James Cameron Begins: PIRANHA II (1981)

Scream Factory delivers a handsome release of Cameron’s campy directorial debut

1978’s Piranha is fairly well known as the directorial debut of Joe Dante, but its sequel isn’t as prominent on the pop culture radar despite an even bigger name behind it — perhaps because it’s generally considered a lesser film.

Like Joe Dante, James Cameron got his start working for legendary producer Roger Corman, and got his first directorial shot on the killer fish franchise (though Corman isn’t credited on this one, with future Cannon CEO Ovidio G. Assonitis assuming the role of executive producer). But it was a much bigger challenge than what Dante faced.

The original Piranha featured several recognizable genre actors (and others who would come to be known as frequent Dante collaborators), but with a smaller budget, the sequel pulls back on “name” casting. Its pair of primary leads are Tricia O’Neil and Steve Marachuk, supporting TV players dabbling in film (Piranha II would prove to be the biggest film roles for both). They’re joined by future genre icon Lance Henriksen, who was gaining traction as a supporting actor in a handful of major films — and it was by sticking with Cameron that he became a beloved icon in classics like The Terminator and Aliens.

Casting aside, though, Piranha II doesn’t feel cheaper or smaller than Piranha or similar films of the era — owing mostly, I think, to the tropical setting. James Cameron of course would go on to make some of the most expensive movies of all time, but he got started by being economical and learning to get the most out of his budget. (Even on the insanely expensive Avatar, he looked at ways to cut costs, such as hiring Sam Worthington in the lead role instead of a huge A-list star).

The sequel takes place at a laid-back Caribbean resort where a major tourist attraction is a nocturnal natural phenomenon of fish gathering near the beach, “The Spawning” event of the film’s subtitle. But a diving instructor (O’Neil) and a hotel guest (Marachuk) discover a viciously mangled corpse while on an excursion, and realize there’s something dangerous in the water.

It’s actually worse — the piranha this time around have further evolved into flying fish, making them a threat both in and out of the water, and the happy tourists who flock to The Spawning will find that the fish aren’t horny, but hungry.

Cameron’s film follows the general tone of the original; action-horror infused with a lot of comedy — some of it really, really dopey. It’s more of more of the original; more gruesome violence, more nudity, more gags. Cameron is clearly a less mature filmmaker here than the master we know and love, certainly, but even so there are flashes of his trademarks. The casting of repeat collaborator Lance Henriksen, of course, is an obvious one. Cameron also makes use of family dynamics and visually interesting supporting characters, both of which he would continue to explore throughout his career. Perhaps most important to his development are the several underwater sequences, which would become a major obsession both as a subject of his films and in a life of submarine exploration.

The special effects are fine in context and in keeping with a film from the Corman school of film production. Conversely, they aren’t up the level of quality exhibited in Cameron’s other films. The fish look like plastic props and their movement is often clearly dependent on the thrashing of their victims or puppeteers rather than their own autonomy. This stuff doesn’t bother me but is worth mentioning. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the effects are really quite great.

The general consensus around Piranha II is that it’s a bad film, inferior to the original and a forgettable debut for Cameron. I disagree on all points. I found its campiness refreshing and really enjoyable, and had a lot of fun with it.

The Package

Piranha II comes to Blu-ray this week from Shout Factory (who also put the 1978 original on Blu-ray and DVD). The package features a reversible cover with new and classic artwork, and it’s aesthetically a huge step up from the tacky DVD editions I’ve seen.

The transfer is a new 2K Scan from the original camera negative, and it looks as great as could possibly be expected. The film itself has a generally soft look, especially where people are concerned, but some shots exhibit noticeably great detail and texture.

Special Features and Extras

  • NEW “One Moment in Time” (15:55)
    Interview With Actor Ricky Paull Goldin
  • NEW “The Sky Has Teeth” (14:09)
    Interview With Special Effects Artist Brian Wade
  • Trailer (1:50)

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
If you enjoy reading Cinapse, purchasing items through our affiliate links can tip us with a small commission at no additional cost to you.


Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.


Previous post Blu Review: A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT
Next post Two Cents Does the Monster Mash with VAN HELSING