PIRANHA 2, Italian Horror Movies and the Case of Sequel Superiority

Columbia Pictures

One of the age-old pub quiz questions from the movie trivia pool is the famous “name a sequel better than the original”.

Aliens“, shouts Billy.

T2“, adds Chris.

“I got it, by the way. I got it! The Godfather Part II“, adds Nancy while imitating the smug sense of superiority oozing from Timothy Olyphant’s character of Mickey in Scream 2, from which she just quoted.

Granted, these movies have always had their tireless champions and many words have been penned to challenge or support them, mostly many years ago. It’s probably a futile endeavour to write an essay about the importance of acknowledging T2, a massively expensive spectacle, as superior to The Terminator, an indie slasher shot on a shoestring budget. Therefore, unless someone is willing and able to, for example attempt to poise Creed as superior to Rocky, this question rarely breeds interesting answers and the arguments stemming from those answers are likely to be derivative at best.

However, there are still movies out there that will revitalize this canonical conversation, such as the 1982 (or 1981, if you care that it was released in Europe first) Piranha 2. Anyone at least vaguely aware of the history of genre cinema will likely recall that the lore surrounding the sequel to 1978 Piranha almost exclusively revolves around the infamous (perhaps even legendary) story involving James Cameron and his directorial credit.

To briefly refresh, Piranha 2 came together as a result of Roger Corman not being interested in following up on the original he produced as he was invested elsewhere, so the rights were sold off to Ovidio Assonitis, a Greco-American film producer with a penchant for making cheap cash-in knock-offs (e.g. Tentacles). Assonitis hired Miller Drake to direct, but fired him right away and promoted young James Cameron, who was a special effects artist on the set, to take on the mantle. Long story short, Cameron also did not enjoy his time on Assonitis’ set, and ended up fired as well (the movie’s Wikipedia page has quite a bit more detail on this).

However, we are not here to dwell on the trivia surrounding Cameron breaking into the editing bay at night to make the movie he wished he had made, or even to establish whether Piranha 2 counts as Cameron’s bona fide directorial debut. This is merely an illustration of the utter chaos engulfing the movie’s production and that it was nothing short of a miracle not only that the movie came together in the first place… but also that it somehow surpasses the original. And it is important to inquire why that could be.

Granted, even though the Joe Dante-directed 1978 Piranha likely has its apologists (as is the case for nearly any genre movie known to man), it is probably reasonable (and polite) to surmise the movie is objectively not that good. And if we factor in the context of the 1975 Jaws which it was blatantly attempting to rip off and on whose clout it was trying to cash in with its shoddy Corman-esque appeal, it’s hard to see it as nothing but an outright failure. In fact, Piranha is abysmal even when viewed through the most flattering perspective allowing to excuse narrative, logical and technical shortcomings because the movie was intended as a cheap exploitation effort. It was tonally jarring, not that scary, not violent enough to be memorable and its main claim to notoriety stemmed from a few brief flashes of full frontal nudity and an inventive musical cue (obtained by recording a power drill underwater) meant to underscore the menacing terror of the horde of little teethy fish.

The movie just does not work as intended and comes across as not only sloppy (which is excusable), unfocused (which is expected), but simply boring (which is a deal-breaker). However, Piranha was massively successful despite the fact critical circles ran a coach and horses over its artistic reputation. And in the movie-making biz, a commercial success fosters sequel potential so it was a no-brainer that someone would look at this movie and try to cash in on whatever cultural footprint it had. Unfortunately, animal attack horrors have the same problem as canonical slashers, alongside which they arose as a subgenre: they don’t have a natural franchise momentum.

The formula typically followed by slashers of that era would likely be reduced to cutting down on suspense because the audience is familiar with the villain and ramping up the violence to boost visceral entertainment. Interestingly, the Assonitis-produced and (kind of) Cameron-directed Piranha 2 bucked the trend followed by other franchises in the genre and opted to effectively forget the original ever existed while acknowledging it as a springboard from which to ramp the stakes at the same time, arguably a confusing venture.

