The 1970s were the heyday of eco-terror and “animals gone wild” horror movies, but that doesn’t mean the ’80s didn’t get their fair share of entries in the genre. Though advancements in practical effects determined that slashers and creature features became much more popular during the decade, killer animals still found their way into a number of ’80s horror movies. Two of those entries now make their way to Blu-ray from Scream Factory: one a notorious first feature from a great director and the other an underseen gem.
Though notorious for being the first feature-length directorial credit for future Academy Award winner/King of the World James Cameron (there’s a sticker on Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray selling the movie as such), Piranha II: The Spawning—or Piranha II: Flying Killers as the title appears on screen—bears almost no resemblance to a Cameron movie outside the casting of Lance Henriksen in a leading role. Accounts vary as to whether or not he quit or was fired from the film, but the consensus is that producer Ovidio Assonitis wound up taking over the movie and is the actual director. Having seen his other directorial efforts—a list that includes Beyond the Door, Madhouse, and Tentacles—that seems more accurate.
With very little connection to Joe Dante’s tongue-in-cheek original film (the “killer piranha” premise is carried over and there are a few lines of dialogue that reference the events of the first movie), Piranha II transplants the action to a resort island in the Caribbean. A diving instructor (Tricia O’Neil), her 16-year-old son (Ricky Paul Goldinn), and her police officer ex-husband (Henriksen) are among the residents of the island who get wrapped up in investigating a series of grisly deaths that may or may not have something to do with mutant piranha who have, it must be said, evolved to develop wings and the ability to fly. Will they be able to stop these killer flying fish before the entire island is wiped out in a fury of tiny teeth? You get two guesses.
I have heard for years about what a calamity Piranha II is, but had never actually seen it prior to this review, and while I wouldn’t count it among the biggest turkeys of all time, it’s a pretty big mess. A fun mess at times, sure, but a mess nonetheless. The first half of the movie is goofy and entertaining in the way that many Italian horror films tend to be, in that it feels like it’s approximating an American movie more than it actually is one (which is particularly weird in this case, since it pretty much is an American movie). The photography has that soft-focus European look and the characters are mostly stock. There’s a sleaziness that creeps in from time to time, reportedly at the insistence of producer/director Assonitis, who demanded additional takes with extra sex and nudity behind James Cameron’s back. The gore is abundant but repetitive, with every attack looking and feeling the same: piranhas attack, there is a frenzy of activity and lots of cutting, leaving behind a chewed-up hunk of meat. Maybe the movie’s biggest crime is that it doesn’t do very much with the “flying piranha” premise; why go to such a ridiculous place with your mutant fish if you’re not going to capitalize on it by making the most of your winged piranhas?
Things slow down in the second half, though, as the conspiratorial plot takes over from the episodic attacks. The energetic kookiness of the earlier scenes turns into a lot of drawn-out, dialogue-free sequences of characters looking for/setting up stuff, but storytelling utilization is not what Piranha II does best. There’s a beach slaughter late in the movie that feels like the clear predecessor of the carnage-filled climax of Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3-D, but it’s done with the remake’s sense of humor. That may be the biggest problem with Piranha II, actually: both Joe Dante’s original film and the 2010 remake play the material for tongue-in-chief laughs, but The Spawning tries to be straightforward horror—and it’s the most ridiculous of the three. I get why it would be embraced as a “bad movie” classic by contemporary audiences forever chasing an ironic good time, but even on those terms, the movie is at least half a drag.
Piranha II makes its high-def debut via Scream Factory, with a new 2K HD scan and a couple of bonus features that only touch upon the movie’s troubled production. In addition to the original theatrical trailer, there’s a pair of interviews with special effects artist Brian Wade and star Ricky Paull Goldin (better known to horror fans as Erika Elaniak’s ill-fated creep of a date in 1988’s The Blob) that cover various aspects of the production. Both are diplomatic about the finished film, particularly Goldin, who begins the interview by pointing out that no one ever intentionally sets out to make a bad movie. He hints at some of the tensions between Cameron and Assonitis, but never goes into much detail about their actual roles or what Cameron’s true involvement with the movie wound up being.
A more successful killer animal movie new to Blu-ray from Scream Factory is Of Unknown Origin, in which Peter Weller battles a giant rat under the direction of George P. Cosmatos (Tombstone, Rambo: First Blood Part II). Weller plays Bart Hughes, a married father and New York businessman up for an important promotion at work. When his wife (Shannon Tweed) and kid go out of town for a few days, Bart is left home alone to deal with what appears to be a rat problem. Well, that’s an understatement. Things go from bad to worse as Bart grows more and more obsessed with getting rid of the rat, which turns out to be much more than just your average rodent.
Trying to sell any readers on Of Unknown Origin shouldn’t require more than the words “Weller vs. Rat,” but in case that’s not enough to tip the scales, I’ll mention that the movie is an incredibly entertaining horror film with a thick streak of satire running through it. The 1980s were largely defined by corporate culture and the maxim of “greed is good,” so here’s a movie that presents a character who wants nothing more than to be that guy, but who keeps getting interrupted by a bigger problem at home. The longer the film goes on, the more we begin to realize that he’d actually rather be tending to the rat issue, as his growing obsession provides an escape from the pressures of climbing the corporate ladder.
Of Unknown Origin turns the rat race of the 1980s into a literal Rat Race. Throw in some steadily mounting madness, Cosmatos’ capable genre direction, and a fun supporting turn from Louis Del Grande as an exterminator (horror fans will recognize him as the guy whose head explodes at the beginning of Scanners) and Of Unknown Origin is the kind of horror gem that Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release will hopefully help a bunch of new fans discover.
The most exciting aspect of Scream Factory’s Of Unknown Origin’s Blu-ray release is that it signals the start of a relationship between Scream Factory and Warner Bros., who has long locked their vaults and refused to license any of their titles, meaning we could only get their genre films through the Warner Archive line. The SF/WB connection has already led to the announcement of titles like Creepshow, House on Haunted Hill (1999), and Trick ’r Treat, all due out later this year on special edition Blu-rays. The partnership is one of the most exciting home video news stories of the year. The Blu-ray special features for Of Unknown Origin are excellent, too, including a commentary track from Weller and Cosmatos carried over from a previous release, new interviews with Del Grande, screenwriter Brian Taggart, and producer Pierre David, and a pair of theatrical trailers.
If you can only spring for one of these two discs, Of Unknown Origin is the way to go. If you’re a Scream Factory or killer animal movie completist, well… watch out for those flying fish.
Piranha II: The Spawning Movie Score: 2/5, Disc Score: 3/5
Of Unknown Origin Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5