Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981)

... aka: Flying Killer - Piranha 2
... aka: Piranha II
... aka: Piranha II: Flying Killers
... aka: Piranha II: The Spawning
... aka: Spawning, The

Directed by:
Ovidio G. Assonitis (uncredited)
James Cameron

There's a lot of gossip and conflicting stories about what went down on this troubled production. Producer / uncredited co-director Ovidio G. Assonitis has stated that James Cameron was fired for doing a terrible job and threatening to send them way over budget. Cameron stated he was fired after a couple of weeks but only because Assonitis was a control freak who gave him no room to work; suggesting the producer wanted to direct the film all along and intentionally hired someone inexperienced just so he could quickly cast them aside and do as he pleased. Producer Jeff Schechtman (whose story may be closest to the truth) confirms that Cameron was possibly overextending the budget but also stated the problems were really Assonitis' fault as he was "a major pain in the ass" to work with. Though the direction is credited solely to Cameron due to early contractual agreements, he claims to have had no hand in editing the film, no hand in writing the screenplay and essentially no further involvement with the movie at all after his firing early on. In other words, the finished product is mostly the work of Assonitis, who really should thank his lucky stars Cameron's name is signed to this project because otherwise it would have been long forgotten by now.

The three stars are Tricia O'Neil (who reminded me a lot of Adrienne Barbeau), Lance Henriksen and Steve Marachuk. O'Neil is Anne Kimbrough, a divorced single mother with marine biology training working as a scuba instructor at an upscale resort hotel called Club Elysium somewhere in the Caribbean. Henriksen is local police chief Steve Kimbrough; Anne's ex-husband and father to her only son (Ricky Paull Goldin). Marachuk is Tyler Sherman, who starts out wooing Anne as one of her students but then reveals himself to be a biochemist who was involved in a top secret project that involved splicing genes from various types of fish to create "the ultimate killing machine." A cargo ship containing four canisters of fertilized eggs from the project sunk and even since people have mysteriously disappeared around the wreck. Hmmm... Either way, someone told O'Neil, Henriksen and Marachuk they were starring in a serious horror film and they all act accordingly. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the rest of the cast that and they ham it up unmercifully.

The roster of ridiculous supporting characters (many of whom seem to have been re-dubbed and thus come off even sillier than they already do) include: 1. A sexually voracious woman who more or less date rapes her boyfriend underwater before both are gobbled up by the fish. 2. A flamboyant resort owner (Ted Richert) who insists on being a judge for the "Mr. Muscle" contest and refuses to cancel a midnight "fish fry" despite the ever-rising body count. 3. An obnoxious millionaire who knows nothing about boats but demands being called "Captain" and his big-breasted teen daughter (Leslie Graves). 4. A pair of freeloading tramps who sunbathe topless on their yacht. 5. A stuttering, geeky cook #4 like to torment with sexual come-ons they have no intentions of carrying through with. 6. A frizzy-haired New Yawk single obsessed with ensnaring a rich husband to the point where she pretends to drown so a dentist will save her. 7. A Jamaican dynamite fisherman who avenges his dead son by standing still and just letting the fish kill him. 8. A horny old cougar who attempts to get a "casual encounter" out of a lifeguard by telling him she killed her ex-husband with too much sex. And there are others just as silly.

The main gimmick here is that the killer fish (which are technically grunion and not even piranha despite the title) can fly. Yes, FLY. They can flutter their wings, leap right out of the water, fly right at you and chew your face off. They can also survive long periods of time out of water; a skill really only used once when one hops out of a corpse to chew up a black female morgue attendant. The real money shot here should have been mass carnage at the finale where the fish start attacking all of the dumb hotel staff / guests we've been introduced to throughout the film. Unfortunately, it's over before it can even get any good. Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D (2010) is supposedly a "remake" of the original film but actually has much more in common with this sequel. Its blood-soaked finale with dozens upon dozens of annoying Spring Breakers getting slaughtered in gruesome ways is exactly how this film should of ended but doesn't. There's simply not enough payoff.

Joe Dante's original PIRANHA (1978) was a wonderful JAWS-inspired low-budgeter that ended up becoming very successful, so it's no surprise at all this sequel was green lit. However, while the original mixed horror and comedy seamlessly, this film does it rather horribly and almost seems like two parallel films going on at once; a goofy resort comedy and a serious creature feature. The three leads are all pretty good and hold up their end but the humorous elements are much broader, much dumber and much more aggressively campy that in the original. This is also sleazier, with ample T&A provided by a host of women, including Carole Davis (who was a 1980 Penthouse Pet under the name "Tamara Kapitas") and Connie Lynn Hadden (a 1981 Pet). Graves, who began her career on "Sesame Street" (!), had appeared nude in Oui magazine around this same time, though she gets to keep her clothes on here. There are also some gory moments courtesy of Giannetto De Rossi, who is best known for his work with Lucio Fulci.

