Piranha II: The Spawning – James Cameron’s First ‘Way of Water’ Directing Effort

As Avatar: The Way of Water continues to chug along at the box office, James Cameron has now directed three of the five highest growing movies of all time. Certainly, it’s an impressive feat that confirms few filmmakers understand better than Cameron how to create visual spectacle. Before he was immersing audiences on Pandora or stranding us on the Titanic. Cameron delivered Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day, two of the best sci-fi movies ever made. And he re-imagined Ridley Scott’s Alien as a thrilling mix of action, horror, and war movie with Aliens. So it’s funny now to look back on Cameron’s inauspicious debut directorial effort – the 1981 turkey, Piranha II: The Spawning. A sequel to Joe Dante’s fun 70s eco-horror, Piranha, critics understandably hated on this one. Yet is there a guilty pleasure hidden somewhere in this silly movie about flying mutant piranha?


Nestled in along the Caribbean coast, Hotel Elysium offers its guests a tropical paradise. But just off its shore, something has been chewing up the local marine life. When a guest turns up mangled and dead during a scuba diving class, resort instructor Anne Kimbrough and her ex-husband and police officer Steve investigate. All signs quickly point to a shipwreck where a dangerous, mutant breed of flying piranha have nested. Soon the dangerous fish decide to add the resort guests to the menu.

Piranha II: The Spawning Never Fully Embraces Its Own Campiness

Pinpointing what’s wrong with Piranha II: The Spawning isn’t immediately easy. Yes, there’s a few glaring problems that stick out, like the whole premise of giant flying mutated piranha. Original writer and director H.A. Milton (or Charles H. Eglee) – who Associate Producer Ovidio G. Assonitis fired at some point in production – makes some lazy connection to Joe Dante’s original movie. Based on the documented history of the movie’s production, the usual behind-the-scene woes likely contributed to what feels like a cobbled together movie. There’s some bad dubbing for a handful of actors, but not others. Not surprisingly, the movie’s practical effects are largely cheap looking. The flying piranha look like rubber props in nearly every scene in which they appear.

For all its built-in stupidity, Piranha: The Spawning wants to have its cake and eat it, too, taking itself far too seriously, too often.

But Piranha II: The Spawning also feels like it wants to be two very different movies. What it should have been was a silly, over-the-top exploitation movie that embraced its own inherent camp quality. Right from its opening scene, the sequel dishes out some gratuitous nudity in an improbably silly sex scene. And other odd bits pop up now and again, but not nearly enough to make this one entertaining. For all its built-in stupidity, Piranha: The Spawning wants to have its cake and eat it, too, taking itself far too seriously, too often. Though it’s only 94 minutes, Cameron and/or Assonitis’ sequel feels much longer with big gaps between action. A handful of decent gore effects (notwithstanding the rubber fish) can’t overcompensate for what’s a very dull B-movie.

Lance Henriksen Would Eventually Get To Star In Good James Cameron Movies

Poor Lance Henriksen. Over the course of a long and illustrious career as a gifted character actor, he’s had to endure his fair share of duds (Man’s Best Friend, Gehenna: Where Death Lives). Fortunately, Henriksen would work again with Cameron in Terminator and, of course, his most famous role as android Bishop in Aliens. Here, in Piranha II: The Spawning, Henriksen easily shines as the best part of what’s admittedly a very low bar. And he looks like he’d rather be anywhere else as he’s seemingly very much aware of how bad everything around him is in this bottom-of-the barrel eco-horror.

Fortunately, Henriksen would work again with Cameron in Terminator and, of course, his most famous role as android Bishop in Aliens.

At least Tricia O’Neil and Ricky G. Paull carry some of the load for Henriksen. In particular, O’Neil acquits herself about as well as can be expected given the material with which she’s given. No, Piranha didn’t make much sense – it was also intended as a bit of satire. In addition, the original at least had something to say about environmental horrors. Comparatively, Piranha II: The Spawning has nothing to say and is eco-horror only the slimmest of generous definitions.

Piranha II: The Spawning Sinks Faster Than The Titanic

Just how much this debacle really owes to Cameron or Assonitis is debatable. What’s not open to debate is the sheer awfulness of Piranha II: The Spawning. Joe Dante’s original Piranha was such a fun homage to B-monster movies that a sequel about mutated flying piranha should have at least been a fun sequel. But Piranha II: The Spawning makes a huge miscalculation – it takes itself way too seriously. The result is a boring, poorly paced mess that dabbles between exploitation and sci-fi hokum. Sadly, a handful of decent practical gore effects and Lance Henriksen can’t elevate this one into ‘guilty pleasure’ territory.


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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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