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Bad acting, boobies, and blood: an appreciation of James Cameron's first film

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Before he made Avatar, before he was the King of the World, before he brought us Aliens and Ah-nuld as the Terminator, James Cameron was a hack. There’s no judgment implied in that word. Everyone has to start somewhere. And for James Cameron in the late ’70s, that meant working for B-movie maestro Roger Corman, building sets and designing cheesy creatures for basement-budget sci-fi craptaculars and Jaws rip-offs like 1978’s Piranha.

Now, for those of you who haven’t experienced this schlocky slice of bloody underwater mayhem, Piranha‘s actually a pretty good little movie. It’s no Alligator, mind you. But still, it more than gets the job done. Which probably has something to do with the fact that it was an early collaboration between director Joe Dante (Gremlins) and screenwriter John Sayles (Eight Men Out). On its own modest terms, Piranha was a hit at the box office. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch some killer fish tear unsuspecting teenagers to pulpy chum at a drive-in on a Saturday night?

Not surprisingly, the money men behind Piranha immediately pounced on the idea of a sequel. Coming up with a plot for it wouldn’t be too hard, either, since the always-savvy Corman had persuaded Sayles to let some of the original film’s killer fish escape to the ocean at the end of his script, thus leaving a nice juicy opening for a part deux. The next question was, who would direct the Italian-produced sequel, Piranha II: The Spawning?

Enter James Cameron.

Cameron clocked his time on the first Piranha, designing some of the killer rubber fishies, which were filmed in an L.A. university’s swimming pool. In the sequel, Cameron gave the fish a fresh new twist — they could fly! Well, why not? Now they were just as lethal by air, land, or sea. Sweet! When Cameron began filming the sequel, it reportedly didn’t take long for him to “creative differences” with the Italian producer, Ovidio G. Assonitis. And there’s some dispute over just how much of the film belongs to the man who would go on to helm better aquatic epics  like Titanic and The Abyss, and how much belongs to the producer, who apparently was keen on spicing up his horror flick’s maritime carnage with a procession of European babes in (and out of) bikinis (see clip below).

As you can tell from this clip, Piranha II: The Spawning is junk. But it’s delicious junk. Transcendent junk. Junk that satisfies the sweet tooth of any trash cinema lover. The only recognizable face in the film is Lance Henriksen (who would later re-team with Cameron in Aliens). And the movie is wall to wall with patently phony f/x, laughable dialogue, and dubbed women in various states of undress. Which, depending on your point of view, may be three reasons to avoid it, or three reasons to put it atop your Netflix queue, stat. One of the things I love about the film, though, is that you can already see Cameron experimenting with ideas that he would realize later in his career on better movies. For example, if you go back and watch that clip again, at the 27 second mark, you’ll see the screaming woman waving a harpoon (or whatever that stick is) right at the camera — a beta version of the 3-D f/x that Cameron would later bust out in Avatar, perhaps?

It’s almost too easy to dismiss Piranha II: The Spawning as a lousy movie. And for some apparently, its influence is still being felt. As we speak, the Weinstein Company is putting the finishing touches on a third installment called Piranha 3-D starring Elisabeth Shue, Richard Dreyfuss (nice Jaws connection!), and Gossip Girl‘s Jessica Szohr. Will it be as entertaining as Piranhas I and II? Who the hell knows? But if past is prologue, and history repeats itself, then Piranha 3-D‘s director Alexandre Aja may be the next King of the World.