For the record there are no less than three different cuts of this film in circulation with run times ranging from 84 to 94 minutes. There are not only changes in the editing and Stelvio Cipriani's music score depending on the version you watch but also changes in the scene order. The shorter version has also omitted almost all of the nudity and some of the gore. The Columbia/Tri-Star DVD release, which presents the widescreen film in full screen, is one of the worst transfers I've ever seen from a "reputable" major company.


Fascination (1979)

... aka: Das Blutschloss der Frauen (Blood Castle Women)
... aka: El castillo de las vampiras

Directed by:
Jean Rollin

When people throw out the word "dream-like" to describe a film, I immediately think it will possess three distinct qualities: 1. soft focus or hazy photography, 2. little to no plot, a plot of little substance that just meanders along or a plot that doesn't make sense, and finally, 3. shots that linger for an eternity to make up for the fact there's little to no plot. After all, something needs to fill the time if the story isn't, right? I can't say I'm usually a big fan of these kinds of films unless they're done by very talented directors who are able to use photography, lighting, music, art direction and shot composition to enhance and strengthen the plot. This is also commonly referred to "Making a proper movie." One can actually have it both ways and find that perfect balance. One can be both an artist and a storyteller, which is really what the art of filmmaking is all about. This film I don't think ever finds that balance. In fact, it doesn't really excel at anything. There's next to no plot and, despite this director's reputation as a visual stylist, the material is mostly presented in a surprisingly flat and uninspired fashion. Sure, there are a few nice shots in this 80-minute movie, but not nearly enough to justify sitting through the rest of it.

Arrogant thief Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire) double-crosses a few people, takes the lone female as a hostage and runs off with a bag full of gold coins. The hostage flashes her breasts, kicks him in the crotch and manages to escape. Marc takes off again and sneaks inside a secluded mansion that's surrounded by water and accessible only by bridge. Those he's betrayed see him going in, but decide to lay low for awhile outside with plans on ambushing him later on that evening when he's not expecting it. Inside, Marc encounters two young women; Elisabeth (Franca Mai) and Eva (Brigitte Lahaie)... and they're odd to put it mildly. For starters, their story keeps changing as to why they're even there. They should be terrified by the presence of an armed, potentially dangerous thief, but instead act like giggly schoolgirls who joke about letting him rape them and then turn the tables by claiming they want to rape him.

Elisabeth and Eva are lovers and the director is kind enough to prove it by shoehorning in a sex scene at an awkward time as if quickly trying to fill some kind of requirement. Eva takes off her clothes and seduces the thief. Elisabeth gets jealous because she's in love with Eva but then claims she's in love with Marc and pleads for him to leave before nightfall. While that's going on, Eva goes outside to meet up with the four people Marc ripped off. She stabs one of the guys during sex with a dagger the director doesn't even attempt to hide is retractable and then takes a scythe to the other three in scenes that have absolutely no impact whatsoever because they're so poorly staged and edited. Night finally falls and another weird woman named Hélène (Fanny Magier) swings by with four other girls talking about some "reunion" and Satan. The ladies reveal themselves to be part of a bourgeois lez cult who drink human blood to keep themselves from becoming anemic (?) because they're sick of drinking ox blood (?!) The women then put on sheer nightgowns and walk around, a couple of people get shot and then the film is over.

This isn't art, as real art actually means something. This film means nothing, stands for nothing and ultimately accomplishes nothing. It's really just a minor piece of erotica shot at a cool-looking house and with a few attractive actresses in it and that's all. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that, but let's not make this something it isn't, right? The erotic angle is helped along by the fact one of the lead actresses is Lahaie, who's worth a look even in something as plodding and dull as this. She also has the lion's share of the nude scenes, so that's a plus. However, even gazing upon her fine form from time to time isn't enough to completely overcome the lumbering pace, meandering non-story and awful dialogue. Apparently they didn't even use a shooting script for this one and just made it all up as they went along... You can tell!

Worst of all, this isn't the least bit impressive on a visual level. Your average Friday the 13th sequel features more artistry and skillful camera-work than this does. The photography isn't imaginative, the score is forgettable, the editing is terrible, the potentially atmospheric location goes completely to waste since most of this is set indoors, every single "horror" moment is ineptly fumbled and the director seems to have no concept of scene continuity. There's a good reason people always focus on the strikingly sex image of a nude Lahaie, clad only in a black cape, holding onto a scythe. That's because it IS one of the only striking images in this film.

