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Piranha II: Flying Killers – feature review

November 28, 2014

PIRANHA II: FLYING KILLERS

“The best flying piranha movie ever made.”

piranha-II-flying-killers

Directed by James Cameron. Screenplay by H.A. Milton. Starring Tricia O’Neil, Steve Marachuk and Lance Henriksen. Year of release: 1981. Running time: 94 minutes.

Not being one to ret-con his own personal history or rectify past failings with attention-drawing CGI tweaks and patch-ups (as some mega-successful directors have been want to do) James Cameron has never attempted to bury his first directorial credit – proudly proclaiming it (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) to be ‘The best flying piranha movie ever made’. And considering his subsequent output more than speaks for itself – it’s no surprise he has nothing to be ashamed of.

The distinctively gritty and kinetic visual style of The Terminator (now a Cameron signature) has always seemed like a world away from the look and feel of Piranha II – the possible reason for which can be found in a revealing article in the June 1985 issue of SF Movieland Magazine, where Cameron told journalist Michael Mayo, “After I wrote the first draft [of The Terminator] I saw The Road Warrior, I thought that guy knows how to direct action! So I began to get a visual lexicon of types of shots that I could use with what I had already written.” Interestingly, in the July ‘85 issue of SF Movieland, Road Warrior director George Miller (promoting Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome at the time) revealed to journalist James Van Hise concisely what his own approach to directing action scenes entails, “Trying to choreograph little bits of film, approaching it much the same way as a composer does music. It’s almost a form of visual rock ‘n’ roll. You are looking for certain rhythms – rhythms of ideas, events and performance. That’s what you go for.” It’s a description which could just as easily apply to Cameron’s own approach to creating well-staged, beautifully-paced and geographically comprehensible action sequences. So it seems more than likely Cameron’s distinctive style of action can indeed be said to have been inspired to some extent by Miller’s own approach with the Mad Max films – which goes a long way to explain why Piranha II is essentially lacking these traits.

piranha-1978

Piranha – original 1978 vintage poster

In 1978, incensed that the block-busting success of Universal’s Jaws three years earlier had inspired major studios to flood the market with B movies done with A level budgets (Orca The Killer Whale, Tentacles, Grizzly etc) – thus encroaching on his own long-held exploitation turf, Roger Corman (then head of New World Pictures) decided to get his own back by producing what was meant to be nothing more than a shameless Jaws knock-off – an intense little shocker called Piranha. Written by John Sayles and featuring gory makeup effects by Rob Bottin (The Howling, The Thing), the film was a surprise hit in its own right, thus launching the career of its maverick director Joe Dante (who later went on to achieve even greater success with Gremlins in 1984). Despite the fact Piranha did so well at the box office, Corman was in no rush to produce a sequel – having decided instead to ride the lucrative wave of outer space fare made popular by the likes of Star Wars and Alien.

It was during the production of Corman’s outer space Alien cash-in Galaxy Of Terror in 1981 that one of Corman’s hardest working and brightest young employees caught the eye of two Italian producers who had just signed a deal with Corman for the rights to produce a sequel to Piranha. James Cameron had been working for Corman since preproduction on Battle Beyond The Stars (Corman’s answer to Star Wars) began in 1979. He was initially hired as a model builder, was quickly promoted to Art Director and in no time made his way up the ranks as Corman’s go-to-guy at New World’s newly-established visual effects facility, where he immediately got to work devising     a rudimentary, yet surprisingly effective front-screen projection system used in order to integrate visual effects backgrounds with live action in not only Battle, but also Escape From New York and Galaxy Of Terror (a process he would later go on to     use to great effect in both The Terminator and Aliens). Promoted to Production Designer and 2nd Unit Director on Galaxy; this is where he was found by the two Italian producers.

