Is there a more fearsome aquatic creature than the piranha? Yes! The shark. And also the killer whale. And Ursula the sea witch. But after those three, the piranha is definitely the most fearsome aquatic creature. That’s why it has been the subject of so many (well, four or five) movies, including one called “Piranha II: The Spawning” that was directed by James Cameron! This was his first feature film, long before he became the “king of the world” with such blockbusters as “The Abyss” and “Ghosts of the Abyss.”
Even Oscar winners have to start somewhere. Cameron started with this movie about man-eating fish, which was a sequel to another movie about man–eating fish (“Piranha”), which was a rip-off of another movie about man-eating fish (“Jaws”), which was based on a novel about man-eating fish (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). But while the first “Piranha” had a self-aware tone and was partly intended as a parody, “Piranha II: The Spawning” is very serious, except for the parts that are obviously supposed to be comical, which are not funny. Already you can see James Cameron developing his style.
You might assume that a movie like this would begin with a randy couple having sex, and that they would be unable to complete the act because they would be eaten by piranha. You would be correct in this. However! Did you guess that they’d be having sex underwater, using scuba gear to breathe? And that they would choose to do this because doing it in the boat was “too uncomfortable”? I didn’t think so! This is known in slang as “deep-sea snorkeling.”
All of this takes place at a swanky beach resort called Club Elysium, located someplace tropical, possibly Florida, maybe Brazil. Employed as a diving instructor here is one Anne Kimbrough (Tricia O’Neil). We meet Anne when her teenage son, Chris (Ricky G. Paull), returns to their hotel suite carrying a freshly caught fish and deposits the thing in Anne’s bed, where she sleeps in the nude, barely covered by a sheet. Few things are more endearing than teen boys and naked mothers engaging in fish-related prankery! The boy’s dad, Steve (Lance Henriksen), from whom Anne is divorced, is here, too, working as a local cop. This is as narratively convenient and nonsensical as underwater scuba sex.
During Anne’s diving class, one of the students swims into a sunken shipwreck that he was specifically told not to go into, and piranhas kill him. (In his defense, piranhas weren’t the reason he was told not to go there.) As an experienced diving instructor, Anne has seen many varieties of fatal bite marks on a huge assortment of dead students, but she’s never seen anything like these. When she tells her cop ex-husband, Steve, that she wants to examine the body more closely, Steve points out that Anne’s credentials as a diving instructor do not give her jurisdiction over corpses. The local government actually has what’s known as a “coroner” who does that.
Anne does not like this answer, so she and her handsome new suitor, Tyler (Steve Marachuk), sneak into the morgue after hours to take a peek at what’s left of the dead guy. An attendant shoos them off. The attendant has a Jamaican accent, so perhaps Club Elysium is in the Caribbean? I’d really like to nail this down. Anyway, then a piranha pops out of the corpse’s chest, flies at the attendant’s neck, and kills her. Over the course of the film, another dozen or so people are dispatched in the same manner, i.e., a flying piranha to the neck. In each instance, the poor actor has to stand there like a schmuck, holding a rubber fish up to his or her throat and wiggling it around while screaming. They don’t prepare you for that at the Actors’ Studio. Which is irrelevant, since none of these people went to the Actors’ Studio. But you get my point.
How are these fish able to fly around on dry land, you ask? With wires. Duh. You can usually see them.
Oh, you mean in the story how do they do it? Well, back in the ’70s, the government spliced together genes from piranhas, grunions, and flying fish, trying to make a super-fish that it could set loose in the rivers of Vietnam to help win the war. (History has taught us that very few wars have ever been won without the assistance of mutant fish.) Some of the eggs from these devil fish got lost, and now here they are, adapted to saltwater and capable of living outside water altogether for hours at a time. We learn all this from Tyler, who it turns out is secretly a government biochemist sent to look for the missing monster-fish eggs. “Left ’em around here somewhere…” is what the guy who lost them said, before he was promoted and given a commendation by the president.
With a school of killer fish on the loose, surely the authorities will close the beaches, right? Don’t make me laugh. Seriously, I hate laughing. Club Elysium is about to hold one of its most popular events, where grunions come ashore to mate and Club Elysium guests catch them and eat them. (In horror movies, being a member of the animal kingdom does not protect you from being killed during sex.) They can’t cancel the grunion slaughter! People come to wherever Club Elysium is from wherever they are from just to capture and devour all the libidinous fish they can cram into their mouths!
Oh! Wikipedia informs me that grunions are found only in California and northern Mexico, so that is where Club Elysium is, whether anyone involved in making the film realized it or not. The grunion festival proceeds as planned, and the grunion seekers are astonished when, instead of grunions, dozens of huge, terrible piranha leap from the ocean and murder them. This is kind of sad, and yet at the same time completely hilarious and not at all sad.
Meanwhile, Anne, Tyler, and ex-husband Steve are planning to kill the evil piranhas by blowing them up. You may recall this strategy from its appearance in every other monster movie ever made. Whenever someone lazy makes a film like this, they think, “How do we defeat the creatures at the end?,” and then they immediately decide, sure, why not, let’s just blow them up.
It will be easy, since the piranhas all live in that sunken ship and never go anywhere. Real homebodies, those killer fish. They’re certainly not all currently on land killing Club Elysium patrons!
Before the plan to blow up the fish can be accomplished, a few more items of narrative convenience must be carried out. First, there is a local fisherman named Gabby (Ancil Gloudon) whose son was devoured by the piranha. Gabby has sworn revenge on the evil creatures, and it’s his idea to use dynamite. Don’t give him too much credit, though; he uses dynamite to catch fish on a daily basis, too. Dynamite is his answer for everything. He may have a career as a screenwriter ahead of him. Anyway, he gets killed by a piranha before he can execute his blow-them-all-up plan, thus allowing the film’s actual stars to do it instead. Heaven forbid a minor character should save the day.
The other requirement is that Tyler needs to die. He lied to Anne about his involvement with the government, and that sin is unforgivable. Also, killing him clears the way for Anne and Steve to reconcile without Anne having to make one of those pesky “decisions.” Basically, all the heavy lifting in the story is done by Gabby and the fish; Anne and Steve just have to react to it and be hailed as heroes. Nice work if you can get it.
I should mention that interspersed with all the action is a series of scenes depicting the whimsical antics of the Club Elysium guests. For example, there is a nerdy Jewish girl who desperately wants to catch herself a doctor. There is an aggressive older lady who flirts shamelessly with the young hotel staff. There is a stammering kitchen employee who gets taken advantage of by two hot ladies who use their naked breasts to get free stuff from men. All of this is intended as comic relief, but in fact it is neither comical nor a relief. It’s the opposite of comic relief. It’s tragic aggravation. The worst part is that most of the “funny” characters survive the piranhapocalypse. It would be a while yet before James Cameron would perfect the art of giving the audience what they want, though at least he had learned that you can never go wrong with breasts.