Movie Review: Piranha 3D
By Matthew Huntley
August 30, 2010
Piranha (a.k.a. Piranha 3D) is a complete and utter genre movie, and given the title, it should come as no surprise it falls into the horror category. The movie makes no attempt to transcend its class, but boy does it live up to it. Many film critics often complain when a movie simply follows the same rules and regulations as others like it, and while Piranha is technically guilty of that, we can’t forget that such rules and regulations were originally put in place because audiences responded to them, and we still do, especially when they’re done this well.
In the movie (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the 1978 Piranha or its sequel), a swarm of flesh-eating piranhas invade a commercial lake just in time for spring break. The sharp-teethed fish are unleashed, so to speak, when an earthquake opens a giant rift in bottom of the lake, where the little buggers have been growing for thousands of years (amusingly, the opening shot tells us the lake is part of a Mesolithic dig site). How convenient for the piranhas, then, that as soon as they’re set free they happen upon hundreds of fresh, meaty young people, all drunk and scantily dressed, partying on the surface.
The unsuspecting town sheriff (Elizabeth Shue) is concerned when she and her partner (Ving Rhames) discover the empty boat and near-mutilated body of a local man (Richard Dreyfuss: nice touch). They ponder closing the lake down, but since spring break brings in so much revenue, they decide to keep it open. Meanwhile, the sheriff escorts a seismology team to the earthquake site and leaves her virginal son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen), at home to baby-sit his younger siblings. But Jake just can’t turn down the opportunity to work on a low-budget porno movie, headed by the obnoxious, Speedo-wearing Derrick (Jerry O’Connell). Along for the ride are two air-headed actresses and Jake’s respectable, would-be girlfriend, Kelly (Jessica Szohr).
Those are the characters, but their names and backgrounds don’t really matter since you’ll know right away who’s a future victim and who’s not. The point is they all find themselves stuck in the middle of the lake doing battle with hundreds of piranhas trying to eat them. Christopher Lloyd makes an inspired appearance as a local nut who says these kinds of fish haven’t been around for centuries and they’ve only survived by eating one another. He has another surprise at the end, too.
I wouldn’t dare give away the gory details or fun surprises of Piranha, but I can tell you about their effect. In more than one instance, I found myself jumping, clenching and turning my head away in disgust. But these are the types of responses I want from this type of movie. After all, that’s the point of it - to gross us out while being shamelessly gratuitous. It’s hard to do that well, but the movie goes the distance of showing us young, sexy people, practically naked (some of them are), screaming, bleeding, coming apart, their flesh ripping off, etc. Such is the nature of the genre and while it’s not for everyone, Piranha does its job of being scary, funny, creepy, repulsive and, above all, entertaining.
To its credit, the movie isn’t so self-aware that it reverts to poking fun at itself, thus eliminating extra opportunities for real tension. Along with being goofy and humorous, it tries and succeeds at being horrifying and thrilling, right up to the climax. The key is director Alexandre Aja respects the genre and takes it seriously. He hasn’t set out to undermine horror movies; his mission is to show how visceral and fun they can still be when they’re done right.
Do I prefer genre movies that push the boundaries? Yes, but I also appreciate the more classic kind that remind us why they’re classic in the first place. Piranha falls into that latter category. It’s bold, lively and goes full throttle with its resources. If you’re going to make a straight-up horror movie, one that’s unabashedly faithful to its genre in the greatest of ways, that’s the kind I want to see.