually the last of the viewer’s worries.

Also very within the Cameron mold is the heroine Anne Kimbrough. This lady is fearless, get-it-done type, a proto Sarah Conner or Ellen Ripley. (I know Ripley predates this film, but I mean Cameron’s Ripley.)

Anne takes tourists on recreational dives at an island resort. She is separated from her husband the police chief, and she and their teenage son live in the resort hotel. Before taking a group out to dive, she instructs a man not to go inside the ship, but foolishly he does, and is eaten by killer piranha. The way Cameron treats Anne with the camera is fairly unique, choosing to show her more unflatteringly toward the beginning of the film with her getting sexier and sexier as her attitude shows through the narrative. By the time she is underwater, planting a bomb to kill all the fish the viewer is practically in love with her, and can’t bear the thought of her demise.

Her husband Steve is no less capable. He questions her about the dive, and holds her accountable. Lance Henriksen is at his most affable here, it is very easy to want him to mend his family. Though a friendly portrait, (he lets the fishermen dynamite in the bay), his role is really second fiddle to Anne. Though, the scene where he leaps from a helicopter he intentionally crashes into the sea is indicative of his willingness to do anything for his family.

If the film were made today Tyler Sherman, would have been played by Bradley Cooper and all that that implies. The actor exudes a kind of charismatic douchery that doesn’t make your hate him, but he is the long arm of the military scientists responsible for the piranha, so you don’t care too much when he dies. He really does die so that Anne can escape, so he effectively saves her life, giving you a little tingle of regret. But, fuck that g-man.

The kid, Chris Kimbrough, is really the most likely in-point for most of the non-cop, non- scuba instructor, non g-man members of the audience. Chris is a regular kid, though he can gladly sail your yacht and screw your daughter around the bay. He’s a cool kid living a sweet island life, and honestly his scenes make you wish you were a cool kid living the sweet island life. You really never feel that he and the sexy gal he’s with are in danger but in a film full of over achievers and douches he’s the everyman.

I suppose I should mention the titular fish. They are pretty crappy. The design is good, but the execution on the flying effects elicited laughter from the audience at each appearance. To undercut this phenomenon, the gore is very explicit, and there are practically no moments of levity throughout the rest of the picture. Cameron clearly knows these are laughable moments so he undercuts the lack of suspense these scenes offer with suspenseful scuba scenes.

Cameron writes the thing like a math equation. Three characters to love, (a broken family to boot), are separated, put through peril, crosscut for suspense and return to a happy, yet breathless point of origin. Throw in two dozen meat puppets for fish food plus one hard to root for, but hard to hate company man, and you not only satisfy the needs of the unwashed masses for a flying piranha bloodbath, but you also get to kill a few characters who have a note or two of emotional resonance. (The fisherman and his son come to mind.)

There’s really not much to sink your teeth into thematically, but dramatically Cameron never stumbles. The film plays like a series of rising actions, building up to a breathless finale. When I last saw this film I was fifteen and watching it on a fuzzy VHS. I had rented both Piranha films and watched them back-to-back. The first film is shot full-frame so lost nothing on my TV and it’s funny tone suited my teenage sensibilities. The Spawning has an almost dour and tragic tone, with few moments of levity. Seeing it in 35mm made the underwater scenes positively epic and I left with a very healthy respect for the film.

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2 Responses to “Piranha II: The Spawning – James Cameron – 1981”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments on Piranha 2. Though I believe that you have captured many of the salient themes of the film, I would suggest that you have missed an important underlying current of meaning–that of the phallus. In the film “Phallus Palace”, Cameron creates tension via the use of the flying phallus which represents the transient nature of manhood and virility. In one particularly gruesome scene, a woman is impaled by a particularly erect phallus, and dies in the arms of her impotent lover. The irony is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

  2. Or even a knife shaped phallus. You’re not wrong. It is lamentable how I left out such a hefty undercurrent of truth. As the Piranhas have transformed into flying beasts, so to do men fly after the seeding of their flesh unto those who would have it.

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