Piranha 3-D (2010)

23 Aug

"Piranha 3-D" presents a cavalcade of carnage for the more discerning movie-going palate.

“Piranha 3-D” is a movie that knows exactly what it is, exactly who its audience is and exactly what it wants to accomplish in its 89 minutes of screen time. That it does so while stretching the boundaries of the word “gratuitous” is just part of the fun.

The mayhem begins when a seismic event creates a passageway from present-day Lake Victoria to a subterranean lake millions of years older, freeing swarms of blood-thirsty prehistoric piranhas to feast upon the hapless Spring Breakers who’ve descended on the small town. Lake Victoria’s police department, led by Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) already have their hands full when a team of seismologists show up wanting a police escort as they head out to investigate the event. The sheriff’s son, Jake, (Steven R. McQueen) has fallen in with sleazy softcore producer Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) and agreed to be his location scout during Spring Break. And Jake’s younger brother and sister, whom he has abandoned for the promise of more adult shenanigans, have broken the rules and left their home, only to be stranded on Sand Island, a local fishing spot surrounded by rocky shallows. And let’s not forget those 50,000 drunken college students churning up the lake waters and creating a perfect feeding situation for our toothy titular monsters.

“Piranha 3-D” takes the best ingredients of B-movie schlock and masterfully mixes them to provide an experience unlike most horror films today. The over-the-top nudity, cheap gags and limitless carnage are all part of the charm of this type of entertainment, and most viewers will know this ahead of time. That the movie still manages to shock is due in no small part to the influence of director Alexandre Aja (“High Tension”), a rising star in the horror realm. He’s known for pushing boundaries in his films, and this one is no exception.

In terms of story, “Piranha 3-D” avoids careening into complication by keeping the plot tight and simple. Though it’s not remotely believable, the explanation of how the piranha come to be in an Arizonan lake is plausible on its face, and though the grouping of characters and Spring Break setting are clearly purposeful, none of those elements feel particularly contrived. By not lingering on explanation, the movie keeps its pacing brisk and doesn’t give the audience either the time or the inclination to really question the plot.

Only Jerry O'Connell could be so smarmy, yet still so likable.

Where this film really shines is through its excellent casting. Elisabeth Shue is perfect as the beleaguered sheriff, Steven McQueen has a genuine, good-kid air about him, and Jerry O’Connell steals the show as the scumbag “Wild, Wild Girls” producer. Toss in solid work from Ving Rhames as Deputy Fallon and Adam Scott as the (oddly alluring) lead seismologist, and you have a great core of actors that provide actual talent and real tension in their roles. Without this crucial element, I’m not sure the movie would’ve been as enjoyable. O’Connell is pretty much a laugh factory, but the Forester family, the police officers and Scott’s role as Novak are treated seriously. When peril comes to them, the viewer cares. The performances here really show how huge of a difference good acting makes regarding an audience’s enjoyment of the film, even in one that’s meant to be over-the-top and campy.

No discussion of “Piranha 3-D” is going to be complete without addressing the carnage. There’s a lot, and it’s pretty fantastic. The filmmakers come up with increasingly ingenious ways for people to die, and the large-scale setpiece of doom does not disappoint. These types of movies are more about gross-out humor and basic shock than really being scary, and “Piranha 3-D” delivers on those counts, big-time. What is somewhat surprising about this film is the creativity and beauty of the underwater photography. The underwater sequences (with the exception of the “Wild, Wild Girls” underwater ballet) are cold, oppressive, disorienting and eerily lovely, which is not something I expected. By breaking up the CGI effects with some nostalgic invisible monsters, red washes and other throwbacks, the audience gets a good visual break and the filmmakers provide a nice nod to Joe Dante’s 1978 “Piranha.”

“Piranha 3-D” together with last year’s “Drag Me to Hell” and a few others give me some hope that the subset of campy horror is primed for a revival. If the grinning faces of the audience at my showing of “Piranha” are any indication, it’s a trend moviegoers would welcome. If you’re looking for pure enjoyment in a movie-going experience, it’s tough to beat a schlock-fest, especially when it’s as good and gory as this one is. Three stars out of four.

“Piranha 3-D”: Rated R. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ving Rhames, Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, Eli Roth, Jerry O’Connell, Steven R. McQueen and Jessica Szohr. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Written by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg. Cinematography by John R. Leonetti. Underwater photography supervised by Peter Zuccarini. Original music by Michael Wandmacher.

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