As legend has it, Cameron was in the middle of directing an insert shot of maggots crawling around on a severed arm, but was having difficulty getting a performance     out of the little critters (actually mealworms) – as they’d basically just sit there, unmoving. So, racking his brain (and in a perfect demonstration of his innate ability for practical problem-solving) he organized a battery wired up to a metal plate upon which the ‘maggots’ were placed and had an asssistant simply throw a switch when Cameron called ‘Action!’. Naturally, the worms would wriggle around for the duration of the shot and then stop wriggling as if on command when he called ‘Cut!’ and       the switch was again thrown. Apparently it was at this moment after completing a successful take when Cameron looked up to see the two Italian producers standing there, gaping in utter amazement at what they had just seen. According to Cameron, he figured they must have realized if this guy can get maggots to perform on cue – then he should be fine with actors. And so, based on what they had witnessed and Corman’s own personal recommendation, the producers (one of whom was Ovidio Assonitis) approached Cameron with an offer he couldn’t refuse – his own gig directing a feature. Incredibly, Cameron signed on without ever having seen a script for Piranha II, which just goes to show just how hungry he was for his first shot at directing.

Piranha 2 Poster (Australian)

Vintage Australian poster featuring, in Lance Henriksen’s words, “That damned helicopter” – lower right

Although Cameron didn’t know it at the time, Warner Brothers only made a deal with Assonitis to distribute Piranha II in North America on the proviso that an American director be put in charge of shepherding a predominantly American cast; hence the hiring of Cameron; whom Assonitis had always planned to fire midway through the shoot anyway and take over the reigns himself (while still using Cameron’s name     in the credits – a clear cut example of identity theft if ever there was). Ironically, speculation was rife amongst mainstream critics in the US at the time of the film’s release (clearly not regular readers of Fangoria Magazine, mind you) that the on-screen credit ‘James Cameron’ was indeed just a generic-sounding non de plume     for an Italian director and not an actual living person; standard practice at the time; with Italian producers of exploitation fare doing anything they could to appeal to the lucrative if notoriously US-centric American market.

Upon his arrival in Jamaica, Cameron was horrified to discover that preproduction had already commenced without him and had been in full swing for several weeks (under the supervision of another director who had subsequently been fired). Storyboards had been created and the rubber fish; which were meant to be the special effects centerpiece of the movie; were laughably designed and poorly constructed.

Cameron’s immediate reaction was to turn tail and catch the next available flight back to LA. However, for reasons unknown, he was talked into staying and decided instead to take up the challenge and attempt to do the best he could given the less-than-ideal circumstances. The first thing he did was discard the existing storyboards and ditch the fish which had already been built and start from scratch; redesigning them and fabricating a whole new batch. This was, however, only to be the start of his woes.

The premise for Piranha II is very simple, unashamedly goofy and as high-concept as they come. Set three years after the events of the original; a sunken US Navy wreck, located not far from a popular Caribbean holiday resort – is found to harbor leaking cannisters containing thousands of fertilized, genetically-altered piranha eggs (the result of a clandestine US government research project charged with creating ‘the ultimate killer organism’). Spliced from the genes of different fish species – piranhas spliced with grunions who could live out of water, spliced with the common flying fish; the result is a viscious (if uncontrollable) bio-weapon which could survive and function easily in all environments. When half-eaten bodies begin piling up in the local morgue, it is up to island police chief Steve Kimborough (Lance Henriksen) along with his estranged wife and diving tour operator Anne (Tricia O’Neil) and her biochemist lover Tyler Sherman (Steve Marachuk) to eradicate the underwater flying menace before more unsuspecting locals are devoured.

lance henriksen - piranha 2

Lance Henriksen is a much-loved gravelly-voiced character actor best-known for     his role as the heroic android Bishop in Aliens and his starring turn as haunted FBI profiler Frank Black in four seasons of TV’s Millennium. Prior to his featured role in Piranha II, he was known for smaller appearances in such big budget studio fare     as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Damian: Omen II. Following he and Cameron’s initial stint together on Piranha II, Henriksen was Cameron’s first choice     to play The Terminator – a role which ultimately went to Schwarzenegger (although Cameron still provided a supporting role for Henriksen in the film as Detective Vukovich). Henriksen had previously worked for Piranha II producer; the notoriously shonky Ovidio Assonitis with a role in the little-seen, until recently forgotten spaghetti sci-fi thriller The Visitor and openly admits he only agreed to play the role of Police Chief Steve Kimbrough in Piranha II for the paycheck.

