Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Squalor: Piranha 3D

Piranha 3D was supposed to belong to that special category reserved for schlocky musicals, B-horror films, camp teen comedies, and ham-fisted dramas.  It was supposed to be a Good Bad Movie.  Cursory glances suggested that all the elements were in place and that its director, Alexandre Aja, knew it would never ascend to esteemed heights.   How could you go wrong with a stew pot full of absurd looking CGI dinosaur fish, hoards of spring break co-eds, a Jaws-alluding cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, a manic Christopher Lloyd?  These are the basic fixings of a no-brainer cult classic.  Don't get taken in by the hype,  don't fall for the promises made by the presence of Christopher Lloyd, don't pay for 3D, don't go in the water.  I'm afraid, kids, that Piranha 3D is not a Good Bad Movie.  It's just a plain old bad one.  What you'll find instead of camp cheese layered on a throwback creature feature is something explicitly not retro: a torture porn slaughterfest with an underdeveloped sense of humor.

It takes awhile for Piranha to get going.  In its relatively brief 89-minute run, what we're treated to is an extended prologue with a scatter-shot focus on too many characters.  Instead of straight horror (or even fine tuned absurdity), we receive the slanted premise of a poorly constructed 90's action film.  On Arizona's Lake Victoria, the wild spring-breakers descend in droves for the town's biggest week of tourism.  Jake (Steven R. McQueen) is a local teen anxious to participate in the merrymaking, yet burdened by the responsibility of having a mother who just happens to be the sheriff (Elizabeth Shue) and two perkily moronic younger siblings he's trapped babysitting.  Of course, mom is working tirelessly escorting a team of scientists as they investigate the lake's recent seismic activity (of course!).   Ready to party, Jake pays off his siblings so that he can escort a Girls Gone Wild type softcore director (Jerry O'Connell) and a pair of busty actresses.  As can be expected, the siblings can't seem to master staying at home, so instead get themselves stranded on a small island in the middle of the lake.  With the family divided across three locations, all hell  (in the form of thousands of ancient, flesh-eating piranhas) breaks loose.  You can, I'm sure,  imagine the ensuing massacre and rescue mission.  For the most part, while we get our share of gore, there's not much 'creepy' about Piranha.  Any attempt at suspense is killed dead by the cheap and cheery photography and the presence of those unassuming kids.  Piranha is a wasteland in terms of stylization, and, unfortunately, we see none of the old school visual cues that could make this movie a successful little grindhouse picture.
As I watched Piranha I was, first and foremost, disappointed.  When it comes to horror, if I can't get thrills, I want laughs.  This film fell flat on both counts.  There's limited exuberance to the film, not much that suggests something purposeful as opposed to just plain cheap.  The first hour or so is actually exceptionally boring, making limited use of the 3D technology to bring us boobs, boobs, and more boobs; with some oddly placed kids and moral values in between.  McQueen is terribly cast in a role equally as bleak.  He's a non-entity as a screen presence, coming off as too nice and normal for this supposed schlock-fest.  Gossip Girl's Jessica Szohr is cast opposite him as a friend who is "not his girlfriend", and we would have been a lot better off with someone who could pull off wink-wink-nudge-nudge-i'm-not-really-sincere-about-this.  Leighton Meester, her GG cast mate would have worked the absurdity a little better, but Szohr seems stone cold serious about adding this to her resume as a dramatic role.  Jerry O'Connell attempts a fair amount of overacting, but ultimately he was perhaps the wrong actor for the role.  We needed someone with a bit more cult cred, a Patrick Warburton or ironically placed Neil Patrick Harris mugging macho for the camera.  It's impossible to look at the bulk of the cast without replacing them with more suitable alternatives (which, with this script, they likely couldn't get) then going one step further to 'fix' all its glaring little errors.

Piranha should have been effortlessly fun.  It seems so easy.  Ridiculous monsters + lots of blood + teenagers + scientists + flowing alcohol + sex = why is this so hard?  I'd argue the primary flaw of this particular piece of B-horror is that it places family at the center in some odd attempt to offset the absolutely brutal bit of wet t-shirt, boat side carnage we receive towards the conclusion.  What's family got to do with it?  What's wrong with just juxtaposing the drunk college kids with the plight of the do-right scientists?  The second biggest flaw of Piranha might just be setting it in the present.  This film would have automatically taken on a completely different tone if it had been staged in the 70's or 80's, with outdated slang, styles, hair, mustaches, and a slightly skewed sort of hedonism.  That, combined with some slightly hokier fish and you've got a comedic horror success.  Last year's low-budget House of the Devil succeeded on its retro merits partially as pastiche and partially because even if it falls flat in the thrills, something about the mode makes it nostalgic and comfortable for the horror aficionado.  Piranha 3D (which is, in fact, rooted in the 1978 Roger Corman produced film Piranha) could have been the movie its poster and opening title credit suggests.
Instead, it's a bland boat trip through the land of blood and boobs.  One of the most absurd (and thus, I suppose, the funniest) scenes involves an extended sequence of nude water ballet.  In Piranha 3D everyone seems able to hold their breath for 6-minute increments without issue.  Our Wild Wild Girls must be part mermaid, because they twist around each other in the water for what seems like forever.  These are the sorts of tropes that Good Bad Movies are built on: unrealistic abilities not to have to breathe, nude water ballet sequences, later abilities for human beings to survive screaming as their entire lower half has been consumed, etc.  But, Aja squanders everything he's given.  He runs the nudity too long, constructs scenes that serve no other entertainment purpose other than to flash a pair of tits, and forgets that what we really came for are the fish and the laughs.  Ok, maybe the 15-year old boys came for the boobs.  Not the point.  The point is that in these movies you need the right balance of boobs, blood, and humor.  This one is top heavy on the boobs, tries to make up for it with one incredibly gory water massacre (Eli Roth is present, so you know it must be true), and largely gets the humor wrong.  Sure, it tries, but the result is something too wooden, too flat to be a successful Good Bad Movie.  I mean, Aja doesn't even use Christopher Lloyd to his full potential.  And the Dreyfuss appearance?  Man, they definitely don't exploit that bit of luck to its fullest.  No, instead Piranha 3D is just a bad film wallowing in mediocrity without enough jumping fish.  This might be what 3D was made for, but I've seen better use of it in cartoons.

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