Loglines: Prehistoric piranha attack college spring break vacation town. Then, primordially insatiable: prehistoric piranha attack tacky "adult" water park.
Last night I curated a private double feature of the recent Piranha 3D and its even-fresher sequel, Piranha 3DD (both of which serve as remakes of the original Joe Dante and James Cameron films, which to begin with were cheeky take-offs on Jaws. Therefore, this duology comes to us through more layers of irony than most). Despite every attempt of Dimension Films' advertising campaigns to convince otherwise, the films are reasonably entertaining and contain only about one half of the crass, lewd, meatheaded worldview that their titles and premises imply. I'd stop far short of calling them intelligent entertainments, but they are extremely self-conscious pieces of nouveau-exploitation cinema and almost always use this awareness to their advantage. In numerous scenes, the films demonstrate their cognizance of the total ridiculousness of what's being displayed; they're not only poking fun of the audience's expectations for and enjoyment of what's on screen, but their own roles in putting it there. We might call it "ashamed filmmaking," rather than "shameless." It's amusing how often the films choose to interrupt the buildup during scenes of sexuality or titillation: tequila body shots are interrupted with projectile vomiting, topless hang gliding with legs being munched off, the loss of virginity with a less-than-literal form of vagina dentate. Moreover, neither film celebrates its degenerate partying fraternity brothers and coeds, but slaughters them mercilessly. Yet this obvious loathing is offset by the incessant ogling: kill 'em all, but gawk at 'em first. But, again, the voyeurism seems more perfunctory than genuine. You want breasts, the film says, so here's the biggest breasts we've got. Seeing such sights so banally displayed, we start to wonder whether we ever wanted them at all. In a twist that would set Laura Mulvey's head spinning, the women of the Piranha films are objectified without being sexualized. It's as if the sexual potential has been evacuated from the women based upon both the context in which they exist (incessant piranha-induced bodily carnage) and the manner by which they're presented. The films put nearly zero effort (stylistic or narrative) towards rendering women sexually: they are shot flatly with no definition, bobbing as fleshy, plastic buoys in the water. It's telling that the most prolonged scene of nudity in either film is Piranha 3D's "naked mermaid water ballet," which, set to its score of the Lakmé "Flower Duet," is almost tasteful. I wouldn't call this direction for female representation in trash cinema a positive one (after all, the distinction is a slight one; what we're talking about is the difference between women being "sexy" fish bait rather than sexy fish bait). It is, however, an interesting one.*
The larger topic that these films sparked up in my thoughts was the continually sad fate of the comedy horror film. Historically, the comedy horror subgenre has been one to suffer extraordinary blows both critically and financially (for example, Piranha 3D barely made back its $24 million budget domestically, while Piranha 3DD is only playing in 86 theaters during its opening week of release); the biggest issue seems to be that films classified in this manner simply don't connect with audiences. It's no surprise that those few comedy horrors that have broken through to achieve mainstream success (Ghostbusters (1984), Beetlejuice (1988)) are more easily labeled as pure comedies in horror set dressings. Others (Shaun of the Dead (2004), An American Werewolf in London (1981)), while successful in blending the two genres and deserving of their reputations, only gained them after the fact-- these films didn't particularly storm the box office, instead being the beneficiaries of home video. Regardless of financial success (rarely a clear indicator of anything other than the filmgoing audience's current tastes), there do appear to be a few different approaches to staging a comedy horror film, which we can see the Piranha films wading around. Films like the aforementioned Shaun of the Dead, An American Werewolf in London, and others like Trick 'r' Treat (2007), Return of the Living Dead (1985), and Hatchet (2006) fare the best: they balance their laughs with genuine scares and thrills (even the exceedingly goofy Return has the horrifying Tarman and the queasy notion of zombies eating brains to relieve the pain of death; Hatchet, perhaps the closest to the Piranha films in its lowbrow humor, never fails to make its villain Victor Crowley a legitimate agent of terror-- in this regard, Hatchet 2 (2010) is a miserable followup). Some comedy horrors take a slightly different track: being uncertain of their ability to provide genuine scares, films like Tremors (1990), Fright Night (1985), and Night of the Creeps (1986) frame their comedy around a general tone of lighthearted adventure that, if handled with the appropriate care and jocularity, can almost always carry them through. Still others go the gross-out route: something like Dead Alive (1992) is composed entirely of goopy punchlines and visual gags, and is clearly less concerned with the horror (and sometimes even the comedy) in deference to the excess of ludicrous carnage.
No approach to the comedy horror is necessarily better than another, but the trouble lies in when a film fails to commit to or understand these options. Piranha 3D seems to hover unsteadily somewhere between all three-- it can't be taken too seriously or build much suspense with its silly, poorly-rendered CGI piranha, but the scenes attempting tense rescues (or adventurous ones; see: Adam Scott on a skidoo, Ving Rhames with a motorized propeller) clash with the chum-filled mayhem that it simultaneously nails. Such a blend places an uneasy tone over the film, allowing it work only intermittently. This is an issue mostly resolved in Piranha 3DD, which absolutely understands what it wants to be: a trivial, preposterous bloodbath. More Troma than Corman, the humor takes precedence, and its hokey tenor was more amiable than I had expected (how did Ving Rhames afford a prosthetic leg that can double as a shotgun? asks Paul Scheer. With all the money he saved on socks, Ving answers dryly). Not unexpectedly, the more creatively conscious and successful of the two is the one that won't even have a chance to recoup its expenses or gain wide exposure (recall: 86 theaters on opening week). But the studio was probably right. Who would want to see smirking junk like Piranha 3DD anyway?
You and me.
*To their credit (I guess), both films do feature strong female protagonists in Elisabeth Shue and Danielle Panabaker. These women are independently assertive and headstrong, requiring neither the impetuses of men or adversity to become that way. While both characters are still about as flat and thick-skulled as the plot demands, this is a more welcome representation.