Henriksen, however, was immediately impressed with the twenty-five year-old Cameron’s tenacity and commitment to making something worthwhile. As he revealed to journalist Adam Pirani in the July 1986 issue of Fangoria Magazine, “It was Jim’s first movie, and at that time, he was pretty much the same way he is now. He altered the script and made it worth something. He designed all of the special effects fish.     He only got three hours sleep a night. He was obsessed with his work. I never saw anybody like him.” Henriksen’s genuine admiration for the first-time director would not only lead to further collaborations – but a strong personal friendship as well; one which continues to this day. His role in Piranha II would also turn out to be his most physically demanding, as he revealed to Pirani, “I broke my hand jumping out of a helicopter. I did about a forty foot jump into the ocean, to save my kids 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.”

On a personal note; I had the great pleasure of meeting Lance at a pop culture expo here a couple of years ago and took along my vintage Piranha II: Flying Killers daybill poster for him to sign – which he graciously did free of charge (I guess he was impressed I had this particular piece of rare memorabillia – as he identified the artist immediately and was almost reverential in the care he took to sign it). He pointed out the helicopter in the lower right, “There’s that damned helicopter” and remarked that he’d almost killed himself performing that forty-foot leap into the ocean. I told him I had re-watched the film the night before and was impressed with his acting in one particular scene where he catches a lit bundle of dynamite thrown at him by poachers and hurridly lobs it into the sea; where it explodes – all in one shot. I asked him if it was a real bundle of dynamite and he admitted that indeed it was, saying “It was a very low-budget picture.” So low-budget in fact that the military-style shirt Lance wears throughout the movie was actually a shirt Cameron bought from a waiter in the resort where they were filming; while he and Lance were having dinner. Cameron paid for it with his own money; as the shirt the wardrobe department had already chosen was nothing like what a police officer would wear.

piranha 2 lobby card

That scene with the dynamite

Henriksen was also a privy to all the backstage political machinations and meddling perpetrated by Assonitis, “They [the producers] were really getting in the way of everything. They would come to the set with two full pages of dialogue – monologues and stuff – fifteen minutes before we were going to shoot. It wasn’t Jim’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.” This reviewer suspects there are two instances of this in the completed film. The first being an odd little scene aboard a yacht (which may have been shot by Assonitis as part of the 2nd unit) where topless bikini babe Loretta (Penthouse Pet Connie Lynn Hadden) looks on as another topless babe Jai (Carole Davis) recites a bizarre passage she has written; as if it were an extract from a ship’s log; in which she refers to she and her shipmate as being ‘high-seas pirate queens’ looking to plunder land lubber’s booty (this turns out to be a clumsy attempt at foreshadowing; as she is later caught sneaking into the resort’s kitchen to steal food). The second is an equally-inept and bizarrely-penned speech given on the final night by nefarious resort manager Raoul (Ted Richert) – just prior to a school of flying piranha leaping out from the sea to attack the resort patrons. During this clunky piece of exposition; Raoul fills us in on the backstory behind the ‘Annual Fish Fry Beach Festival’ where, every year, on the night of the first full moon following the spring equinox; schools of horny grunions come ashore to spawn – where they are snatched up by hungry patrons (wielding flaming torches no less, chanting “We want fish! We want fish!”) – later to be consumed that night in a massive beach fry-up. This is perhaps the most ludicrous sequence in the entire film and is quite clearly a plot contrivance meant to get potential victims conveniently as close to the water’s edge as possible (coincidently   a conundrum Joe Dante also had to face in helming the original Piranha).

As Cameron elaborated in an interview with Adam Pirani in the August 1986 issue     of Fangoria Magazine, “When I was in Jamaica, the Italian producer decided that it would be a really good idea if he wrote and directed some 2nd unit scenes on the island’s other side with some topless women. He wanted to cut these scenes into the film that I was directing on the other side of the island – which didn’t have any topless women.” Cameron wasn’t majorly concerned as he figured (being under the misguided belief he had final cut) – that he would simply discard these unwarranted scenes on the cutting room floor. Adding to this irksome meddling in the creative process, Cameron also had to deal with a profoundly disinterested crew; whose loyalty lay first and foremost with the producer. The young director was looked upon with bemused indifference by the Italian crew, while Cameron, unknown to them, had given himself a crash course in Italian in the weeks leading up to the shoot. According to journalist Marc Shapiro in his highly-entertaining 2000 warts-and-all unauthorized biography on Cameron; the young director did manage to gain a modicum of grudging respect from the crew, when, on one particular day; exasperated and frustrated by the lack of help he was receiving; he yelled at them in perfect Italian, “Get the motherfucking camera over here now!” Frustratingly for Cameron, this indifference and lack of respect given him from a foreign crew would again dog the headstrong director four years later when he shot Aliens in the UK.

