In 1975, there was a movie made about a giant killer shark, and it was called Jaws. Being a success - being in fact, the most successful movie ever made at that time - it influenced a truly massive number of rip-offs, more perhaps than any other single movie. To even begin to scratch the surface of the seemingly infinite titles that take Jaws as their chief model would be a massively difficult undertaking, especially because we only need concern ourselves with one.

Roger Corman, one of the great exploitation producers of any age, decided at a certain point that he need his very own version of Jaws, and it was made for him by two of the most talented people to ever spend even five minutes working in B-pictures: director Joe Dante, and screenwriter John Sayles. Their film was 1978's Piranha, which bears a point of distinction virtually unheard of in the mock-Jaws subgenre: it's actually pretty terrific, with a good sense of humor that keeps it from being too serious, but a fidelity to the goals of the "nature gone amok" style that it never descends into self-parody. Most people who are in a position to make the judgment would indeed call it the very best of all Jaws knock-offs; it was at any rate a fairly good success, by Corman's standards, enough to put it into a position for a knock-off of its very own.

Enter the Italians.

Nobody but nobody did cheapie rip-offs and desperate sequels in the late 1970s and early 1980s like the Italians, and the rights for the Piranha sequel were snapped up by a certain notorious producer by the name of Ovidio G. Assonitis, well known among bad movie fans for his incredibly dreadful 1977 killer octopus picture Tentacles. In his hands, Piranha II: The Spawning was absolutely guaranteed not to be anything good, and sure enough, it's not. It opens with a completely ridiculous scene that doubles the fun of Jaws's notorious skinny-dipping death by showing two naked people, who have gone diving late at night to a wreck prominently bearing the words "U.S. NAVY", so that they can have sex, seemingly a fatal proposition that far below the surface of the water even if you aren't in a movie called Piranha II: The Spawning. They die in due course - I bet you can't guess how - and then the credits start up, really classy-like, with cheap red splotches washing over underwater footage and revealing the crew names.

Naturally, every last one of them is Italian, except for the actors - unusually, Piranha II manages to have a virtually complete cast of native English speakers. Then, we eventually get to the director. Now, it was a common trick back in the day for Italian directors and actors to hide their name behind a quintessentially American pseudonym, apparently to avoid scaring off the audience, or something, even though everybody knew that's what was going on (Assonitis, for example, directed Tentacles as "Oliver Hellman"). If I were watching this film in 1981, I'd have assumed that's exactly what happened here, because the name of the director sure does sound made up: eminently forgettable, made up of two first names, yeah I bet that "James Cameron" made this movie. Er...

That, of course, is why I or anybody else still gives a damn about Piranha II: The Spawning - despite all logic and sense, it is in fact the first movie directed by a man who would one day become one of the most prominent tech-head filmmakers of all time. Cameron had been in the game for just a few years at this point: he'd been working as a truck driver with a secret passion for building models and trying to create special effects when he saw Star Wars, and knew that he had to make something like that all his very own. So he quit his job, and started hustling in the film industry. There he had the good fortune to meet none other than Roger Corman, who recognised the young man's talent for effects, and set him to work as a model maker and art director. It was in that capacity that Assonitis hired him to work on the piranha effects in Piranha II; and when the film's original director left, Assonitis simply pushed Cameron right into the director's chair, knowing with his good Italian shlockmeister sensibility that one warm body would be as good as another.

Of course, Assonitis wasn't going to let an untried 27-year-old actually make a movie; he kept a pretty firm grip on the film's reigns from behind the scenes, and didn't let Cameron anywhere near the editing room. Which is good, because it means that we can maintain that this isn't really a James Cameron film, but just sort of a James Cameron exercise. Certainly, no dedicated auteurist nor a Cameron fanboy would be able to take a great deal of joy from Piranha II, a film that bears little resemblance to anything he'd make in the future. The effects are simply atrocious, for a start: the piranhas look like nothing so much as plastic fish being pushed at actors' necks, when they're not flying about on gaudy, easily-visible strings. And what I, at least, would consider one of the filmmaker's greatest strengths, his storytelling precision and ability to crisply drivve through the plot while giving us exactly the information we need - no more, no less - that is nowhere to be found. No later iteration of James Cameron would have stood still for the pointless subplot in which a horrible middle-aged woman keeps chasing after a dentist.

The plot actually follows Anne (Tricia O'Neil), working as a diving instructor at a Caribbean resort called Club Elysium. She is taking care of her teenage son, Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin, credited as Ricky G. Paull), avoiding her estranged husband Steve (Lance Henriksen), and trying unsuccessfully to avoid a very determined suitor, Tyler (Steve Marachuk). In the meantime, the resort is gearing up for the annual Spawning Fest, or some such thing, in which a school of grunions (fish not found in the Caribbean Sea, incidentally), come on shore with the tide to mate and lay eggs. This is, apparently, the big tourist draw of Club Elysium.

Skip ahead past some mysterious deaths, a whole lot of desperately uninteresting character flim-flam, and the requisite "Close the beach!/I will not close the beach, for fear of being financially crippled" scene, and Tyler reveals that he's actually a government scientist, trying to contain an outbreak of killer piranhas, leftoer from the experiments in the first film. Anne knows an awful lot about these experiments, for ill-explained reasons, but she doesn't know that the hyper-violent piranhas were cross-bred with flying fish and grunions. Which means, yes, that they are coming to Club Elysium to breed, and that they can jump right into the air and chew open folks' jugular veins. In Piranha II, flying fish can fly something like hummingbirds, you see.

Cameron, in later years, has had the good sense to find this all amusing. "The best movie ever made about flying piranhas", I believe is his quote of choice, or words to that effect. Frankly, there's just no other response: if you were a hungry young filmmaker, given your first chance to make a whole movie, and some domineering Italian producer wouldn't let you put your name to something better than Piranha II: The Spawning, I should hope that you had the good sense to pull yourself up and start writing a screenplay about a killer robot. I don't know that I could do anything but start drinking heavily. There's really absolutely nothing about this film significant to Cameron's later career, other than the fact that he was able to make it, get his name out, and cash a paycheck; that, and the fact that it introduced the director to Lance Henriksen. Save for a tiny handful of interesting shots (setting up the camera was just about the only thing Cameron got to do by the end), the film is uninteresting or a wreck: in particular, the piranha attack scenes are handled with minimal grace, giving us plenty of nice, long looks at just how fake the props are.

Too stupid in concept and execution to be at all decent; not remotely loopy enough to be fun-bad; that is Piranha II. James Cameron has been content mainly to forget that it exists, and I think that it is well we should follow his example.