When Steven Spielberg’s JAWS was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public in the summer of 1975, it was inevitable that its success would spawn dozens of killer fish clones. Although Italian filmmaker Enzo Castellari would capitalize with the most literal killer shark ripoff (1980’s GREAT WHITE), the aquatic monsters came in many variations – a killer whale in ORCA (1977), a giant octopus in TENTACLES (1977), the titular nasties of BARRACUDA (1978), even a Moray Eel in the deceptively marketed THE DEEP (1977). But it would be B-movie maestro Roger Corman who would make the most enduring mark on the post-JAWS glut of marine marauders with his 1978 offering PIRANHA.
Shot on a shoestring budget of $600,000 (in comparison to JAWS then-impressive $8 million) during two months in the spring of 1978, the original PIRANHA was directed by then-unknown Joe Dante (THE HOWLING, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, GREMLINS) working from a screenplay by John Sayles (ALLIGATOR, THE HOWLING, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN). Like JAWS, the plot of PIRANHA features a bunch of arrogant people-in-charge who ignore all warnings of impending danger and lots of unsuspecting swimmers – here frolicking in the water at a summer camp and riverfront resort – who fall prey to the razor-toothed fishies.
Flash forward 32 years later. Surprisingly, while many of the innumerable HALLOWEEN knockoffs that populated much of the release schedule in the early 80’s were mined dry in a series of tedious slasher remakes, Corman’s cult classic is among one of the only deep water horror flicks of the late 70’s to be fast tracked to remakeville.
So, how does one make a remake of a ripoff something special, memorable even? You hire a director with some solid genre credentials under his belt; you embrace the ripoff elements of the source material, throw in copious amounts of bare breasts and (literally) buckets of blood, and then amp the whole thing up in the amazing new RealD™ three-dimensional technology that made films like AVATAR and ALICE IN WONDERLAND an active versus passive audience experience.
The story is simple: An underground earthquake creates a huge fissure beneath fictional Lake Victoria and releases scores of prehistoric flesh-tearing piranha upon the spring break crowd gathered at water’s edge to party, MTV-style. Lost in their Ecstasy and booze-fueled hormonal bliss, the hapless partiers don’t heed the local sheriff’s pleas to get out of the water until it’s too late. Soon it’s shredded flesh time in the blue lagoon. Requisite subplot involves the sheriff’s teenage son who shirks babysitting responsibilities to play location scout for a GIRLS GONE WILD-like filmmaker, whose rented boat runs aground as the titular aquatic slashers circle, waiting for the next body to fall in the water.
Under Alexandre Aja’s (THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake and HIGH TENSION) lively direction, PIRANHA 3D joyfully retains every bit of the exploitation element of Corman’s original. There’s a playfulness throughout that keeps the film from taking itself too seriously, thus enhancing the film’s B-movie pedigree. And rather than try to hide its JAWS influences, PIRANHA 3D wears them proudly on its sleeve with Aja embracing the ripoff elements at work here – almost lovingly – so that much of what he crafts plays like dutiful homage versus uninspired knockoff. Just try to watch the film’s pre-credit sequence with Richard Dreyfuss humming “Show Me the Way to Go Home” in his knitted fisherman’s cap and not smile from ear to ear.
Three-dimensional gags abound, with Aja throwing everything from augmented double-D’s to honest-to-God vomit at the audience – and far be it from me to either confirm or deny that even a severed penis may or may not float by in one of the nastiest sight gags in cinematic history. And while the three-dimensional splendor of the Sapphic underwater ballet sequence may be lost on yours truly, I’m guessing a bunch of fifteen-year-old boys somewhere will be poised with a pause button on their TV remote when this thing hits DVD in a month. The violence is over the top, with an attack scene surrounding an MTV-style floating stage and surrounding flotilla rivaling – if not surpassing – the carnage in the opening scenes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. The death sequences are downright gag-inducing at times (refer to either the Propeller Girl or Parasailing Girl sequences).
Acting is spot-on B-grade perfection, with Elizabeth Shue trading in her adventures in babysitting for escapades in saving her kids from man-eating fish and VAMPIRE DIARIES cutie Steven R. McQueen playing it with as much earnestness as his baby face can muster. Jerry O’Connell (of SLIDERS and JERRY MACGUIRE fame) and BACK TO THE FUTURE’s Christopher Lloyd battle it out to see who can chew the most scenery, with O’Connell’s leering porn entrepreneur keeping pace with Lloyd’s raving tropical fish expert frame for frame. And to answer the burning question: Yes, O’Connell rocks the red Speedo.
Savvy viewers may also recognize Ricardo Chavira (Carlos from DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES) as one of an ill-fated team of underwater geologists, while Ving Rhames continues to enjoy his typecasting as a painfully heroic deputy sheriff. My one casting complaint: Reducing the wonderful – albeit perennially underrated – Dina Meyer (of STARSHIP TROOPERS and the SAW franchise fame) to expensive fish bait here as one of the underwater geologists with nary a line of dialogue.
Yes, PIRANHA 3D veers dangerously close to satiric overload at times, and Aja frequently comes close to tipping the delicate balance between comedy and horror with the proliferation of bad taste that abounds – particularly in the death scenes (which traditionally evoke a sense of sympathy in horror, not guffaws). Yet it’s hard to resist the energy and almost gleeful sadism he brings to the script penned by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, the screenwriting team responsible for last year’s SORORITY ROW remake.
With boobies, bad taste, and blood, PIRAHNA 3D is the perfect recipe for escapist summer fun, a throwback to the monster movie matinee modernized for a new generation.