carole davis & connie lynn hadden - piranha 2

Bikini babes Carole Davis and Connie Lynn Hadden

Despite the fact things were beginning to run relatively smoothly on Piranha II, a mere twelve days into the shoot; Cameron was summoned to the production office and promptly dismissed. Cameron was caught completely by surprise – as he was convinced he was doing a good job, but Assonitis told him that everything was shit and nothing cut together. Understandably disheartened by the whole experience, Cameron returned to LA – where he discovered, much to his horror – that his name would appear on the film’s credits regardless and most likely ruin his career. Fuming, he decided he would fly to Rome and confront Assonitis face-to-face and demand to be involved in the editing of the picture in order to salvage not only the film itself, but more importantly – his reputation.

Legend has it that when confronted in his office by the enraged Cameron, Assonitis was so fearful – he armed himself with a letter opener – fully expecting to be jumped. Cameron again, “So I went to Rome and ingratiated myself back into the production. Well, I wavered on the edge of fighting or running for a while, and I stayed to fight because I had worked really hard on it. Also, I got some pretty good performances out of the actors, and I knew that, dramatically, the story was working. I went there and the producer wouldn’t show me certain reels. So I just broke into the cutting room [using a credit card to jimmy the lock] and ran them for myself. I went through all     the footage, and I saw, yes, there really was a movie there – but unfortunately, they weren’t cutting it that way.” Cameron then spent several weeks holed-up in a low-rent hotel room; subsisting off scraps of food and left-overs left on trays in the hall; sneaking into the edit rooms after hours and re-cutting the film with no-one seemingly being the wiser. It was during this period, thanks to poor diet and stress, that Cameron came down with a severe bout of the flu and had his famous fever dream (in which a gleaming metal skeleton rises phoenix-like from the flames) which was the initial inspiration for The Terminator. He did eventually get caught re-editing the film though, and was threatened with legal action by a furious Assonitis. Cameron in turn threatened to go to Warners and spill the beans on what Assonitis was up to. “I then got into a big fight with the producer, and I came back here [to LA] and I made a deal with the distributor to recut it for them. And so the American release of Piranha II was slightly different from the European.”

tricia o'neil - piranha 2

Tricia O’Neil as Cameron’s proto-Ripley

While watching Piranha II this time around I was profoundly struck by certain things   in particular which could indeed be classified as ‘Cameronesque’. As Cameron had     a hand in re-writing the script, this should come as no great surprise. First up, there’s the estranged relationship between the two leads. Although we don’t know it at first, we soon discover dive instructor Annie (Tricia O’Neil) and police chief Steve (Lance Henriksen) are married – although separated. And it is only through the course of dramatic events they are ultimately brought back together (much like what happens with Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s estranged Bud and Lindsey in The Abyss). Although it is never specifically stated, we gather it is Steve’s devotion to his job which has strained he and Anne’s marriage. But since they share a teenaged son Chris (Ricky G. Paull), their separation appears to be a mutually amicable one.

The final ‘family portrait’ closing shot of Piranha II – where Steve, Annie and Chris     are reunited in a group hug on the back of a dive boat (Anne having survived the climactic detonation of the piranha-infested wreck) – is mirrored in a remarkably similar shot in Aliens – where Hicks, Ripley and Newt embrace in a group hug after Ripley and Newt are rescued from facehuggers in med lab. Indeed, Tricia O’Neil’s character Anne is, in many ways, a ‘proto-Ripley’ – as Ripley was portrayed in Aliens. She is tenacious, fearless and determined to kill the beast. And the way Tricia O’Neil plays her here is so similar to Sigourney Weaver in Cameron’s third movie, it’s almost uncanny. And Steve Marachuk’s Tyler Sherman; who starts out as one of Anne’s diving students, becomes her paramour; only to be revealed as an inside man with knowledge of the US Army experiments; could also be considered a ‘proto-Burke’ from Aliens – albeit a lot less smarmy and treacherous. O’Neil’s performance during   a scene on the dive boat (after Tyler rescues her from being attacked in the wreck) where he reveals his background as a biochemist who helped create ‘the ultimate killer organism’ – and O’Neil’s expression of her determination to kill it no matter what is (in terms of direction and script) – identifiably Cameron. These scenes between Marachuk and O’Neil and O’Neil and Henriksen are definitely the best-written and best-acted scenes in the movie.

