Piranha II: The Spawning – The Fishy Mess of James Cameron’s First Film

For decades, I’ve been putting off watching this particular movie called Piranha II: The Spawning. Until recently, that is when I finally felt motivated to check out the movie once and for all. And with James Cameron’s long-in-the-making Avatar: The Way of Water finally out next week after a 13-year wait (!), I figured it was the right timing to revisit Piranha II: The Spawning or in my case, watching it for the first time.

It’s hard to believe that James Cameron, the man who gave us the first two Terminator and other noteworthy blockbusters like Aliens, Titanic and Avatar got a rough start with his directorial debut in Piranha II: The Spawning. But hey, we all have to start somewhere right? The same goes for then-young James Cameron, who finally got his first directing gig after executive producer Ovidio G. Assonitis fired the original helmer, Miller Drake due to creative differences. Cameron was subsequently chosen as the replacement director because of his prior experience in handling special effects in Galaxy of Terror.

However, Piranha II: The Spawning is a hugely-troubled production, where the word “creative control” — something that Cameron enjoyed in his later directing career is basically non-existent. No thanks to Assonitis’ micro-management way of doing things, Cameron has to endure several setbacks, namely dealing with an all-Italian crew who didn’t know how to speak English. He even re-wrote the script under the pseudonym H.A. Milton but when comes to the actual shooting process, Assonitis was the one heavily in charge of directing instead. The executive producer reportedly wasn’t pleased with Cameron to the point he decided to fire him after just five days of shooting.

A scene from "Piranha II: The Spawning" (1982)

The problem didn’t just end there as Cameron went as far as breaking into the editing room to cut his own version of the movie, only to be discovered by Assonitis. This explains Piranha II: The Spawning is better known for its production woes than the actual movie itself. It was understandable why Cameron famously disowned his first film as his directorial debut since he didn’t complete most of it with Assonitis’ interference and all. He did try to get his name removed from the movie’s credits but he couldn’t do so due to legal issues.

Looking at Piranha II: The Spawning, the movie is as bad as it looks. And boring too with a capital “B”. The story basically follows a scuba-diving instructor Anne Kimbrough (Tricia O’Neil) as well as her biochemist boyfriend, Tyler Sherman (Steve Marachuk) and her police-chief ex-husband, Steve (Lance Henriksen) discover the gruesome deaths of a couple has to do with a school of mutated piranhas with flying wings from a sunken ship off a Caribbean island resort.

I have to admit the idea of introducing mutated flying piranhas is good enough for a pure B-movie guilty-pleasure way of fun. Except the execution tells a different story altogether. Imagine if Assonitis not being such an a** in the first place and just let Cameron call the shots, the result would have been better than its initial bad reputation. It sure feels like forever for a movie that runs only 94 minutes long, where the story takes a frequent detour to introduce unnecessary side characters (among them including a pair of girls in skimpy bikinis trying to fool a stuttering cook for a box of foods) and juvenile subplots. It’s all fillers here that barely contribute to the screenplay other than making a sorry excuse for cleavages, boobs and such.

Lance Henriksen in "Piranha II: The Spawning" (1982)

I can see Assonitis is more interested in making Piranha II: The Spawning a sex comedy of sorts while the main point — the horror, of course — feels like an afterthought altogether. I mean, how else can you explain the opening scene where a horny scuba-diving couple strip themselves naked and tries to make love underwater inside a sunken ship? Even when the movie fills us in with some random piranha attacks, it lacks the high-stake scenario that makes the violent scene more impactful.

Still, Piranha II: The Spawning has its moments. The special effects may have been cheesy but given the limited budget that Cameron was forced to work with, the overall creature effects of the flying piranhas remain technically proficient. The use of graphic violence and practical gore are actually worth praising here, where we see victims’ fleshes and body parts get chewed off. The underwater cinematography works too, which showcases Cameron’s early fascination with shooting all things aquatic. The movie also introduced Lance Henriksen in one of his earlier roles, who would later reunite with Cameron in The Terminator and Aliens.

Despite lacking creative control that I mentioned earlier, Cameron’s future narrative stamps can be seen throughout the movie. We have a female lead in the form of Tricia O’Neil’s Anne, a scuba-diving instructor who doesn’t mind searching for the truth and even throwing herself into danger, as evidently in the final sequence. It was a precursor that Cameron would improve better in introducing strong female leads including Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day years later.

Cameron also incorporates themes that involved underwater and capitalism — among the two of his favourite recurring subjects, which can be seen in some of his later movies. Then, there’s the depiction of an estranged relationship between Anne and Steve, where Cameron would revisit the same narrative beats again in his sadly underrated The Abyss starring Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Piranha II: The Spawning may have been a mess but frankly, it was a blessing in disguise for Cameron to gain some experience and show us what he can do within the limited budget and resources. Thankfully, he finally manage to make a better movie in his next film called The Terminator and the rest, as they say, is history.