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Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) Film Review

Revisiting James Cameron’s directorial debut Piranha II: The Spawning to recount the gory yet amusing Piranha film that he brought to life 40 years ago.

Whenever anyone talks about James Cameron, the obvious titles that are mentioned are Avatar, Titanic, The Terminator, or even Aliens. For me, however, Cameron’s directorial debut Piranha II: The Spawning is the first to come to mind. There’s a lot of personal history rooted in creature features that began with Jaws, progressing into films like Piranha, Gremlins and Deep Blue Sea. Whilst some creature features lean towards being more serious and scary, there are those, especially in recent years, that focus on sticking to the B-movie subgenre. They stick to it in a sense that they’re unbelievably silly with the CGI that they wouldn’t even pass for student made projects. Titles such as Sharknado, Sharktopus, and Piranha 3D take being a B-movie to the extreme. I would say they’re all guilty pleasures, but there’s nothing guilty in liking something as entertaining as Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus.

I can’t pinpoint the exact time that I first experienced the magic of Piranha II, but I can certainly remember countless late night rewatches on the Horror Channel with my dad. The Horror Channel, now the Legend Channel, is where I’ve found so many hidden horror gems. The newer Piranha instalments (Piranha 3D and Piranha 3DD) don’t link into Cameron’s Piranha in any way, but it’s always nice to have a movie marathon where there are endless flying piranhas involved. I’m prone to a few horror movie marathons each year, whether that be all five Final Destinations, a bloody Saw marathon or the entire Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, so there’s no harm in adding some piranhas into the mix. Piranha 3D and 3DD almost feel like complete fever dreams to me at this stage, as they’re some of the craziest (yet fun!) films I’ve ever seen.

Clichés are bound to happen in creature features when the narrative is (usually) all about an animal terrorising a group of people until they figure out how to stop the attacks. The formula of Piranha II starts with one attack, followed by a few more, then a group of people attempt to figure out how they’re going to stop the attacks, a few more kills and then it’s all over. You could pretty much use that formula for Jaws and Gremlins. But in Piranha II’s case, it’s very predictable if you know your B-movies.

Piranha II: The Spawning
Piranha II: The Spawning (Columbia Pictures)

Anne (Tricia O’Neil) works at a Caribbean resort teaching those who are daring enough to go in the water to scuba dive. A couple of divers are killed, followed by one of Anne’s students, which starts the investigation into trying to figure out what’s terrorising the waters. And yes, you guessed it, it’s piranhas! This time, though, the piranhas can fly. Anne, alongside her ex-husband who is the chief of police (Lance Henriksen) and her current boyfriend Tyler (Steve Marachuk), must team up together to save the island from ravenous piranhas before it’s too late. Similarly to the other films in the Piranha franchise, something must go wrong. Notably, in Piranha 3DD the piranhas begin to walk on land as the film draws to a close. If the water is infested with piranhas in the first place you have a big problem on your hands, but when they can grow legs and make their way onto the beaches you’re out of luck.

Whilst Piranha II isn’t great in the acting or visuals department, the hilarious storyline makes up for it entirely. Film is meant to be fun and entertaining and sometimes you just want to sit down, grab some popcorn and watch something that will make you forget about life for a second. You can do that with Avatar and you can certainly do it with Piranha II too. The only thing that holds Piranha II back from beating Piranha 3DD is the lack of David Hasselhoff. And maybe also the fact that the underwater night scenes are so awfully lit that there could be anything going on underwater and you wouldn’t even know.

Piranha II is by no means my favourite film in the world, but it deserves credit where it’s due. It especially deserves praise purely for putting Cameron into the world of feature films. Without Piranha II, we may not have had Avatar. What is a world without Avatar? You can always change where you go, but you can’t change where you came from. Cameron’s career was never defined by Piranha II. He changed the entire trajectory of his filmography and focused on meaningful stories and projects he was passionate about. He especially went all out when it came to CGI and never looked back at the monstrous imagery in his debut. Most people wouldn’t even believe you if you said Cameron directed Piranha II. If you’re ever having a Cameron marathon though and you’re not including Piranha II, you’re not doing it right.

Piranha II: The Spawning is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

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