piranha 2 - steve marachuk & tricia o'neil

Tricia O’Neil with Steve Marachuk

Just as an aside, and at the risk of getting super-nerdy here, I’m wondering if Cameron deliberately referenced Piranha II actor Steve Marachuk in a line of dialogue in Aliens. During the scene where the marines find fachugger specimens in liquid-filled tanks in med lab, there’s a line where Lance Henriksen reads notes from a clipboard, “Removed surgically before embryo implantation. Subject: Marachuk John l. Died during procedure. They killed him getting it off.” I’ve always wondered if this was indeed a reference to Steve Marachuk – as it is already common knowledge the character of Apone was named after one of Cameron’s co-workers at New World; revealing Cameron has a liking for incorporating the names of real people he has known into his screenplays.

piranha 2 - flying piranhas

While the flying piranha effects are clearly low-rent (with the little chirping sounds they make clearly cribbed from every Dracula movie ever made) – they’re not nearly as ludicrously unconvincing as has been suggested in the past. And the special effects makeup supervised by Lucio Fulci’s resident makeup man Giannetto de Rossi (Zombie, House By The Cemetary, The Beyond) is effectively gruesome to say the least. The typically Italian-sounding score by veteran composer Silvio Cipriani (best known for A Bay of Blood and Baron Blood) is the biggest problem with the film, as it simply doesn’t add anything to the creation of mood or suspense during what should be tense sequences, and if anything, it detracts from them. The choice of composer, of course, was ultimately out of Cameron’s hands, but it’s a real shame such an ineffectual score effectively undoes all of Cameron’s good work in creating mood and sustaining tension with the visuals.

Also, there are bizarre tonal shifts throughout the first half of the film which are quite disconcerting. The scenes involving the goofy antics of various peripheral characters at the resort (aka piranha fodder) – the man-hungry cougar with her eye on the hunky beach attendant; the stammering half-wit chef; the snap-happy newly-weds; the gold-digging wallflower chasing an equally nerdy dentist – are so tonally at odds with scenes involving the main cast; it leads me to suspect these scenes were either shot as part of the 2nd unit – or by Assonitis himself, following Cameron’s departure. While a clear attempt at comic relief – these awkward scenes merely come across as juvenile, ineptly-directed and lame. On the upside, Cameron’s direction of the three leads is confident and assured and some of the suspense sequences (particularly the demise of a nurse in the hospital morgue and a poacher in his shanty) are quite well handled. And the numerous underwater sequences involving the wreck are nicely-shot and suitably eerie.

piranha 2 - diving on the wreck

It really says something about Cameron’s innate sense of adventure and his love for a challenge that he persevered with Piranha II in the first place. After all; it was an extremely low-budget picture; with a non-english speaking and frustratingly disrespectful crew; shot in a foreign country; without access to his usual effects collaborators and with a meddling shonk as a producer. Indeed, if Cameron had wanted to play it safe – he could easily have stayed back at New World and helmed Corman’s next picture: the Alien cash-grab Forbidden World – and enjoyed his first gig directing in the relatively safe and familiar environment of Corman’s Venice studios. But no – Cameron instead went out on a limb, learning lessons which would hold him in good stead for the rest of his career. Cameron himself is characteristically pragmatic in his own summing up of his overall thoughts on the experience, “Some people have very auspicious first films, some people have very inauspicious first films. But Piranha II was a wonderful challenge, I have to say: it took every bit of cunning and everything that was required. I also got the opportunity to do five weeks of underwater photography in the Cayman islands, so it can’t be all that bad, if you happen to like scuba diving.”

Sure, Piranha II: Flying Killers isn’t the greatest film ever made. But it’s no worse than a lot of low-budget horror films from the early eighties – and even better than some.

2.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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