Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1982)

Down in Jamaica, Club Elysium hosts an assortment of “characters,” all soaking up the sun and getting into mischief while waiting for the annual Grunion fish fry.  Scuba instructor Ann Kimbrough (Tricia O’Neil) loses one of her students to and becomes entangled in a fight against unnatural, flying piranha.  Her husband (Divorced?  Separated?) Steve (Lance Henriksen) is the local police chief who divides his time between investigating the recent rash of grisly deaths and harassing various residents and visitors.  Their son Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin) is a horny teen (I’m of the thinking that the unhorny variety is as rare as hen’s teeth).  And that’s pretty much all you need to know.

Producer/uncredited co-director/co-writer (under the guise of H. A. Milton, along with credited director James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee) Ovidio G. Assonitis had a penchant for ripoffs (and some more original, unique fare; The Visitor, anyone?) that were cheesy as all hell but still had a certain air of legitimacy, because they included genuinely talented Hollywood luminaries onscreen who seemed to have no problems delivering some genuinely godawful dialogue.  Folks like Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, and John Huston would saunter into an Assonitis film, seem to stick around for slightly longer than they actually do (courtesy of some relatively slick editing and pacing), and saunter back out.  In an interview (if I recall, it was in an issue of Fangoria), Assonitis was asked how he got such great actors to appear in his less than auspicious efforts.  The Greek maverick’s response was as honest and forthright (but most importantly, simple) as any of the unabashedly imitative celluloid he produced: “I paid them.”  

Naturally, since he couldn’t afford someone like Fonda for an entire shoot to take on the protagonist role (and the advanced age of some of these actors would have been a little prohibitive considering the physical requirements), that responsibility would fall to younger folks like Henriksen, Bo Hopkins, et al.  What’s interesting in Piranha Part Two is that Henriksen really isn’t the star of the show, as one might expect from his Chief-Brody-esque character.  Ann is the main character here, and she’s actually a fairly strong female protagonist, which I credit to Cameron’s contributions to the screenplay (the man does self-assured, headstrong women better than most).  She’s single-ish, raising and supporting Chris by herself (yeah, Steve makes time for his son, but it’s mostly just checking in with him and being proud that he might be getting laid by the aloofly coquettish Alison [Leslie Graves]).  Ann’s job is one of some authority, requiring both technical knowledge and solid instincts.  Ann propels the plot forward; when she states to Steve that there’s something fishy going on (sorry), he doesn’t believe her, causing her to seek out answers for herself.  She isn’t defined by the men in her life, but she’s still a sexual being, and she sleeps with whom she chooses.  In a genre mostly ruled by Everyman heroes (think: Doug McClure in films like Humanoids from the Deep, and I’m pro Doug McClure), it’s rather refreshing at this point in cinema history to have an Everywoman capable of defeating the Big Bad who isn’t just a Final Girl.

Much like in the first Piranha, the idea of evolution is at play.  In that one, the killer fish were engineered to withstand the cold waters of the rivers of Vietnam.  Here, they’re engineered to fly.  Why?  Because flying piranha.  Though said evolution is man-made like something the Marvel Comics’ character The High Evolutionary might do, it’s still purpose progression (and piranha that can fly certainly have that many more options for dinner).  This notion of evolution branches off into the realm of mating, being (as far as this non-scientist writer knows) the actual course that evolution takes.  There’s the Grunion spawning at the resort, wherein the female tastily-named fish flop themselves up onto the beach to lay their eggs and become inseminated by the males.  Meanwhile, we have such human characters in pursuit of sex as Beverly, the ditzy, soon-to-be-corn-rowed bimbo who desperately flings herself at dorky Leo as soon as she hears that he’s a doctor (those survival instincts kicking in).  Mal, the stuttering chef at the club, gets hoodwinked into feeding co-floozies Loretta and Jai based on the promise of a strenuous ménage à trois.  Ann beds down with scuba student (and possibly more?) Tyler (Steve Marachuk), and Chris, of course, gets a bit of trim from Alison.  Then there is the nameless, faceless couple who get interrupted just prior to bumping uglies as the film opens.  You can argue that the sex in this film has nothing to do with mating or advancing and propagating the species, that in Piranha Part Two, it’s all principally for pleasure (both the audience’s and the characters’), and you would be correct, but like Sinatra crooned, you can’t have one without the other, and this is where it starts.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about this film is that it succeeds despite its one-dimensionality.  Aside from Ann, none of the characters are all that compelling.  The people in films like this are typically set up to be fodder, and that rule remains in effect here.  Cameron and company give us no reason to feel anything when any of them bites it (or gets bitten by it, take your pick).  Where Joe Dante’s original film gave us satirical caricatures, Piranha Part Two simply gives us cartoons, but it still wants us to care about their fates.  The rich boat “captain” that Chris works for is a gormless snob.  Chris and Alison are just hot young hormones on parade (fair enough on that one).  Jai and Loretta are cruel, duplicitous opportunists.  Beverly and Leo are spastic geek.  The hotel manager (in the coveted Larry Vaughn role) is just venal enough to be a dick but not enough to stress what the annual fish fry really, really means for his business.  Gabby (Ancile Gloudon) and his son are local fishermen who ply their trade with dynamite (we know they’re okay, because Steve lets them off for, what I would take to be, a rather serious safety violation).  We get a couple scenes where they show up, but aside from being what I assume is the sole source of dynamite within a twenty-mile radius, they mean nothing to the story despite the death of one of them, which is intended to be solemn and carry some emotional weight (it doesn’t).  Which brings us to Steve, who should have some kind of development in regards to his relationship with his family.  Yet, all Steve does in the story is be somewhat of a condescending asshole to Ann and pat Chris on the head.  Yes, he takes part in the big climax, but honestly, for all that came before with his character, it could have been any one of the others doing what he does.  Nevertheless, Piranha Part Two still manages to be enjoyable up to a point, regardless of its vacuity, partly because it’s well paced, partly because it’s just cockamamie enough for a lark, and partly because it does have Ann as the one shining point around which the rest of it congeals.  It’s not a standout of the Horror/Animals Amok genre/subgenre, but it fits the bill as a harmless diversion.

MVT:  Ann is smart, and sexy, and adept, and O’Neil’s performance sells what could have been rather foolish in the wrong hands.

Make or Break:  The finale is nicely edited, intercutting multiple events and building tension competently.  An abrupt ending undercuts it slightly, but not enough to totally ruin it.

Score:  6.75/10 

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