This is the sixth film I've seen from Rollin now and is one of his most popular and acclaimed works for some reason I can't quite fathom. I much preferred his zombie film THE GRAPES OF DEATH (1978) and the oddly compelling THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTED (1980) to this one. The cast also includes Evelyne Thomas and Cyril Val (who both appeared in several other Rollin films) and Muriel Montossé (who'd later show up in some Jess Franco movies).


House on Bare Mountain (1962)

... aka: Night on Bare Mountain

Directed by:
"R.L. Frost" (Lee Frost)

In full drag, "Lovable" Bob Cresse stars as the portly Granny Good and narrates this silly nudie flick from the slammer. At G.G.S.F.G.G. (Granny Good's School for Good Girls), new student Prudence Bumgartner (Laura Eden) arrives with her parents to enroll. She's introduced to her new roommate Sally (Ann "Meyers" / Perry), her parents leave and then the "girls" (many of whom look like they're pushing 30 the hard way) set about doing what they do best. And doing what they do best always seems to involve a curious lack of clothing. So what do these "good girls" do exactly? Well, they like changing their clothes. A lot. One sits on a bunk bed topless chain smoking. Another holds down the world record for most showers in a day. After all, as Granny always says, "A clean body means a clean mind!" One of the more studious of the girls - Honey (Laura Webster) - sits around topless studying nuclear physics and attempts to memorize a dictionary. And there's Anastasia, a Russian exchange student who graduated four years earlier but is still there because Granny doesn't know Russian so she can tell her. All of them are a little on edge because they hear a strange howling noise in the woods every night...

Granny takes the girls out to the pool to help them "develop their bodies," which involves topless swimming, topless sunbathing, topless twisting, topless jump rope, topless sketching and topless beach ball tossing. She should have thrown in some topless squats because most of these ladies have square-shaped asses that are simultaneously flat and jiggly. The whole school turns out to be a cover for Granny's moonshine operation. Down in the basement, hulking handyman Krakow (7'3" "Abe Greyhound" aka William Engesser), who also happens to be a werewolf, is kept locked in a room and paid 13 cents a day to run the distillery. Granny tells him to "stop buggin' the broads" by sneaking out at night, but she'll soon have bigger problems on her hands when federal agents close in on her operation during the annual costume party where guys dressed as Dracula and the Frankenstein monster spike the punch and girls do the jitterbug sans tops. With all this running around, dancing and exercising, you'd figure these chicks would be in better shape!

This is neither raunchy nor all that explicit. In fact, it's all rather innocent and done in good spirits by a bunch of people who obviously had a blast making it. That fun occasionally rubs off on the viewer, though not nearly as often as it should considering this barely runs an hour and is padded out by numerous overlong scenes that deserve being skipped right over... especially that damn dance party. Of course, the girls were the reason this was made in the first place and it showcases them adequately enough. There's barely a single frame that doesn't have bare breasts or ass, though laws at the time prohibited showing any more than that so don't expect too much.

The cinematography is actually quite nice, with lots of vibrant, deeply saturated colors courtesy of Gregory Sander, who'd go on to shoot the classic thriller SISTERS (1973) for Brian De Palma and the cult item Forbidden Zone (1980) for Richard Elfman. The monster makeups were done by prolific Z movie makeup artist Harry Thomas, whose work can also be seen in numerous Ed Wood and early Roger Corman films. Most of the actresses either did little else of note or are using aliases here (the casting director is listed as "deceased!"), though I did recognize Perry from films like The Toy Box (1971) and SWINGERS MASSACRE (1975). She'd go on to become one of the very first female hardcore porn directors and somehow even managed to rope mainstream actor Aldo Ray into starring in the X rated western Sweet Savage (1978) at one point!

Something Weird has always been the home video distributor of this one and it's very much in tune with their other releases. A 2001 "special edition" DVD pairs it with another horror nudie - 1964's Kiss Me Quick! (aka Dr. Breedlove) - and also contains the expected trailers and coming attractions. The set also includes six nudie short subjects (some apparently just scenes swiped from full features), including Hot Hot Skin and The Nudie Watusi (both shot by the same people who did KMQ), Natasha's Suburban Sexercise and Strip Tease Queen (both starring Natasha) and Werewolf Bongo Party and The Vampire and the Vixen.

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