[7 January 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Drive-In film critic Joe Bob Briggs once labeled them “The Three B’s”, the inexorable elements needed for any good piece of cinematic schlock. For those not in the grade-Z movie know, the items in question are “beasts, blood, and breasts”, a cavalcade of craven film facets that turn an otherwise routine piece of genre trash into a high flying horror/humor treat. As part of the ‘80 direct to video dynamic, it saved many a sinking motion picture ship, from comedy to creepshow. Today, PC prudes and the always overly-vigilant MPAA have guaranteed that few if any efforts meet such stringent road show dynamics.
Perhaps this explains the head over heels reaction to Alexandre Aja’s brilliant, over the top killer fish farce Piranha 3D (Now on Blu-ray from Sony Entertainment). Embraced by audiences and critics alike, it took everything the miscreant man vs. nature title could promise and gave it a zippy, Girls Gone Wild spin. The results shriek glorified guilty pleasure, but the truth is that Aja once again proves that no one understands the aesthetic of ample arterial spray better than the foreign horror geek.
When unexpected seismic activity causes a fissure in the bed of Arizona’s Lake Victoria, it’s initially relegated to a minor disturbance. After all, it’s Spring Break, and 20,000 college age party animals have just piled into Sheriff Julie Forester’s (Elisabeth Shue) jurisdiction. While she and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) are trying to keep the amped up drunks in line, her son Jake (Steven R. McQueen) gets hired by Wild Wild Girls entrepreneur Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) to help guide his boat full of bikini babes around. As fate would have it, the sunny sleaze merchant even gets the boy’s high school crush Kelly (Jessica Szohr) to come along for the fun.
What everyone fails to understand, however, is that the earthquake has released a massive school of hungry, man-eating, prehistoric piranha into the waters - and they’ve only got one thing on their mind…FOOD!. While a team of scientists try to determine what happened and Sheriff Forester uncovers the truth, the wet t-shirt contests and debauchery go on above the surface. Just below, however, a sharp-toothed death awaits anyone fool enough to mock these monstrous fish.
There is never a moment when Piranha 3D doesn’t know exactly what it is doing. From the abundant female nudity to the equally plentiful gore, it’s got the fright film fan zeitgeist right in its Web head sites. This is the kind of movie that gets Messageboard Nation all nerd-ed out. Heck, it even starts with a gum-flapping cameo that will have true cinephiles giggling like 1975 school girls. This may also be the first time in the artform’s history that a remake of a rip-off actually goes back to deliberately channel the original title that spawned the copycat. In other words, Aja and his team of screenwriters are so enamored of what Steven Spielberg did with Jaws that the shout-outs are obvious, and the knotty nods more than a little meta.
But this doesn’t mean the movie is all homage and reference. Aja is a devotee to old school shivers, and as he has shown in such brilliant work as Haute Tension, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and Mirrors, he can turn on the grueling terror with lightning speed. This is especially true of the terrific set-piece attack at the Eli Roth hosted ‘moist wardrobe’ competition. As bad rap music plays in the background and supposedly educated post-adolescents prove their pointless hedonism, Aja tweaks the suspense. We know the piranha are going to go postal on these beer kegging fools, we just don’t know when. Then the first bite occurs, and the masterful F/X work of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger kicks in - and if you like a surf filled with shredded flesh, the duo more than delivers.
In fact, this is a film where the kills are much more entertaining and engaging than the characters or their concerns. McQueen’s unrequited Jake is a certified wimp, and his fantasy gal can’t hold a hard lemonade to the gals O’Connell is pimping. Similarly, Shue’s policewoman is just a narrative catalyst, a plot piece that moves the story from the discovery of a dead body to the escorting of the research team. No one would be surprised if her maiden name was Brody. By the time she hits the waves to save her family, we nod if full formulaic appreciation. No, it’s the side supports that make Piranha 3D work. From Roth’s icky, innuendo filled carnival barking as our contest host to Christopher Lloyd’s arrival as an grumpy old fish expert, everything outside the center makes the movie more enjoyable.
For his part, Aja continues to impress. You can tell he is having fun (after all, who stages an inhumanly long underwater lesbian ballet just so he can film two hot naked honeys cavorting in slo-mo), but he is also experimenting, using the tools of his trade (and some stellar post-production 3D conversion) to spark a reevaluation of exploitation. It’s something he makes abundantly clear on the accompanying commentary track. The reason Piranha 3D stands out so, especially among those under the age of 30, is because of its backward glancing tendencies. As a student of the genre, Aja remembers when producers and directors outdid themselves in the desire to be the sickest, most salacious entry at the passion pit. With the death of such venues and the eventual conversion from tape to disc, a whole subcategory of mindless amusement has been lost.
Luckily, Piranha 3D is around to rediscover and recapture it. Sure, it’s lewd and crude, loaded with inappropriate behavior and female objectification - and if you don’t like vicious, if still slapstick, ultra-violence, you should definitely steer clear. But in a medium where most of the fun has been systematically leeched out of it product, it’s invigorating to see something so desperate to inject it back in. Piranha 3D may not be rocket science, but it’s definitely a cure for what ails the patient fright fan. As a matter of fact, it so joyfully junky that it concocts a new collection of buzzwords all its own: The Three S’s” - “splattery, shameless…and sensational”.