Alexandre Aja has big shoes (fins, whatever) to fill this weekend when Piranha 3D arrives in theaters. I am excited because I like watching people struggle in water (on film, at least), but I am also scared (and not in the horror way!) because it couldn't possibly live up to the glorious shittiness of the 1978 2D original (even with the incompetent CGI evident in the Piranha 3D trailer that seems like it's rendered for kitsch factor). Joe Dante's Piranha is an utter gem that embraces its own derivation (it's essentially Jaws with a bunch of tiny monsters instead of one big one) and silliness with a straight face. It's kind of like the cinematic equivalent of a blonde girl who learned how to be a dumb blonde from the dumb blondes that came before her. Instead of a knowing wink, we get razor teeth.
Just in case you haven't seen this movie, as I hadn't before this month, the plot concerns a bunch of mutant, man-eating piranhas that were developed for the Vietnam War and then fostered by the scientist Dr. Hoak when the war ended. These piranhas are accidentally let out by an insurance investor (Maggie) who's come to the river in search of a missing couple (a potential Brawny paper towels model, Paul, who lives on the river setting of the movie, is her guide). When Hoak informs them of their folly (while they're on a raft held together with twine that's just dying to be ripped apart by little teeth) but dies right before he can tell them how to kill the mutant piranhas, they take it upon themselves to warn those downstream of the impending doom. A two-person Police Chief Brody, they are ignored and shushed by all who serve to profit from the river. Tides of red water ensue.
With that very basic sketch of this not-at-all complicated film out of the way, let's but it through my Terrible-hunting criteria. Keep in mind that there's something to laugh at (or with) in virtually every frame of this film. Really, if I wanted to cover it the way it deserves, I would just covert the movie into one big gif. This is just to say that these are the things that stuck out most to me.
Duh. The piranhas, as you find out in the DVD extras, were attached to sticks and moved around very quickly so that, in the words of one special-effects dude, "it doesn’t give the audience a chance to see how bad it is." Oh, but we get the idea:
Somehow, I don't think anyone would mistake these murky, imprecise attacks (accompanied by the sound of someone blowing air through a glass of milk) as good, just as I don't think anyone would mistake the plodding fish outlines that signal imminent attack as ominous:
How harrowing: stencils.
Here's a question: How do you stop a piranha from attacking you?
Why, with your hand, of course.
And then, there's the matter of the premise, which is inherently absurd. If killer fish as a war weapon isn't enough for you to confirm this movie's ridiculousness...well, it should be, since piranhas only rarely attack humans (the Wikipedia page states, "a piranha bite is considered more an act of carelessness than that of misfortune," although I have no idea what that means and think it might have been translated from Japanese). One person on IMDb is so mad about the remake, he (or she...but probably he) writes: "Piranhas only eat the dead and bleeding. For the most part, human beings can safely swim with piranhas as long as they are not bleeding. Only gullible idiots would watch a movie based on a lie. The whole movie is invalid." But, of course, it would take a very big can of monster spray to cure horror cinema of its often inherent absurdity -- in fact, that's what you sign up for.
Also, Maggie is frequently made to use her sexuality to advance the plot. When the military trap she and Paul so that they don't run to the media and cause a piranha-related panic, he tells her to distract the soldier on guard by coming onto him. She wonders, "What if he's gay?" Paul says that he'll distract the soldier, then.
Maggie ends up stammering at the soldier, finally getting to, "Listen...are you gay?" No, just very soldiery. She tells him, "Look up in the sky, it's Superman," flashing her tits as she says "Superman" (wait...is she gay?) and the both make off in a military jeep. Once arrested for this, she beckons the guard to enter her cell, hits him over the head with the ceramic back of her toilet and then has to take of the unconscious officer's pants to get at his keys...
As she struggles, Paul remarks that he thought she'd have an easier time relieving a dude of his pants. Nothing about her behavior suggests this. Must be the vagina that creates inherence.
Amazing dialogue abounds. Early on when Paul and Maggie visit the site where the piranhas are being kept (and eventually let them out), they see a host of odd creatures in this lab, including this foam dinosaur thing...
...that is standing...
And Paul's Shaggy-esque response is merely, "Let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps." Not, “Let’s get out of here; this place is home to crimes against nature." Or "Let's get out of here; after seeing Godzilla up close and learning it's just a tiny model, I'm crestfallen and my worldview has changed."
When they let out the water, Dr. Hoak pops up on screen for the first time, shrieking, "What are you doing?" He's holding a harpoon, but with the way it's framed, it seems like he has a hook hand:
It's very pirate/urban-legendary maniac of him. He would have done better to wait till Paul and Maggie made out in their car and then left the hook on the door handle. Then Paul really would've gotten the creeps.