Thus, Piranha 2 feels occasionally as though it was vaguely aware of its own predecessor by mirroring certain scenes and motifs (i.e. underwater sex leading to gruesome deaths and piranhas attacking beaches brimming with unsuspecting holidaymakers). Though, it is equally true that all those motifs trace back to the granddaddy of the genre, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, where they were all deployed – indubitably – with much more oomph and cinematic conviction. Therefore, any and all symmetry between the two films may not be signs of formal franchise awareness, but rather distant ripples of memetic allegiance to movies they both owe their existence to.

However, there is something about the maybe-James-Cameron-directed Piranha 2 that is not only endearing but frankly fascinating to observe and analyze. Perhaps as a by-product of serendipitous happenstance, this movie production disaster including all sorts of personal dramas, egos jousting on set and a general lack of direction or focus managed to gain something that the 1978 Piranha simply did not have – character.

While the Joe Dante-directed movie probably intended to position itself as an exploitation alternative to Jaws, it never really committed fully to gruesome violence, over-the-top ridiculousness, or even ample amounts of full frontal nudity such movies would generally gravitate towards. Meanwhile, Piranha 2 lacks any and all such inhibitions. The movie is both perfectly self-aware and robustly committed to appearing self-serious about whatever ridiculousness was written for the performers to act out. Yes – the piranhas in this movie have wings. They fly. Not only that: they are seemingly capable of surviving outside of aquatic environments for long enough to jump out of cadavers in the morgue (in what can only be homages to the iconic chest-bursting scene in Alien that Cameron would later get the chance to follow up in his well-regarded sequel), gruesomely dispatch sassy nurses and leave the crime scene through a window. Actors are dead-serious about infiltrating wreckages, talking about mutated saltwater piranhas, breaking into morgues using bank cards and – of course – dealing with those pesky flying piranhas as though there weren’t anything unusual or preposterous about the concept of tropical fish living in the Bahamas in an abandoned wreckage and periodically venturing into the wild to kill obnoxious tourists on their overpriced yachts.

This, combined with some technical elements likely smuggled by the crew who earned their chevrons on Lucio Fulci sets, makes Piranha 2 look less like a Corman-esque all-American Jaws knock-off, but rather like a spaghetti horror a la Zombi 2. Between the characteristic over-dubbed dialogue, instances of gruesome violence staged with reverence to the aforementioned Fulci, Argento and Bava movies and an allure of sleaze permeating the entire experience, one could easily be convinced this movie was indeed made in Italy, not as a sequel to Piranha or a cash-in on the unprecedented success of Jaws, but rather as a revisionist giallo attempt at a creature feature.

Consequently, the movie becomes its own entity, completely unshackled from whatever legacy its predecessor left behind. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any connective tissue between the 1978 film and this sequel. Hence, it wouldn’t necessarily be a mortal sin if the filmmakers continued in their already emboldened spirit and titled this movie Piranha, effectively pretending the original did not exist at all.

But the original does exist, which is why Piranha 2 finds it remarkably easy to tower over its predecessor’s lack of definition and cinematic charisma. It is a bold and lush exercise in exploitation of the European kind that feels both refreshing and courageous in the context of American filmmaking, which was yet to fully embrace what I like to call ‘self-serious corniness’, now known as one of the underpinning tenets of the late 80s and 90s genre cinema.

Piranha 2 never winks or nods at the audience as though to acknowledge none of this is to be taken seriously. The viewers are free to make this choice on their own terms, just as they are welcome to pretend flying fish are a real menace and thus require their investment to help the characters put this crisis to bed. This emancipated tone is what sets Piranha 2 apart and lets it stand head and shoulders above its predecessor, even despite (or even owing to) the fact it came together in utter agony of filmmakers being fired on the spot, Cameron breaking into editing bays to make changes to the movie he thought was going the wrong direction and the producers invariably imposing their European ways upon what was supposed to be a simple American indie exploitation flick.

So, next time you find yourself in a situation where you are asked about a sequel better than the original (and you will find yourself in such a predicament sooner or later, you can take this promise to the bank), zip it on Aliens, The Godfather Part II or T2. Go with Piranha 2. In contrast to these tried-and-true Hollywood stalwarts, this little movie actually needs its champions willing to praise its bold and unrepressed approach to genre filmmaking, its serendipitous synthesis of American post-Jaws creature feature iconography with giallo and spaghetti horrors, and the fact it is supremely fun to watch, both as a trashy product of the 80s and as a treasure trove of connective winks and nods towards movies James Cameron would go on to make later on in his life.

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