This review has taken me a long time to write (mostly because of how difficult it is to spell Piranha) but it is without a doubt an important one to read. Piranha 3D may be the best summer movie of 2010- due in no small part to the dearth of quality entertainment in this year’s cinemas, but also due to the shockingly watchable direction of Alexandre Aja and the remarkably well-structured screenplay by Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg. While not exactly Hitchcock or Shakespeare, the film offers no pretense of haughty intellectual aspirations, instead hitting its comedic and narrative beats with surprising aplomb, not to mention reverence to summer movies history. Rather than providing us with a bare-bones rendition of an obvious premise (hint: piranhas attack!), Piranha somehow manages to do the impossible, making us care about its characters and regret their gruesome deaths, no matter how small or irrelevant their roles may be.
In many ways, Piranha is a knowing homage to Jaws. Both films rely on their characters to provide distractions from the occasionally cheesy or overwrought special effects, and both movies center around a small beach town community overrun by a sea-dwelling menace. It’s fairly obvious that the filmmakers adore horror history and wanted their movie to be both referential and cutting-edge, so allusions and surprises abound. What separates Piranha from its predecessors is its borderline NC-17 sensibilities. Not since the Roger Corman films of yore have I seen such blatant exploitation of the female form in a theatrical release. That being said, it’s both sexy and lesberiffic! (Note: This quote available for back-of-DVD.) Beyond the valley of the boobies, there is a jaw-dropping amount of gore in this picture. The blood splatters range from hilarious to horrifying, and despite the piranhas’ adorable design they still bring a cringe-worthy tension whenever they approach their prey.
The cast of characters is packed to the brim with bit players, each with their own unique and likable schtick. Only Jerry O’Connell martyrs himself as the sole hate-worthy player in this picture, simply because his rendition of a Joe Francis-esque purveyor of Girls Gone Nuts entertainment is equal parts hammy and spot-on. Adam Scott often looks confused as to whether he should be grinning more often, and Elizabeth Shue is the only hold-out in an otherwise perfect set of tongue-in-cheek performances. Even the young lead actors in the cast, Steven R. McQueen and Jessica Szhor, provide compelling performances within obvious type roles. Brooklynn Proulx and Sage Ryan- both terrific examples of why you should not let your parents decide your stage name- are an adorable pair of tots hugely reminiscent of Bart & Lisa Simpson in terms of chemistry. Usually it’s the cheap newcomers in horror movies that make the films so tedious to watch, but here it’s the young talent that really owns the picture, occasionally making the more experienced elders look old and out-of-place.
There is plenty to love in Piranha 3D. The creativity of the deaths should delight horror fans, as should the number of nods to horror history, the badass cameos- thank you, Mr. Eli Roth- and the insane duration of the massacre sequence, which somehow manages to eat up (excuse the pun) half the movie. Let there be no mistake, this film is violent, raunchy and sadistic, but beneath its garish and off-putting exterior there is a sweet caramel core that infuses the movie with heart. I never expected to care about any of the characters in this movie. I expected to meet an assortment of hot, young douchebags whose deaths I would giddily anticipate. In Piranha, even the slutty and repugnant characters are worth mourning, because their pre-mortem dialog is amazingly affable. The deaths are so disturbing and omnipresent that you have little room to gasp before another actor bites the big scaly bullet. You begin to hope that someone, anyone will survive. That’s right. This is a horror movie where you actually root for the protagonists instead of the murderer!
By the time Christopher Lloyd showed up, I realized I was watching the perfect summer movie. In the same way that Jaws and many of Spielberg’s films embraced schlock while reinventing it, Piranha embraces its cheesy b-movie roots while never bending over backwards to placate anybody or undermine itself. This is still a movie, and there is never a point where anyone looks at the camera sheepishly and says, “This bites, literally!” That in itself is an accomplishment under the new Hollywood regime, hellbent on incapacitating its audiences with plotholes, shameless formula, and an absence of edge or originality. Piranha pushes every possible boundary it can get its fins on, often at the expense of decency and good-taste but never to the point where its narrative integrity crumbles. The 3D effects are better and more convincing than Avatar’s and probably the best example of why 3D doesn’t suck that I’ve seen outside of How to Train Your Dragon. While a completely different genre, tone, and type of film, I might rank this movie a little ahead of Inception in terms of fun. There’s nothing cerebral or inventive cinematographically in Piranha, but the fact that the movie is competently shot and directed (another rarity in horror) places it leaps and bounds ahead of Nolan’s attempts to revive the dying spy movie genre. You mean to tell me that someone made a tongue-in-cheek homage to b-horror-movies that holds its ground against classics and new releases alike? Sign me up for the sequel (as the guy whose brain gets eaten first).