Also in this scene (it's a good one!), after they knock out the justifiably aggressive Dr. Hoak who's coming off as certifiable, they share this exchange:
Maggie: He’s breathing.
Paul: No thanks to you.
Maggie: Well, what was I supposed to do? He had you by the throat!
Paul: I woulda got loose in a second.
Maggie: (Exasperated sigh)
Paul: Look at this! You put a dent in it.
Maggie: Could I have a sip of that, please?
They just fended off a pseudo-hook-handed stranger, and she's thirsty! For a sip!
Oh yeah, and as this whole scene is playing out, this Harryhausen tribute of a whimsical creature sneaks around the room watching them...
You'd think that this would come up again, that somehow this seemingly good-natured beast would help kill the bad ones (as the Gizmo to the piranhas gremlins if you will, which is even more apt of a comparison since Dante also directed both Gremlins movies), but no -- he just gets 15 seconds of on-screen cuteness and is never heard from again. If only Raven-Symoné's career had the same trajectory, it could have saved the last few seasons of The Cosby Show!
As far as other absurd dialogue goes, I really like, "People eat fish; fish don’t eat people." (That's by the leader of the camp that Paul's daughter is attending. Regarding her, Paul states that he works to keep her in saddle shoes. That's so clueless and dudeish that it makes me want to tear off the long-sleeved flannel that Paul wears throughout this fucking summer-set film.) When we meet Dr. Hoak's former professional and romantic partner Dr. Meggers, she's full of zingers like, "Fish genetics is a very small field," and "I'm not afraid. I'm a scientist." Also?
She is a cookie.
When the piranhas finally arrive at the Aquarena water park (literally a beach on the river and not the slides extravaganza we think of when we think of water parks) and the owner sees the people being attacked, he merely says, "Damn it."
The final plan to kill the piranhas involves opening smelt tanks to "pollute the bastards to death." We never find out if this works or not -- the ending is intentionally ambiguous with Dr. Meggers telling a news crew, "There's nothing left to fear," and then staring ominously into the camera, as if she herself is a piranha or maybe she's that whimsical Harryhausen-esque creature in platforms and a disguise...
Anyway, killing a crime against nature with a crime against nature like pollution is an absurd resolution for an absurd movie. In its own inane way, it all makes sense!
The old man above, by the way, after drunkenly admonishing his dog for not listening to a story about how his previous dog's head was run over by a trolley (!), gets attacked by piranhas while dangling his feet in the water...
When Maggie and Paul find him, he's a few yards away from the dock. Paul assumes that he must have crawled since his legs are mostly gone. This would make sense but for the fact that he's on his back.
Does that mean that, in the spirit of things that attack you in the water, he crab-walked? Why didn't we get to see that? I'm trying to decide whether implied melodrama is more or less melodramatic than the actually portrayed variety. Withholding can be so theatrical!
Closing out our melodrama section is Dr. Hoak's reveal to Maggie and Paul what is happening. While on that destined-to-be-consumed raft, he gravely informs them, "The water’s filled with carnivorous fish...piraña."
I know for damn sure that the "ñ" is way more dramatic than your average everyday "n." The guy goes straight-up telenovela on our asses.
Extreme view points
Early in the film, the aforementioned crab-walking, dog-admonishing, drunk old guy shares why he doesn't miss more populated society with Paul: "Got the river, wakes me up in the morning, gives me a bath, does my laundry, gives me dinner, puts me to sleep real gentle. Got my river.” I'm not saying that loving nature is wrong or weird, but allowing it to do everything for you short of burping you and rectally taking your thermometer is, to put it nicely, extreme.
Also, the film has strange things to say about Paul's aquaphobic daughter...
Certainly, the piranhas justify her subplot of refusing to get in the water. In fact, I believe the English translation of the French title of this movie is Justify My Aquaphobia. But then, after completely supporting her irrational fear, the film requires her to immediately overcome it in a raft to help save her counselors and campers.
So basically, some stretched vinyl is enough to negotiate between righteous fear and selfish inertia.
I admire the nerve of a movie that credits its source and make no mistake -- Piranha doesn't just bite off Jaws, it takes out giant chunks (night-swimming, repeatedly ignored truth-bearers, a frenzied climax of carnage)...like a great white, actually.
Also, this happens...
...out of nowhere, proving in fact, that there is always something left to fear. The whole movie, really, is miscellaneous weirdness. In fact, I think that's the translation of its Latin title.