Friday, August 20, 2010
So far, horror is the only genre to embrace 3D for the gimmick it is and to exploit it with any sense of fun. So with that in mind I looked forward to “Piranha 3D” (opening August 20 throughout San Diego).
The Weinsteins chose not to preview "Piranha 3D" for the press so I went to a midnight screening with a half dozen friends and about a half dozen strangers rounding out the crowd. It was the perfect setting for this film. Plus it was the second half of an improvised double bill, the first being a Live Rifftrax screening of "Reefer Madness." So needless to say it was a fun night.
New World Pictures
The first “Piranha” film from 1979 was written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante. Sayles, an award-winning director of films such as “Matewan” and “Lone Star,” said that the hardest thing about writing the script was coming up with reasons for people to go in the water when they knew that could get them killed. It’s been decades since I saw the original “Piranha” but I remember it was cheesy fun. The new “Piranha 3D” lived down to my absolute lowest expectations and I say that with nothing but gleeful affection. I think there needs to be a new rating for films like these: lovable dog. It’s a bad film and yet there is something irresistibly appealing about it as well.
The opening scene sets the tone for the film. We find a curmudgeonly old Richard Dreyfus (you know the guy who fought “Jaws” and lived to tell about it) fishing in the middle of the lake. There’s a terrible jolt and a fissure opens up deep in the lake releasing a horde of vicious little creatures… okay I guess it’s not a spoiler to say that they are a kind of prehistoric piranha. Making Dreyfus be the first victim is a clever move and is guaranteed to make horror fans smile. Horror fans love when the people who make the horror films reveal an affection for the genre with in jokes like this.
After Dreyfus goes missing Sheriff Julie Forester (Elizabeth Shue) does some investigating and suspects something ain’t right. She wants to shut down the lake but wait… It’s spring break and thousands of drunken college kids have descended on the town and the lake, and they are not about to be told not to party. That’s all the set up you need to realize that by the end of the film there are going to be a helluva lot of dead soroity girls and fraternity boys floating in the water. Of course there’s a side plot involving Forester’s son (played by Steve McQueen’s grandson Steven R. McQueen) and a slimy producer (Jerry O’Connell) who needs a local to show him around so he can make a Girls Gone Wild-style Spring Break Video.
This film gives in to every base instinct you could possibly imagine from naked girls endlessly swimming in 3D to projectile vomiting to severed genitals coming out at ya. This film is oh so wrong but in oh so right a way. It works a perverse spell on you precisely because it is so unashamed in its pursuit of the offensive.
Alexandre Aja, the French director who scored with “Haute Tension” and who did a fair Hollywood remake of “The Hills Have Eyes,” takes the helm here. As with his past films he reveals no squeamishness about gore but don’t ask him to try and be logical. He’s not what you’d call a good storyteller but he has a flair for carnage. And I have to confess that seeing a bunch of obnoxious, drunken, college kids set out like a dinner buffet for the piranhas was one of the chief attractions of the film. Usually you get a town full of potential victims where the folks are made likable. You wish they would heed the warnings to avoid whatever potential danger is lurking out there. But with “Piranha 3D,” you are cheering on the fish. So when the bimbos and dickheads on the boat blatantly ignore the sheriff’s warnings, well you feel like they get what they deserve and you can enjoy what happens to them. Aja literally fills the lake with blood and flesh. He goes for all kinds of gore from severed heads to hair getting caught in a propeller and pulling a girl’s face clean off. The carnage and suffering is like a horror version of the beach scenes at Normandy in “Saving Private Ryan.” The carnage is simply epic. And Aja goes for his version of heroism by having Ving Rhames grabbing a boat motor and using it like some food processor to puree that piranha. I mean DAMN!
This film also has a cameo by horrormeister Eli Roth as an obnoxious wet t-shirt contest host who gets his just desserts, and by Christopher Lloyd as this film’s version of Quint from “Jaws.” He’s the grizzled and crazy old-timer who just happens to know exactly what they are up against. His frenzied scenes add a zesty over the top sense of fun to the proceedings. O’Connell as the slimeball producer is also a delight and what happens to him goes way beyond poetic justice. Who would have thought that the fat kid from “Stand By Me” could ooze perversion so effectively.
I also have to give a shout out to the piranha themselves. Now since they hunt in packs, no one piranha gets to be a star. But every now and then a single fish gets a big 3D close up and makes the most of it. At one point an eager and ambitious little piranha eats its way through the entrails of a victim to come flying out of her mouth at us and into the theater. Those little guys with their razor sharp rows of teeth and what looks like armor plating are perfect killing machines. The only down side is that some of their attacks are filmed under such murky conditions that you can barely make out what’s happening. It just looks like a strawberry Margarita being whipped up in a blender. But every now and again an attack occurs in clam clear water and the vicious little fishies get to shine.
But the 3D effects, although clever in concept are not that impressively rendered. There’s a lack of 3D definition that often makes the effects shots just look muddy. But at least Aja has the right idea for what would make for fun 3D images.
“Piranha 3D” (rated R for sequences of strong bloody horror violence and gore, graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use) is as dumb as the sorority girls floating to the bottom of the lake but then that’s part of its charm. It makes no pretenses about what it wants to be and it totally delivers on its crass promise to give audiences boobs, blood, and hokey 3D gimmicks.
Companion viewing: “Piranha,” “You Only Live Twice” (for piranha scene), “Piranha II: The Spawning” (directed by James Cameron)